Working in polymer clay since 1988, Lindly reveals how she arrived here, how the whole thing started and what she’s learned.
Other people’s opinions • How do you know when it’s done • Is your inner critic fair • How do you get fired up • What do you want to tell other clayers • Is clay your career • How do you balance your time
Why Polymer Clay?
It would be very hard for me to pick just three reasons why I work with polymer clay and certainly over the past fifteen years my reasons have evolved. I have been an artist all of my life.
Most of my early memories center on an artistic activity whether it was making biscuits in nursery school, learning expressive dance, sculpting with salt dough or painting with tempera. Both my grandmothers and my father encouraged me to work on an art project every day. Early on I learned to sculpt with paper mache, sew, embroider, style food, work with wood and paint with water colors.
In high school I enrolled in an accelerated learning program that allowed me to take a half day of art classes at the local community college. I became fascinated by colorful repeated patterns and conceptual design.
When I started college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh in the early seventies there was an experimental program in place where two different learning tracks were presented. One was a traditional academic approach where students were expected to spend hundreds of hours drawing from plaster casts, memorizing design principles and studying the works of the masters. The other track was considered cutting edge at that time- and it wasn’t a surprise to me that based on my work I was selected for this group. Thus my foundation courses included making dirt installations, full size inflatable Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes, meditating on the roof of the art building and pondering the premises of the Bauhaus approach to learning about color with cut paper collages.
When it came time to pick a major I was torn between metalsmithing/ jewelry design and printmaking. One deciding factor was that my first necklace took over two hundred hours to make and I’d spent most of my time in that course designing colorful jewelry on paper. I opted for printmaking and spent the next two years studying lithography, etching, wood cut and serigraphy.
I graduated in 1974 with a BA in Printmaking with a large repertoire of technical skills, a muddled sense of what makes for legitimate art and absolutely no clue as to how I would support myself as an artist. Many of my professors had encouraged dark, tortured- “Munchian” imagery. In retrospect this may have simply been reflective of a gender bias. Pretty, joyful, happy, celebratory imagery was often dismissed in group critiques as being too decorative and feminine. I once asked Bruce Carter, my woodcut professor, for advice on pursuing a career in printmaking. His advice was to find a husband in either the computer science or electrical engineering department, who at that time were almost certainly guaranteed a financial lucrative career.
For the next fifteen years I continued to take art classes. One continuing theme was my fascination with color. I had every color that Windsor Newton offered in water color paints and eleven hundred colored pencils. Rather than finishing pieces I spent hundreds of hours constructing color charts and comparing subtle nuances in layering orders.
During this time my interest and involvement in cooking reached its nadir. I religiously read five cooking magazines each month, watched all the cooking shows, collected cookbooks and took frequent field trips to ethnic markets. I made my own bread, rolled my own pasta, smoked my own sausage, preserved dozens of concoctions each fall and maintained a large organic garden.
Over the course of a miraculous week in 1988 three things happened:
- I saw a brooch made by Citizen Cane at the Smithsonian Museum of Technology gift shop
- I saw a display of miniature food at a local doll house store with a small display of FIMO next to it
- I noticed multiple packages of children’s modeling compound/Sculpey in the Art League School store at the Torpedo Factory and then went downstairs to take a closer look at Kathleen Dustin’s studio.
Somehow everything connected and I realized that these three artists were using the techniques that I was using to embed fresh herbs in pasta to make jewelry. I purchased five small packages of FIMO and stayed up an entire night trying to fashion a watermelon cane using a fish fillet knife and my pasta machine.
I reluctantly enrolled in an Introduction to making Sculpey beads workshop presented by Kathleen Dustin. I had no interest, at that time, in making beads I JUST had to know how to work with the material. I was so nervous and shy I don’t remember saying anything during my first class. In the week following that workshop I made three hundred beads and was very excited about the “advanced” bead making class I had signed up for with Kathleen. Several of the students in that second class discussed the possibility that we would form a Sculpey Users group to exchange information.
The ensuing months were at times frustrating (there weren’t any books available on how to handle this material) and mostly exhilarating. I couldn’t stop making beads, canes and finally little decorated Japanese Kimonos. After practicing what I would say for months I packed up a few samples and went to Kathleen Dustin’s studio to show her my work. At that time she was also making cast porcelain room scenes and had just unmolded a casting of Venus de Milo onto her work surface. At the same time a five pound necklace escaped my bag, fell and broke the piece in half. If I hadn’t been so fascinated with polymer clay it is possible that I could have fled the room in tears.
Luckily Kathleen’s sense of generosity and humor prevailed and she took the time to look at my work and make suggestions. One of her suggestions was that I submit a few pieces to the First National Polyform Show sponsored by Penny Diamante at Bedazzled a local bead gallery.
I was accepted into that show, I sold work, a photo of one of my pieces was featured in the review in Ornament magazine and Nan Roche, who was by then writing The New Clay invited me to lunch.
The next summer I attended a workshop presented by Tory Hughes in McLean Virginia. Attending that day were many artists that eventually had pivotal roles in the field- Pat Berlin, Ilene Shefferman, Lynne Sward, Kathy Amt., Nan Roche, Gail Brown and myself. Again there was mention of forming a local Sculpey Users group.
Three weeks later, when still there had been no action on the Users group, I talked to Nan. We each chipped in 10 dollars, she shared her mailing list, and I checked a book by Mark Beech entitled How to Write Your Own Newsletter out of the library. We mailed thirty five copies of an invitation to an organizational meeting and thirty artists showed up. Pat Berlin was elected as our first president and I got the go ahead to prepare the next newsletter which solicited for annual dues of ten dollars to join the group and receive further newsletters.
Within a week we had received not only local memberships but dues from Bermuda, Kentucky and California. Using those monies we xeroxed additional newsletters and took them to the Second International Bead Conference which was sponsored by the Washington Bead Society and held in downtown DC in the fall of 1990. No longer just a local group we decided that we would change the name to The National Polymer Clay Guild. I met Pierrette Ashcoft at a local marketing seminar and she volunteered to bring her computer expertise to the newsletter. Carol Watkins came up with the suggestion that we call our newsletter the POLYinforMER.
Letters, checks and phone calls began to come pouring in and this strained my already deteriorating marriage. I arrive home one night after a late shift at the restaurant where I worked to find my polymer clay jewelry flung around the dining room and a pile of guild checks ripped into shreds under a pile of beer cans in the kitchen. I quickly packed my polymer clay jewelry, a toothbrush and sixty dollars in cash and left in the middle of the night.
The next day my father helped me secure half of our banking accounts and I had an emergency root canal. For me the next few months were not a happy time. There were nights when I dragged myself home from work-tired and emotionally distraught- only to be cheered by the letters of encouragement, the pictures of polymer clay artwork, new memberships for the guild and the attendant burgeoning sense of self-confidence.
When I look back I am still amazed at the transition from a shy self-conscious artist to an outspoken, outgoing person who feels comfortable giving a presentation to three hundred people, entering a juried show, designing and leading workshops, traveling 25,000 one year and enjoying the dozens of ongoing friendships that grew out of my guild involvement.
Polymer clay totally satisfies my need to work with color. Inherent in the mixing is the ability to accurately document mixes at a level not available in other media. A mixture of one part ochre to one thousand and eleven parts white is doable. Demonstrating the creation of tertiary colors, supra-saturation, desaturation, value and hue changes are easily done using polymer clay.
The current availability of pigment primaries in all of the clay lines makes exploring color mixtures fantastically fun. I expect polymer clay to replace paint and Color aid collage as a means of teaching color at Universities. The current paradigm as outlined by the Bauhaus “boys” Itten and Albers will be superseded by a three dimensional intermixable solid polymer clay.
The creation of a tangible object whether it be a piece of jewelry, a wall hanging a box or a sculpture is an important aspect of working with polymer clay to me. My preference is to spend weeks or even months amassing components before starting assembly. For example each time I have made an edition of asparagus jewelry I have designed several dozen different beads and made several dozen of each bead.
Ultimately, everything won’t work in the finished pieces, but this allows me to have fun and experiment without the self imposed restraint of pre-designing every element of the piece. When I work on the polymer clay fabrics for the quilt wall hangings, the color scheme is constantly evolving- at times even separating into unanticipated color ways. Taking risks on outrageous textures and patterns is OK, because if the don’t work in a finished piece… oh, well. Perhaps they become inspiration for another piece.
One of the primary functions of an artist is to allow others to see things from a different perspective. Thus making exact replicas of sushi platters, asparagus, seed pods and twigs doesn’t appeal to me. Exaggerating a facet such as the color, shape or texture fascinates me.
I believe that everyone is an artist and is capable of expressing themselves creatively- some may sing or dance, others may write or re-examine mathematical formulas. I find it dismaying just how many adults in our culture, even thought they have enrolled in an art class, don’t consider themselves as capable of intense artistic expression.
In some parts of the world- Bali for example- one is expected to spend part of each day making art. Part of the magic of working with polymer clay is its versatility and immediacy. With a little guidance and support, I have yet to have a student that was unable to make something satisfyingly beautiful and remarkable within the space of a few hours.
In 1990 I was propelled into teaching polymer clay techniques to others. The Boston based group Bead Designers International had contacted Nan Roche with the hopes that she would have time to travel to Boston to teach a workshop and present a slide show at their monthly meeting. Unable to take the time off from work, Nan suggested me as their workshop teacher. Armed with a fully loaded carousel of slides, four dozen samples and the innocence of a first timer I boarded an Amtrack train to Boston.
I was nervous, the 12 hour train trip had stretched to 19 hours due to engine trouble and I’d had plenty of time to rehearse my presentation. What I discovered during that trip was that I absolutely LOVED to teach polymer clay techniques to others. The challenges of the group dynamic, the individual yelps of joy and the transcendence of teaching things/demonstrating things that I previously had not had any conscious notion of knowing was exhilarating.
Since then I have had the honor of teaching hundreds of workshops in a myriad of settings, including short one-hour demos, three hour classes at conventions, two day workshops for polymer clay guilds and one week residential intensives. My students have ranged from eight to eighty and seemingly I learn more than anyone else in the room.
Another thing that happened in 1990 was I called up Nan Roche and asked her if I could hold a weekend polymer clay slumber party at her house. “Coincidentally” someone had just called from her spinning group (yarn not exercise) to say that they were canceling their retreat at Shrinemont in southern Virginia. She called Shrinemont and they agreed to rent us the Crenshaw cabin for the weekend.
I had no idea if we would cover the cost of the rental, but we went ahead and publicized the event as the 1st National Polymer Clay retreat. Thirteen of us cobbled together an odd assortment of tables in the Crenshaw living room. Everyone demonstrated a technique to the group and Saturday night we had a drum circle on the porch. We also blew the fuses with our toaster ovens and spent the first night without heat searching in vain with a flashlight for a spare fuse.
The second year we had fifteen artists and at least three people had to move to allow you out to the bathroom. On Saturday night there was a lot of noise and laughter emanating from the building next door. Carol Watkins went on re-con and found a large recreation hail with wooden floors where there was square dancing in progress. The next year we rented the rec hall and asked for an additional cabin to expand the retreat. Last week was the fourteenth annual Polymer Clay Guild retreat at Shrinemont. There were 67 artists on site for five exciting days, ongoing demonstrations, visiting massage therapists, a grab bag exchange, a profitable silent auction and a sizable wait list for participants.
Yes I do have creative slumps. I’ve had enough in my lifetime to know they are not permanent-just passing clouds a time of incubation followed by a spectacular release of new ideas. The best thing for me during a slump is to just. As in just mix colors, just make a small collaged tile, just fiddle with the clay.
At one time I joined a group of fellow polymer clay artists that were following the advice of Julie Cameron as outlined in the Artists Way where one was to write in a journal three pages without stopping upon awakening. About five months into this program intended to spark my creativity, I realized that by page two I was playing with clay, so I substituted sketching with clay for the writing. On aspect that I continue to this day from that book is the notion of an Artists date, where one takes a scheduled break each week to explore, fiddle, look around, visit a junk store, surf the web for new artists to play and restock.
About five years ago I went through a long period of self-doubt as to why I continued to work with polymer clay. In 1989 there was one book in print on how to work with polymer clay, it was in German and even featured a how-to section on making an ashtray out of marbled clay.
By 1999 we had the Internet, email, polymer discussion boards, three major video producers, international invitational shows, recognition both American Craft and Ornament magazines. Polymer clay workshops were being offered at graduate school programs – I’d taught at the Split Rock program at the University of Minnesota graduate school several times. Work by polymer clay artists was being exhibited at major wholesale craft shows and being featured on television shows. There had been several major national conferences and bead shows were increasing the number of polymer clay workshops that were being offered.
Seemingly the workshop market was being driven by an ever increasing need to come up with the next, newest, coolest technique.
After a short hiatus from teaching and taking the time for personal reflection -I came to the realization that my teaching style was driven by the notion that to teach someone to fish is preferable to giving someone the fish.
What I experienced and learned during the course of presenting a workshop began to exponentially deepen. If one’s premise is to bring the group to a new place, a place of greater peace, increased understanding and compassion… why worry about the technique du jour?
My journey and interface with polymer clay and its still burgeoning community is ongoing. I still feel joy and excitement when I open the class oven, push the clay around in my hand or receive a phone call from one of the thousands of people I’ve met over the past years through my involvement in polymer clay – when that stops, perhaps I will move on to another artist medium or perhaps I’ll make an old cane new… re-invent the grace, honor and joy of learning.
Now that, of course depends on the person. Once I was lamenting to my mother how a friend had just finished a wholesale order for two thousand pieces and she turned towards me with a very surprised look on her face, “Do you want to make art or would you be satisfied making two thousand of those silly cat pins?”
When I first started making polymer clay jewelry I was very self-conscious of my work. Once I was in a bead store and had brought a tray of beads to match to the stringing materials and a woman started shreiking..”uck! Intestines! ooowe where did you get those?” If it was today I would have proudly told her that I had made them myself. Then I kind of shrunk into the back room.
I knew I had really made it when someone took the time to write about my work in a letter to the editor. Two of my worm necklaces made from super-flex appeared on the cover of Bead and Button Magazine.
The woman wrote to Alice Korach the editor of the magazine, who had purchased one of the necklaces for her collection. Her comment- “looks like pet excrement after chemo-therapy” made me laugh and know deep inside my artwork had affected someone.
Usually when it is almost too late to fed-ex the piece to the jury, to the show, to the gallery. Or when another idea, an improvement on what I’ve just finished propels me on.
Sometimes if I still have questions, I’ll put the piece(s) out of view and re-visit them in a few days. Then I’ll decide if something else needs to push it through the eye of the needle, I need to move on or perhaps even discard the piece.
Seemingly there are always touch points in the process when the inner critic is either on vacation or asked to take a back seat. This doesn’t always make for the best crafted pieces or perhaps even a fraction of my imaginary outcome to an idea. I would use the analogy here of driving through the countryside and enjoying every dapple of light, every turn and twist in the road, being amazed at the backside of the tractor going ten miles an hour and somehow missing the destination by ten miles only to meet this most incredible person “by accident” or happen upon the perfect cafe for lunch.
On rare occasions I will feel like Richard Dryfeus in Close Encounters. Creating the Vulvano was like that. It also unfolded as a good story and came to a screeching stop as the actually completion of the piece and the attendant re-construction challenges appeared. I was at Ravensdale in lssaquah the summer of 2003 and as a faculty member was invited to visit other classrooms when I was not teaching.
Around 11 in the morning I stopped by Jeff Deaver’s hollow vessel class where the students were fashioning forms from cardboard and masking tape. I stayed for about a half hour watching him demonstrate and went to lunch. I mentioned what I’d seen to Pier Voulkos who indicated that she too was excited by the notion of building larger structures using a cardboard armature. When I found myself sitting next to Jeff during dessert I asked if he had any extra cardboard for me to try the technique.
At two o’clock Judith Skinner came into the workroom and commented on my armature (which was by now completely covered with clay). She had attended Jeff s class for a half hour or so at ten am and wondered how I was going to remove the form.
“Remove the form?” I asked. “Why, yes,” she replied, “the cardboard is only an armature for an interior mold that has no undercuts and can be sanded to a perfect solid.” After considering how if I spent two hours or so fixing and re-designing the form it might work, I decided I would just leave the cardboard armature in place.
After the first baking Pier returned to the room and asked another series of questions about my Deaver inspired piece. Three artists on over-drive, then realizing that none of us had seen the introductory demo from start to finish and had taken an entirely different tack. Humorous- but also evidence that sometimes only seeing part of the elephant works.
Other times I really begin to wonder when the muse will creep back in. I have specific pieces of music that I associate with being in a creative state and sometimes just playing the music works.
Sometimes a sitting or moving meditation works, sometimes exposing myself to a museum show, flipping through an art book or revisiting temporarily abandoned projects works.
Most often what really “works” is doing something very directly with the clay-mixing colors, combining scraps into major color groups or creating a sample swatch of polymer clay fabric. Often when one becomes engrossed in rote tasks the ideas begin to flow and if they don’t at least you’ve organized something in your studio for future use.
Don’t discount new techniques while resisting the temptation to float from one prepackaged “solution” to another.
Remember to ask yourself WHY? Does this new product, new technique, new format, new processes have relevance to what I want to express as an artist?
At a this year’s National Polymer Clay Retreat at Shrinemont I watched as dozens of participants exchanged texture plates, rubber stamp matrixes, rubber stamps and molds. Certainly there was a serious glimmer of joy in the replication, the stocking of one’s imagery repertoire, the notion of an everexpanding library and as a teacher I understand the desire to have as much as possible on hand for the students to experiment with.
But why? Why even if it is clever, even if it is the right scale for what you make, even if it is a wonderful example of the design icons of another culture… why?
Does it have anything to do with YOUR artwork? What you are trying to say? I also understand the lust for new materials and tools, but still one must ask oneself … will this improve and or speed up my production? Will this enhance what I am trying to communicate with my work?
We all probably know someone who has the top of the line Garland gas stove in their kitchen, a complete set of four star Heinkel Knives, a sub-zero refrigerator and every kitchen gadget available at Williams and Sonoma… AND they couldn’t soft boil an egg to save their life. A totally tricked out and stocked kitchen is a beautiful thing but it won’t make you a four star chef.
I have many, many passions in my life. While I make about a third of my income from polymer clay related activities… alas, I still have a “day job”.
The advantages to that job are that I am able to travel up to ten weeks a year, when I leave the nothing of the job comes home with me, it provides a steady source of somewhat predictable income and my health insurance.
Realize that unless you are willing to trade or pay for help from others, that for every hour you spend teaching, creating in your studio, enjoying the company of other artists and having “fun”-you will spend several hours ordering supplies, working on the books, marketing and self-promotion.
It often takes me about the same amount of time to prepare for teaching a workshop as the time I actually spend teaching. For example when I teach for a convention, say Bead&Button, one year out I prepare seven class proposals and slides of illustrative work.
Once the classes are accepted, I am expected to proof the catalogue copy and materials lists. Often I spend days making class samples and experimenting with new products- then I dry run the class dozens of times in my mind. As the convention gets closer, I become a travel agent and co-ordinate flight schedules, hotel rooms and shuttle schedules with my travel buddies.
About a month out from the convention I need to estimate if I can fit all of my materials and tools in two suitcases less than fifty pounds each and still have something to wear for the different kinds of events on site. What I can reasonably ship is shipped ahead.
Once the class attendance estimates come through I prepare the hand-outs and the items I wish to display in the faculty exhibit. On a good day travel is a half day proposition …on a challenging day- another story.
Once it took Nan and me fourteen hours and four airports to get to Milwaukee, only to find that we needed to move four hundred pounds of gear four blocks uphill by ourselves (the union show movers stop promptly at six).
The next four day passed in a blur of fifteen hour days, setting up classrooms, the Meet the Teacher’s sessions, visiting with friends and blissful sleep AND the magical moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything… when the light of recognition of a concept blazes in a student’s mind, when a student returns to tell me how their last class enriched or changed their life, the hugs of encouragement- the joys of teaching!
I rarely vacuum. Kidding aside, I set aside one sacred afternoon a week and four week long sessions at least each year where I just do clay. My Tuesday art day is written in ink in my calendar and if I can help it nothing else is scheduled that day. I attend three different retreats- each with a different feel and focus. On site I have the ability to focus in and work very solid days to explore new ideas or do production.
Other times I remember that it is not necessary to have large chunks of time available to work with the clay. I mixed thousands of color scales by leaving them set-up on a tray in my studio and every time the phone rang or I had a spare ten minutes I mixed colors.
When I was working on the Seattle Quilt series I spent several days mixing color samples. Once I’d decided on the color palette- Yellow= 1/2 yellow ochre, 1/2 golden yellow, Blue= 1/8 white, 1/18 mud and 6/8 Turquoise and red = 1/8 white, 1/8 mud and 6/8 magenta, I ran fifteen pounds of clay though the food processor and then bagged the clay in gallon zip locks.
Over the course of the next few months I made about thirty square feet of polymer clay “fabric”. When I went to put together the pieces there were gaps that needed to be filled in and there were pieces I discarded, but the making was the real fun part with very few pre-conceived ideas and frequent accident, twists and turns inspiring new approaches to the surface designs.