Thursday, June 4, 2015

Recovering Your Imagination—Lessons from Art on the Farm

Earlier this week, Sage Bray, editor of The Polymer Arts magazine said some very nice things about my work on her blog. I wrote her to say that I really appreciated it when someone takes the time to look closely at the work and then offer an informed analysis of what they see, rather than merely stating that they like it. It's much more helpful to me as an artist to know that what I’m trying to express is actually getting through to others.

But what struck me later as interesting about Sage’s comments was that she said “Christine’s work is really very fascinating. I have no idea where her forms might come from–they are quite original”…Hmmm, I thought. Why, they come from my imagination, of course—where else?
 
 Cathy's bead - Polymer, Pan Pastels, crayon


Pondering, I began to consider that, because of the widespread dispersal of information, ideas and designs on the Internet, much work we see today is derivative and not really the product of our imaginations. A lot of talk goes around polymer and jewelry circles about how it’s impossible to come up with anything totally original, that we are just unconsciously recombining the myriad things we see in our rambles through the interwebs into what we then think is an original concept. I disagree.

We all are born into a human culture and pick up cues about that culture with our mother’s milk, as it were. My Celtic Studies professor at Berkeley many times proposed the theory that we learn ideas, concepts of right and wrong, mannerisms, language, definitions of beauty, what art is, etc. before we’re even able to speak. Inspirational author and thinker,Simon Sinek, talks about how we choose what we buy using the pre-language, limbic center of the brain. He posits that we choose the ‘why’ of something, employing feelings rather than logic, and then reinforce this choice with the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.


  

Susan's work - Polymer, Pan Pastels, acrylic, crayon
 
All theories aside about whether or not any work can be truly original, exposing ourselves to other cultures and their art can serve to inform our choices and enrich our design ‘palette’. There are potent ways to stimulate our imaginations and I endeavor to teach them as the central part of the curriculum at Art on the Farm. Sure, I provide plenty of new techniques for polymer surface design but sending people home solely with a bag of new tricks is not my goal. I want to send them home with a method to discover their own way of working. Introducing tools to develop their imaginations is the best way to do that.
 
I’ve come to realize that my Art on the Farm course is actually about developing your personal design style and polymer is merely the vehicle. I could be teaching cookery, music, rug hooking, or sculpture. It wouldn’t matter—the principles are the same, as are the steps to achieving the goal of ‘making it your own’.
 
 
 
Jan's element - Polymer, Pan Pastels, acrylic, crayon
 
So of course I was mightily pleased with the results produced at the first session of this Spring’s Art on the Farm. After three days in the studio, everyone’s take on the instruction and techniques was different, everyone worked in their own style and the work seemed, to me, to reflect the unique personality of every individual there.
 

 
Ruth's beads - Polymer, Pan Pastels, acrylic, crayon

Thinking about all this has made me decide to make some changes to my basic course. I’ve expanded it to four days in the studio and I’m limiting the class size to four students at a time. I’m also creating an application so that potential students can identify their goals and reasons for coming to Art on the Farm. I’m not here to pour information into people’s heads—people need to ‘create value’ for themselves and I want to assist students to take responsibility for doing that.

Ruth's bangle - Polymer clay, Rub n' Buff - completed after returning home after the class

I’m really looking forward to our second session, being held for 4 days, from June 17-20, 2015. If you’re interested in joining us, there’s one seat left. E-mail me at cdamm1@myfairpoint.net for information.
 
Mary's beads - Polymer, Pan Pastels, acrylic, crayon
 

 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Design Competitions—Sweet Dreams or Nightmares?

One of the benefits of growing older is that you tend to be philosophical about a lesson learned rather than bummed and depressed.

Lately I entered a piece of mine—a necklace I titled ‘Molten’—in a well-known jewelry design competition. There was a hefty entry fee, so I did my homework and viewed the work of previous winners, then decided that I would make an entirely new piece. I planned to incorporate my latest techniques, newest handmade texture plates and work from a total concept so all the elements would enhance and illustrate it. I love volcanoes and the idea of deep processes at work within our planet, so I wanted my polymer elements to reflect those colors and forces. I chose the tektite stones as spacers because they are said to contain microscopic remnants of the meteorites that caused them to form when they hit the Earth.
I happily set to work.
'Molten' - polymer clay, acrylics, Kroma Crackle, tektite stone chips, steel wire

Since my body of work consists mostly of experiments that help me develop my teaching methods, I don’t have a huge resume of past exhibitions for my polymer clay work or wins in other competitions. I’ve mostly chosen to showcase my work in others’ books or in jewelry magazines. I have been, however, included in a few shows and events in past years that will always make me feel like I was a successful artist, from the days when I was doing textiles and pottery. For me, to have the award have any meaning, I have to first respect the work and expertise of the person or organization doing the judging or making the choice to include me.

One thing I’ve learned—it’s a big world out there and if you stay true to yourself and your vision, not everybody will understand or validate it. Primarily, it’s your own self that you have to please. Ask yourself --does this reflect my aesthetic, my ideas, my original thought and concept? If the answer is ‘yes’, then you are a winner, despite what the world says.

Although I was pleased enough with my piece to pay the fee and submit it, I wasn’t chosen for final judging. I wasn’t too surprised—I’m not trendy, my work is complex technically and intellectually and the stories I tell do not resonate with everyone. If I had to exist off the sales of my work, I would probably starve!

But I made the decision many, many years ago to do only one-of-a-kind and that has kept my work fresh and growing. I don’t want to be picked up by a major retailer or make a million of the same piece. I show my esteemed customers respect by making them a singular piece of work each time.


So if you want to compete, just know that acceptance or rejection by others—a competition, a gallery, a website, an exhibition—doesn’t mean anything in the total scheme of the lifetime of your art. It’s art, not sports. The ‘best’ work doesn’t win because there’s no agreed-upon criteria for art that’s as cut-and-dried as who jumps the highest or gets over the finish line first. It’s somewhat subjective when it comes to craftsmanship but very subjective when it comes to choosing ‘best’ over ‘also ran’. The question becomes “what is ‘best’ anyway”?

Enjoy the process, dig deep to express yourself and don’t try to please others—be authentic. Don’t cater to what you think others will like. At the end of the day you will be happier and more self-fulfilled than if you try to please a panel of strangers.





Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When Something is Nothing

The phrase ‘you can’t get something for nothing’ refers to the idea that it’s unlikely you can reap a reward or achieve some sort of value from something that's offered with no investment of effort on your own part. In artistic terms, you could compare this to discovering a new ‘free’ technique or method and then using it without devoting any time to develop an idea for its unique use in your own work or customizing it with your own tweak or spin.

I’m wary of the practice of posting instructions for a new technique to the general art community without providing a structure to demonstrate its potential use. For instance, “here’s a cool idea for a polymer clay veneer”. I’ve seen entire books on this topic with very few real examples of what to do with your cool veneer once you have it. The default seems to be to cut it out with some commercial cutters, poke a hole in it and string it. I’m not trying to be insulting here, I’m trying to inspire a sense of play and exploration before you move on to the next new thing. I’m trying to get you to ask ‘what if’. I’m inviting you to think outside the box and then actually start to work out there. I’m implying that a whole whopping-load of potential is being short-changed if you just move on to the next freebie without working into the possibilities and innovations that are before you.

 
"Colors of the Canyon" - polymer clay, acrylic paint, handmade
 texture plates, annealed steel earwires

You may have guessed that this is not how I teach at my Art on the Farm workshops. Yes, I have a lot of innovative techniques for surface coloration, texture and structure to teach students. But first we work on building a foundation for the techniques that are introduced afterwards, starting with form, layering and texture—the actual sculpture that lies under the surface techniques.
Study in building complexity and color
You’re going to go home with the foundations of a system for your own personal explorations, not just a technique or series of them. I need each day of this 3-day-long workshop to do this. I won’t short-change your artistic soul by teaching a technique that will produce one result only. This workshop will build your confidence in telling your own unique story in your work--to tap into your own experience to produce art that is meaningful, powerful and expressive.
 

"How shall my heart be unsealed unless it be broken?" - quote from Kahlil Gibran - polymer clay, copper wire, acrylic paint

Will you walk away with a finished piece of jewelry? Maybe, maybe not. That’s not the goal. I think it’s more important to walk away with a new skill in your toolbox—perhaps the most important tool—the skill of how to think about your style and your artistic direction and how to steer your work in that direction by being able to move confidently, step-by-step, along that path even when you get home to your own studio without an instructor to look over your shoulder.



"Twilight" necklace - polymer clay, crayons, handmade textures and forms, hand-knit wool cord, Woolywire embellishment

If this post has made you excited about the possibilities for your own work, here’s the link to the Workshop and Teaching pages on my website: www.storiestheytell.com.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Art on the Farm - May 27-29, 2015 - June 18-20, 2015 - Updated with a 2nd session!


"Art on the Farm -- New Ways with Construction, Texture and Color" is the foundation 3-day polymer clay retreat I hold at my workshop in Vermont. Here’s the link to my website with more information on the teaching method itself, with the details and costs of the workshop on this page.
Why this workshop is for you:


·       You’re excited by the idea of texture and surface color on polymer but don’t know where to begin


·       You need help developing your own unique style in polymer clay

·       You’re currently working in polymer clay but are stuck in a rut

·       You’re attracted to the medium of polymer clay but are overwhelmed by the myriad of techniques and styles

·       You work in another medium and want to add polymer to your toolbox of techniques

·       You’re left unsatisfied with expensive online tutorials that teach just one technique without any guidance in 'making it your own'

Students working in the studio, Fall 2014
 



What I offer at Art on the Farm:

·       Small class size (capped at 8) and unlimited individual attention

·       A unique method of surface coloring and texturing for polymer clay developed by me and not taught anywhere else

·       Access to an extensive collection of coloring materials, including Pan Pastels, oil paints, crayons, pencils, acrylics and inks

·       Intensively-researched support materials on coloring agents, surfaces and finishes

·       No expensive kits to buy or added-on costs

·      ‘Lifetime Learning’— the opportunity to revisit the foundation workshop for any session in the future at no charge (*pending space available)

·       A local support group for Northeast-based students



 
 
If any of this sounds like something you’d like to pursue further, please contact me via my website—www.storiestheytell.com – and I’d be glad to answer any questions you have about the course.
And need I add? Vermont is just a green paradise in the Spring so be sure to leave yourself some time to hike, bike, sightsee, antique or kayak in some of the most pristine waters you’ve ever seen. Hope to see you here!

 

 

 

 
 

 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tales of The Heart

In my workshops I always begin with a discussion of form. I wish I could throw all the shape-cutters and templates being sold for polymer clay into the ocean. Don’t get me wrong—I have templates for certain earring shapes that I designed myself that are my go-to when I have a clay veneer that will become an earring or element. But they are not cookie-cutter shapes, they reflect my aesthetic, not that of some manufacturer.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, your piece will become truly unique only if you address every single aspect of its design and source or design it yourself. That means devising your own shapes and forms whenever possible. The ‘quick sketching’ method works for this—for instance, choosing a heart shape—and spending a minute or two sketching that shape very quickly in your notebook. Don’t worry about size, just let your brain and all its accumulated input stream out through your pencil. Don’t edit. Your can use your copier to alter size later to suit your purpose for the element. One exercise that’s fun is to choose a few sketched shapes, make larger and smaller sizes of each using the copier and then combine them into one piece, say—a necklace, keeping the same colorway
for all the elements.

Now that my work is finally in a gallery—the
Art of Vermont Artisans Gallery in downtown Randolph, Vermont-- I’ve been working to change out my inventory to reflect the seasons and jewelry-gifting holidays. Valentine’s Day garners an enormous response from shoppers in search of the perfect gift so it’s a great excuse to obsess a bit with the ubiquitous ‘heart’ shape. Every year I do a sketchbook page full of heart shapes and this year my page looked like this.



This Valentine’s Day I’ve broadened my experiments to include pin/pendant options, as well as cuffs, bookmarkers and barretts. One of my first polymer projects was a French clip hair barrette and I still wear it a lot. For some strange reason, I haven’t made another, although every time I reach for my old stand-by I think “why don’t I make more of these in other colors?” Well, I plan to remedy that soon.

I find there’s something compelling about the traditional heart shape—it can morph and mold into so many variations. The basic shape, I think, is so well-balanced in its simplicity that it lends itself to abstraction and innovation. It’s got semiotic overtones as well--semiotics being “the study of meaning-making, the philosophical theory of signs and symbols” according to Wikipedia—so the shape itself means something to us culturally and anthropologically on a subconscious level. This is a good thing for the jewelry designer because it means that the heart shape is appropriate in any season for adornment, not just for a sweetheart-themed holiday in February, unlike a snowman pin, for instance.  It’s also a very universal symbol.


 
Organic heart - 2015 - polymer clay,
acrylic and oil paints, Prismacolor pencils
 
 
Not necessarily 'Valentine's Day' earrings - polymer clay, acrylic paint, crayons, Lillypilly slate veneer, handmade copper earwires
 
 
 'Landscapes of the Heart' - pin/pendant of 
polymer clay, acrylic paint, Kroma crackle medium
 
 
 Primitive heart cuff - polymer clay, acrylic and oil paints, Nunn Designs copper cuff base
 
 
 'Helter-Skelter' heart element-- older work using mokume gane technique
 
 
Valentine bookmark - polymer clay, acrylic paint,
crayon, Jan's Jewelry metal bookmark form
 
 
Textured heart earrings, 2015 -- polymer clay,
acrylic paint, crayons, handmade texture
plate and earwires
 
So even if you don’t get around to making hearts for Valentine’s Day this year, don’t despair—the shape is something that will work for you year ‘round. And what you can do when you add in color, texture and connectors! Have fun! XOXOXO


 
 

 
 
 
 




Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Curiosity


“Curiosity is essential for progress. Only when we look to worlds beyond our own can we really know if there’s room for improvement.”
                                                            Simon Sinek

I’ve always thought that curiosity is the best characteristic of our brains. It’s the ‘what if’ that expands our world in any endeavor that requires innovation to thrive and grow—art, science, cuisine, philosophy, whatever.
Most of my best ideas come out of a curiosity to know what would happen if I combined this with that or tried this process differently from what everybody else is doing or used a product that nobody else uses on polymer clay. I’ve just never been a follower of trends. If everybody else is doing it or wearing it or buying it or listening to it, I probably won’t.

Sometimes my curiosity prompts me to think “if everybody is doing THAT, what would happen if I do it this way?” That’s how I got started painting on polymer. It also helped that Sculpey decided to discontinue some primary colors in their Premo polymer clay range, so you couldn’t count on your blending formulae always being consistent. So thinking that the only consistency is the one you create yourself, I started using Genesis heat set oil paints on polymer, which I still use to this day. I’m not sure what got me started on applying texture but flat and super-shiny was never my thing. I hate sanding! Early on I set up a bead polishing system that involved a vibratory tumbler and plastic media which I learned from Grant Diffendaffer’s book.

So maybe innovation is a combination of curiosity and personal preference (or aversion). You hate sanding so you find some way to do your art without having to sand. Your supply chain is compromised so you find a way to get consistent color without having to depend on the whims of a manufacturer.
2014 may be remembered in the polymer clay community as The Year of the Hollow Bead Tutorial. Everybody seemed to be creating their own unique method of making hollow beads. Given how light the medium already is, I couldn’t see changing the way I made large beads using aluminum foil cores. Polymer beads are practically weightless so I just kept doing that. I was more concerned with what you do with the surface of the enclosed void (hollow bead) that you now have—how do you make THAT interesting? After covering a number of beads with veneers made with my newly-created, ‘super-textural’ texture sheets, I asked the ‘what if’ question and decided to make molds of some my most-favorite shapes. I’ve always done one-of-a-kind beads but I wanted to see how the same bead shape looked with different colors of base clay and a different color palette.

I’m still working on perfecting the technique but it mostly worked. I made a necklace up with two identical beads—one with a black clay base, one with white—and used them together. In the piece below they are the beads closest to the wire rings connected to the chain. They add a bit of symmetry to an otherwise very asymmetrical piece. And I’ve once again progressed a bit through the exercise of my curiosity.
 
 
'Attitash' -- polymer clay, acrylic, crayon, African copper beads, vintage copper chain, carnelian chips

 Azo Gold Bead - Polymer, acrylic, crayon, heat set oil paint - same bead as above with a textured layer sandwiched between the halves
 
Azo Gold bead, flip side
 
 
'Planetfall' - polymer clay, found amber piece, acrylic, heat set oil paint
 
If any of you have had a similar experience, I’d love to hear from you about something you did last year that curiosity caused you to discover about your art.


Monday, October 6, 2014

Cracking the Code to Making It Your Own

Every once in a while a new polymer clay technique makes a big splash and Flickr is swamped with images from the dozens of artists trying it out. Unfortunately, many just follow the steps in the published tutorial, shape a simple focal and hang it from a chain. And then they abandon a potentially work-transforming design tool for the next 'pretty face' in the ongoing parade of step-by-step instructions for free or for sale that are available from Etsy, the Internet or a new polymer book.


While I love a new technique to play with as much as the next artist, I usually spend a significant amount of time testing it out, adding my own interpretation and experimenting with all the ways that it could be used. If those initial tests are interesting and I think the technique has real merit, I continue on and make a whole range of pieces and art jewelry elements, sometimes spending months trying one thing and another, combining the new with my old, tried-and-true methods. As Professor Guttorm Fløistad of the Slow Movement says, "In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal."


Usually I apply a new method to a shape I've been working with that I really like--a standard, like pods or donuts. I always encourage students to do a simple exercise-- see my blog post "Working in a Series" -- to develop original shapes as one of the easiest ways to imprint their style on a piece. Loving circles and round shapes as I do, when I draw them they just naturally morph into an altered round with a void in it, known by jewelry designers as a 'donut', an unattractive name more reminiscent of a snack than a piece of art!


Lately several techniques for cracking the surface of the clay to create fine to large textures have been making the rounds. I used this technique in creating one of the pieces that I did for Cindy Wimmer's book The Missing Link, published last year. I believe that one dimension of an element's construction--be it bead, pendant, or whatever-- should not overshadow any other in the overall design. Whether it be shape, surface, texture or color, all should work together in harmony. I tried to make sure the color and form were equally as important as the surface treatment- 'cracking'-- in this pendant and beads.


"Molten" necklace - polymer clay, acrylic paint, 
mammoth bone beads, handmade copper links

I've been playing with lots of pod shapes lately so my experiments just naturally strayed in that direction with the crackles. Some of them ended up with a raku-like feel to them.




"Summer's End" - polymer pods with acrylic and crayon, spiderweb jasper, yellow jade, vintage chain and dangles, repurposed toggle and handforged brass washers.

My bargain-hunter husband frequents the local hospital auxiliary store for discarded treasures and found this silver cuff that proved to be a great base for a polymer donut (after liberal sanding with a kitchen scrubber pad to dull the blinding shine). I used a tutorial by Rena Klingenberg for the instructions on how to attach the donut to the metal cuff shape. She has lots of interesting ideas on her blog.


"Aurora" cuff - polymer clay with acrylic and crayon, purchased metal cuff, sari yarn


I like to think that my teaching methods are more about ideas than techniques. Using what you have around you in your environment or sitting on your bench to inspire your designs is something I always recommend. The wire embellishment on this focal grouping was a left-over from a previous project and caught my eye as I was composing the elements for this piece. With some prodding and pushing, it fit the bead perfectly and then I continued the wire styling to create loops for attachment to the chain. It reminded me of tidepools and beachcombing so I named it after my favorite Northern California beach.


"Point Reyes" necklace - polymer clay, acrylic, crayons, handforged wire, vintage chain

I'm moving into a more subdued palette as fall is officially here in central Vermont. On Wednesday my students arrive for Art on the Farm, ready to spend three days working together to forge their own style in polymer clay. I really look forward to meeting them! It's always so nourishing to spend time with other artists in an environment where ideas spin around like falling leaves and are allowed to flourish and deepen. Check here for the next blog, all about our discoveries and insights.