A Modern Medium
Comes of Age
Polymer clay has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a dollmaking and modeling material. In the decades since it was created, innovative artists have secured this modern medium a rightful place as a respectable form of expression in the art and studio jewelry movement.
It is not often that an entirely new medium for jewelrymaking comes along. While techniques are made simpler through technology and developments, and forms of jewelry art may go in and out of fashion—glass beadmaking and lampworking experienced a healthy revival in the late twentieth century—a great majority of jewelry arts have origins dating back centuries and even thousands of years, used in varying degrees by cultures across time and place. But, at the end of the twentieth century, novel mediums popped up, in the form of so-called clays or at least materials that behave much like clay—Precious Metal Clay (PMC) and Polymer Clay.
Polymer clay, originally developed in Germany by Kaethe Kruse, was formulated as a new material for dollmaking. Unsuitable for its intended purpose, it was Kruse’s daughter, Sophie Rehbinder-Kruse, whose experimentation eventually led to what we know today as polymer clay. Rehbinder-Kruse mixed and kneaded it into mosaics, miniatures, vases, and other objects and went on to develop the first polymer clay modeling kit in 1954. Called FIMOIK (a combination of her nickname “Fifi,” “modeling clay” and “mosaic”), this oven-baked clay was well received in Europe. In 1964, Eberhard Faber (later Staedtler Group) acquired the rights, reformulated the recipe, and in 1966 the new material, now shortened to FIMO, was stocked in toy and hobby stores, targeted for doll and modelmakers and children’s art projects.
Meanwhile, the American Zenith Products Company also stumbled upon a similar kind of new clay—originally intended as a thermal transfer compound. While unsuccessful, when it was discovered that it could be sculpted and baked at a low temperature into a harder, more stable material, it was slated as the sculpture medium Sculpey. Sold in white blocks, colors were not pre-added until years later, when it was available as Sculpey III. Other brands of polymer clay have also been developed, including Premo, Cernit and Kato Polyclay.
So what exactly is this new “clay”? Polymer clay is made of tiny particles of polyvinyl chloride suspended in a plasticizer, which keeps it pliable until heated, when the particles fuse into a hardened, durable plastic. Pigments allow it to come in a variety of colors; others can be achieved by mixing. While unlike ceramic clay, its chemical makeup allows the material to be worked much like traditional clay. It can be sculpted, layered, blended, folded, formed. Polymer can be stamped, colored, painted, textured, sanded, drilled. A material with virtually no shrinkage, its hues remain separated during blending and remarkably colorfast after firing. Because of this, and its capacity to do just about anything, polymer clay became a relatively inexpensive and easily worked material for artists to explore beads, jewelry and other artforms. While many considered it child’s play, slowly bead and jewelrymakers were turned on to its vast potential, and over the years the material shrugged off its former association with hobbyists to become rightfully situated within the studio and art jewelry movement.
Many pioneers in polymer learned of the material overseas, as it was not easily found in the United States until Accent Imports brought it into the country in 1975. However they stumbled upon it, one thing that remained consistent with early adopters was their unfettered enthusiasm for its infinite possibilities. Arguably the first artist to explore bead and jewelrymaking was Pier Voulkos, who discovered the material in Germany in 1971. In 1978 Voulkos began making beads. Her early work explored many of the qualities polymer would build its reputation on—vibrant and whimsical use of color, both in patternmaking and joining multiple shades, sculptural and handformed techniques, the repetition of geometric designs, exploration of traditional and nontraditional bead shapes. Voulkos’s work sold at Julie: Artisans’ Gallery in New York City and other galleries in the early 1980s, well before it was on the general public’s radar. In addition to being one of the first important beadmakers, Voulkos was one of the earliest sources of inspiration for other polymer artists.
Polymer heavyweight Kathleen Dustin first encountered polymer in a gift given to her in the early 1970s while studying in Lebanon. She made note of the unusual material, but it was not until the early 1980s that she began to use it for small, sculptural details. Living in Saudi Arabia, it was difficult to access equipment and supplies for her primary interest—ceramics—and polymer was convenient. She worked with the material sporadically, until Helen Banes, then president of The Bead Society of Greater Washington, D.C., showed her one of Voulkos’s necklaces, and Dustin began to consider its artistic potential for jewelry, and specifically bead arts.
As ongoing supporters of personal adornment, beads and jewelry arts, polymer caught the eye of Ornament coeditors in 1988, when Dustin proposed an article on it. At the time, resources, guilds, classes, and workshops were virtually nonexistent. The article was titled The Use of Polyform in Bead-Making (Ornament, 11.3) and aside from background, brands and general tips, Dustin explored caning techniques borrowed from other media—neriage from thrown pottery and millefiore from glass work. The article implied the excitement of discovering polymer’s capabilities, an interest quietly catching fire among artists throughout the country. “At the time even though I knew extremely little about polymer clay—I didn’t even know the non-brand name for it, hence the term ‘polyform’,” Dustin remembers, “I had already taught a one-day introductory workshop at the Torpedo Factory and had developed my own methods of millefiore canework.”
Citing its ease of use, minimal tool and technical requirements, and nearly immediate feedback, Dustin’s article explained polymer’s incredible versatility, and most of all, its worthiness of further development. “It now deserves to come into its own in the art of jewelry-making,” Dustin wrote, “where its applications and possibilities—in my view—appear to be endless.” As Dustin and peers have shown in the years since, polymer was perched on the cusp of a new, exciting form of adornment. Her article was one of the first in many steps to bring practitioners together to the level of organization and visibility seen today. “A significant effect of my article,” she reflects on Polymer Art Archive, a comprehensive online source, “was to enable other isolated polymer pioneers of the time to realize that they were not alone in exploring the medium for beadmaking, and that others had been developing the crucial millefiore technique independently.”
Shortly after, Jamey D. Allen’s 1989 Millefiore Polyform Techniques (Ornament, 12.4), explored polymer’s potential for simulating glass bead construction. For Allen, the material was particularly useful in his research of ancient glass techniques and he tried out various methods in polymer to much success. Allen would continue to explore polymer versions of beads from Phoenician Head pendants to Warring States beads, folded and combed beads, mosaic face beads, and more.
But it was not only imitation and borrowing that brought polymer attention. Artists were also using the material to convey a sense of personal and conceptual narrative. By the end of 1989, polymer’s burgeoning place as its own artform was suggested with a cover and feature article on Tory Hughes (Ornament, 13.2). This time, the focus was the work itself, not in relation to other, more unyielding techniques. Author Barbara Hamaker discussed an “inner experience” reflected in Hughes’s works. The collage-like pieces combined “disparate elements in meaningful ways to form a new, ordered whole,” and demonstrated polymer’s ability to hold its own—even in combination with traditional materials—as a reputable form of jewelry. Introduced to polymer in the early 1970s while living abroad, Hughes started a successful wholesale and retail business in the early 1980s. She pointed to polymer’s working qualities and her personal approach as keys to its viability. “I’m really interested by the fact that my jewelry has had the acceptance it has in the fine craft world, because Fimo can be such a mundane medium … It intrigues me that I have somehow managed to transcend it by the things that I do and the philosophical approach I bring to my work.”
While artists shared their thoughts on polymer in print, others were discovering it too. In 1991, Nan Roche, who credits her introduction to polymer to Kathleen Dustin’s workshop at the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Virginia, penned The New Clay: Techniques and Approaches to Jewelry Making. The first effort to document the history of polymer clay and the status and development of it as an art medium, its chapters covered basic information, theories on color and design choices, instructions for shapes and surface treatments, and even chemical background. Roche, herself new to the medium, tirelessly tracked down working artists to offer as complete a picture of the material as possible.
“I think part of what made the book so popular … is because I didn’t deal with it as a how-to as much as a survey of how the material can be used and what it was,” Roche says. “There was nothing out there that really explained the material.” Roche, Dustin, Lindly Haunani, and others founded the first National Polymer Clay Guild, further closing the gap between practitioners, creating a platform for communication, and planting the seeds for exhibitions, books and other publicity on the horizon for this new material.
Emboldened by the discovery of others, polymer artists came out of the woodwork and group exhibitions sprang up, like Emerging Way with New Clay (Ornament, 14.4) at Plum Gallery in Kensington, Maryland. Artists Ruth Anne and Michael Grove, Kathleen Amt, Lindly Haunani, Sarah Shriver, Steven Ford and David Forlano of City Zen Cane (Ornament, 15.2), and others debuted interesting and inspired work. Much of it remained based on variations of caning, with innovations in textures, color palettes, and the addition of materials like metal leaf or more complex figural caning efforts.
Still, it seems safe to say that in the beginning, artists, perhaps intimidated or simply overwhelmed by what to do with a completely foreign, versatile medium, found a more familiar start in existing disciplines. Like Dustin and Allen, other polymer artists found their niche in borrowed methods or imitative goals.
In 1993 Ornament printed the first in a series of polymer Master Classes (Ornament, 17.2, 17.3, 24.3, 24.4, 26.3). Here Tory Hughes showed off one of her best known innovations— her imitative techniques for ivory, turquoise, coral, jade, and other organic and semiprecious materials. These methods continued to indicate the yet uncharted path of polymer, and the promise that it could be just about anything one wanted it to.
Artists Steven Ford and David Forlano, working under the moniker City Zen Cane, used caning but also a painting background and fabric sensibilities in their early work. One of their noteworthy processes—striping and blending colors, folding cross sections on top of another until a soft, ikat-like pattern results—was discovered through constant exploration of polymer’s limits. “We discovered this design as we were looking to replicate a blend technique,” Ford said in a Polymer Clay Ikat Master Class (Ornament, 18.3). “It is conceptually close to a rainbow roll in printmaking. I had passed a rainbow through the pasta machine and achieved a nice surface blend. Then we discovered that it was the cross section that looked really great. I knew what it looked like, but I didn’t know what it was called until Nan Roche said, ‘Wow, that looks like ikat!’”
The adaptation of techniques was a natural evolution of artists coming to polymer from other media and interests. Polymer promoter Elise Winters (Ornament, 26.2 and 32.3) used the medium to express the concepts about light and translucency she explored in ceramics. Lindly Haunani investigated the textural and visual intrigue of food, combining the comforting recognition of an object with a sense of humor and exaggerated beauty. Nan Roche turned to ancient metal techniques like loop-in-loop chaining and mokume gane. Cynthia Toops was inspired by “bead lust,” Huichol masks and micro-mosaic buttons (Ornament, 21.2). Jeffrey Lloyd Dever incorporated wire weaving and basket techniques.
In a way, in integrating and comparing polymer to other traditions—glass, textiles, mosaics, stonework, even woodwork (in the polymer veneered furniture of Bonnie Bishoff and J.M. Syron)—polymer’s own validity was ensured. By demonstrating the numerous ways polymer “held up” against time-honored artforms, it gained its own independence. In her forward to The New Clay, Dustin wrote, “While polymer clay is not a traditional craft medium that has been ‘proven’ through the ages, many of the techniques presented here are traditional. Borrowed from other media, they have been easily adapted for use with a contemporary material. Artists, craftsmen, and connoisseurs should not take polymer clay lightly because of its comparative youth. The artistic vision and the quality of craftsmanship should determine its validity.”
The general public, collectors and buyers, seemed to agree and were arguably slower to recognize polymer’s significance in the studio jewelry movement. Pioneers like Nan Roche suggest this is in part due to its chemical makeup. While called polymer clay, Roche points out that it is a plastic, a material that rather thanklessly fills our every day lives. While the other “new clay” PMC, a formula based on an established, precious material, seemed to gain support and rapport more quickly in traditional jewelrymaking communities, polymer took more convincing. Incorporating materials like precious metals, which many artists did, perhaps to add perceived value to the work but certainly for aesthetic interests, helped bring validation.
Polymer’s plastic makeup also rather interestingly aligns it with a long art tradition. To ask viewers to look at a seemingly common material or object in a new way is on par with artists like Robert Ebendorf, Ken Bova and David and Roberta Williamson’s found object assemblage jewelry, or even Art Nouveau masters René Lalique and Louis Comfort Tiffany. It was the quality of expression shaped by polymer that would truly secure its bright future, and artists did not shy away from the challenge. “I want the art to speak for itself no matter what it is made of,” Kathleen Dustin said in a 1997 Ornament cover feature (Vol. 20.4).
The more comfortable artists became with the absence of rules the more creativity flowed. “Polymer clay doesn’t have any particular heritage,” Hughes said (17.2), “so we are forming traditions as we play with it … It shouldn’t be treated as a precious object because that constrains its potential.” This freedom, complete and unhindered by history or preconceived notions, allowed innovations to unfold quickly. Gwen Gibson used image transfer and silk-screening to add graphics to her work. Cynthia Toops pioneered her micro-mosaic method, using tiny components to create complex, narrative imagery. She also moved away from the familiar sphere beads, with pieces like Anemone neckpiece, inspired by a dog-tooth necklace from the Solomon Islands. Her Rolodex series used paper-thin sheets of decorated polymer stacked alongside each other. Elise Winters offered a more sculptural sensibility with sweeping curves, implied rhythm and a welcome, sophisticated three-dimensionality. She created special acrylic paints and glazes for her trademark ‘crazed acrylic’ look of crackled paint.
The open-ended skill requirements allowed artists to learn as they went. Armed with simple tools—many found in kitchens—one could experiment without the time investment or learning curve of other mediums. “Some of my favorite studio tools include a Wusthof cheese knife, an Italian pasta machine, a Chinese melon-carving gouge and a set of Japanese sugar molds,” Lindly Haunani remarked (Ornament, 30.5). This immediacy and accessibility drew many artists in. Time and again the aforementioned artists to the late Shellie Brooks (Ornament, 22.2) to Margaret Regan and Judy Kuskin (Ornament, 28.1) praised its versatility. “I can usually get an answer to a jewelry question by making the answer, rather than taking the multiple, intermediate steps required in other materials,” Regan remarked in an artist statement (Ornament, 25.4). But, as many artists’ trajectories illustrate, it takes time to develop a distinctive voice in such an open-ended format. “The love-child of art and science, polymer clay is a curious compound,” Dan Cormier says in Masters: Polymer Clay. “It’s easy to use but difficult to master, accessible yet elusive. It’s a complex material dressed in kid’s clothes.”
A sense of a shared consciousness helped push polymer’s development. Artists understood that they were shepherds of a new form of expression, laying the foundation and creating its own vocabulary. Many worked in direct response to the often-posed question of any artist: “What if …?” The polymer community always operated with a high sense of camaraderie, of pushing forward on an individual level for the betterment of the whole. “There was so much new to discover about the material,” Winters explains. “Every third day someone was saying ‘you’ll never believe what I discovered.’ It wasn’t like people thought, how do I distinguish myself, or even that they were thinking that they needed to. I think in other craft areas that were more mature than this medium was in the 1990s, that was an issue.”
It is not surprising that technology played a pivotal role in such a modern medium’s growth. Early informal retreats, and shows like Masters’ Invitational Polymer Clay Exhibition and Sale (MIPCES) in 1997, brought artists together who remained connected via the internet, sharing news, images and critiques. Before the internet, Marie and Howard Segal’s Fimo Factory (Clay Factory post 1988) served as a sounding board and conduit for discoveries. In the early 1980s the Segals were a major distributor of Fimo and freely shared innovations like the use of a pasta machine and food processor for blending and conditioning clay. “No one at the time was using Fimo in the volume we were,” Howard remembers on Polymer Art Archive. “We learned a tremendous amount … The word of mouth got many people in contact with us … It would be hard for me to tell you the name of every person who was involved with us along the ‘polymer clay’ brick road. If they were doing polymer clay in the 1980s, they surely had contact with us … They all shared with us and we shared what we learned.”
By the turn of the new century, polymer innovations slowed and the work benefited from more personal forms of expression. “Once we hit about the year 2000, the number of new discoveries about the potential of the medium started to dwindle,” Winters opines, “and so what has been coming down the pipes since the beginning of the twenty-first century is more about how people are using the material in ways that are more sophisticated.”
Today, many artists continue to push the envelope with polymer. The work has matured and projects like Winter’s Polymer Art Archive help document the rise of the material, while her Polymer Collection Project educates and places polymer works in front of larger audiences. But, the many accomplishments aside, polymer pioneers and proponents are not ready to rest on their laurels just yet. “It still is not, however, taught at the university level in any meaningful way, so I suppose we still have battles to fight,” Dustin says, a sentiment echoed by many. With major exhibitions like the Racine Art Museum’s forthcoming Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads, polymer’s inclusion into many juried high-level craft shows, and extensive coverage in both print and online, it seems polymer is well on its way along its rightful path. If history tells us anything, it is that polymer will continue to progress, on its own time, and in completely its own way.
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