NECKLACE by Nancy Banks. Inset: DETAIL of neckpiece by Cynthia Toops and Dan Adams. Photograph by Ken Kondo.

New Jewelry in a New Medium

jewelry arts


Polymer clay had a good year in 2011. The fruits of Elise Winters’s Polymer Collection Project finally came to bear when the largely-celebrated Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads exhibition opened at the Racine Art Museum in October. Winters’s Polymer Collection Project, aided by polymer artists such as Rachel Carren, Lindly Haunani, Nan Roche, Carol Watkins, and others, aimed to increase awareness of polymer as an art medium both on the museum level and amongst the general public, by placing polymer works into major museums’ permanent collections.

DISPLAY CASE, including a number of polymer bead examples, as well as a necklace by Donna Kato.

While the Racine was the largest recipient of pieces from this effort, the Polymer Collection Project also brought polymer into the hands of other museums across the country. San Diego’s Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park was among these, receiving a substantial number of works for their permanent collection.

It is a selection of these objects, along with a number of others pulled from the recently-acquired Bead Museum collection, that are on display in New Jewelry in a New Medium, showing at the Mingei through June 17, 2012.

As a curator relatively new to the medium, Christine Knoke was taken with what she saw while choosing the objects for the show. “I really had no idea of the high-quality objects that could be made with this kind of everyday material,” she says. “It’s very impressive. Artists are experimenting with different materials—not trying to be imitative of, say, ivory or jade—but experimenting with that whole concept of what polymer is and what it can be. I think that versatility is one of the things that gets these artists so inspired. It is an expanding, growing field and this exhibition really shows the whole range.”

MASK PENDANT by Carolyn Potter. All photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament, except where noted.

Nestled upstairs, New Jewelry has a quiet presence amid larger-scale pieces from other exhibitions. Organized simply, with multiple display boxes lining the walls and cases dotting the floor, the exhibition includes roughly two hundred fifty objects from more than sixty artists. There is a large selection of beads as well as finished jewelry and sculptural objects. There are the usual suspects—Elise Winters, Pier Voulkos, Cynthia Toops, Tory Hughes, Kathleen Dustin, Donna Kato, among others—and early groundbreakers and lesser-known names who still present exemplary, innovative work.

The items are displayed in groups; some necklaces are suspended in their cases, others lie flat. Beads are carefully arranged in clusters or are elevated on discrete metallic rods. Some cases are sparser than others, but each offers enough breathing room to ponder and appreciate an object’s details. There is no definitive order to the layout, although a quick survey reveals some themes popping up in certain groupings. One holds the imitative beads of Tory Hughes; another boasts stylized bird, animal and figural motifs like kokopelli in Z. Kripke and Margaret Regan’s work. A floor case features pioneer Pier Voulkos, showing her recognizable, animated style in a bracelet with festive beads reminiscent of Christmas light bulbs or coiled ribbons, and a large neckpiece jam-packed with a variety of caned faces, flowers, stars, swirls, and other symbolism Voulkos often employed.

NECKLACE by Katherine Dewey.

A case of black and white work, with beads and a chunky beaded necklace by Jean Hornberger, is noteworthy, particularly because polymer’s use of color often trumps other equally-appealing details of patterning, subtle blending and caning. Another case, with a varied selection of beads and a Donna Kato necklace, holds particular interest for bead buffs, who can study the variety of traditional glass beadmaking techniques adapted to polymer, from caning to chevrons and fold-forming, on display.

Polymer’s more humorous side shows too with a selection of food-inspired work. A group of chocolates by Linda Pederson looks good enough to eat. Little chocolate kisses, a caned hot pepper and steaming coffee cup, slices of citrus and corn beads round out the “edibles.” Figurative work is prominent as well, with multiple cases of landscapes, faces, eyes, figures, and other more narrative pieces. Animals, birds, aquatic scenes, insects, and flowers, like Marie Segal’s botanical and Day of the Dead inspired necklace, are other common motifs that pop up throughout the exhibition.

The true show stoppers are in the finished jewelry. Two are the work of Cynthia Toops. One is her neckpiece of individually crafted cone-shaped beads that sit one inside the other, creating a serpentine pattern of warm, earthy stripes and colors. The walls are so thin as to almost appear transparent, a testament to Toops’s steady hand and trained eye. The repeated cone form is also a welcome departure from the more common bead shapes seen throughout the show. Another necklace features her beads alongside those of her partner and glass artist Dan Adams. This neckpiece is a tour de force of design, technique and execution. Each bead offers a visual feast for the eye, perhaps most notable being those that display Toops’s micromosaic technique of using tiny snippets of polymer to create a larger image. The miniscule detail of each bead is juxtaposed by the size of the necklace, which is large and luscious, a piece that demands attention.

PENDANT necklace by Gwen Gibson.

A smaller but no less impressive piece comes from another early polymer artist—Michael Grove, who worked with wife and partner Ruth Anne Grove to help put the medium on the map. His Cosmic Insects Necklace is gorgeous, demonstrating many of polymer clay’s strengths—dimensionality, sculpture, color, and pattern so vivid and rhythmic it almost vibrates. Five otherworldly insect creatures flutter along the piece, their bright heads and striped bodies set off with flamboyantly psychedelic wings. Little white ant silhouettes march around the black spacer beads and clasp.

Other pieces demonstrate yet another of polymer’s great characteristics—its ability to mimic and reference other materials. Jamey Allen’s beads investigate ancient techniques used in glass beadmaking. Carolyn Potter’s mask pendant, with turquoise-hued tesserae, reminds one of the prehistoric shell mosaic jewelry of the American Southwest (Ornament 30.2). The aforementioned Hughes’s beads mimic various semiprecious stones and other artists, like Karen Lewis and Kathleen Amt, also simulate organic materials like ivory and bone. A sweet pendant bead necklace by Katherine Dewey is large and egg-shaped, a crescent moon man complete with whiskers carefully engraved onto its surface. With its deep reddish-brown background and carved ivory details, it calls to mind carnelian or sardonyx shell cameo jewelry. A Nancy Banks neckpiece features bright red and black alternating floral buds that are hard to believe are not fashioned from felt or some other plush textile.


A wall plaque in English and Spanish provides a brief introduction to polymer; helpful, but for those familiar with the medium it may not offer many new insights. The display labels list artist names and whether the item is from the Mingei’s permanent collection (from the Polymer Collection Project) or the newly-acquired Bead Museum collection, but with many items in each case, it is difficult to be sure what applies to what object. There are no dates or techniques listed, likely due to the number of objects displayed, but one cannot help but feel an opportunity for greater education was lost. Still, the exhibition will serve as a wonderful introduction to polymer clay for many, and offers much to see and absorb for the new or careful eye.



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