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 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.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Art on the Farm Workshop-- Expanded Resources and a Special Opportunity

Today a friend asked why I never taught at bead shows. I told her that I don't teach project-specific classes-- I teach techniques and then mentor my students in how to adapt those techniques to their own unique artistic style. In my workshops we talk a lot about where ideas and innovation come from, about new approaches to the art material known as polymer clay and how it can enhance other art media and disciplines. I've been stalled on the book that I want to write because the standard industry model in book publishing seems to be a technique-to-project approach which I personally don't believe fosters creativity as much as it could.

Over the past few days I've been re-reading the self-published workbooks of Hadar Jacobsen, an extraordinary metal clay teacher and artist, who produces her own line of metal clay products. Hadar not only writes about using metal clay and correctly firing it, but constantly updates the technical information on her website for everyone, even if you haven't purchased her books. I've been thinking about her style of making information available and how I could adapt it to my workshops and enhance my students' experience. And as homage to the inspiration that Hadar has been to me, I've decided to offer any student who has already taken my 3-day workshop the opportunity to repeat it at no charge anytime in the future--subject to space availability in the class. Currently, I'm offering my workshops in the spring and fall of each year here in Vermont. I'm also developing a Facebook group for my students that will have updated information on techniques, tips on process and new product reviews.

Sometimes because of the vagaries of circumstance and income, I've had to pass up opportunities for creative advancement, missing out on a learning experience that may have forever altered how I do my art. How I've wished for a patron or guardian angel to help me make that opportunity happen.

So here's what I've come up with to advance the cause of creativity in the polymer universe-- next month I'll be teaching my 3-day intensive workshop at my farm in Vermont-- October 8-10, 2014, called “Telling Your Story in Polymer Clay: Form, Color and Mixed Media”. I'm making a scholarship available for one seat in that class to someone chosen at random from the group of interested people who contact me by September 8 and ask to be included in the drawing. All you need to do to attend is get yourself here and bring clay and tools-- see my website for details on the “Teaching” and “Workshops” pages. I'll have all the coloring materials available for students. If you're a newbie to polymer clay, it's not a problem. This course is about exploring what polymer clay can become in the hands of an artistic, curious person. I've had metalworkers, jewelers and ceramics artists come to learn and none of them had ever used polymer before. All that's required is imagination and a well-developed artist's or crafter's skill-set.

I'd love if you'd share this opportunity on your favorite social media venues and blogs but it's not a requirement to apply. I've included some photos below of techniques we'll be exploring this year's class. Please use the contact button to
e-mail me if you're interested in the scholarship-- I'll post the results, obtained by a random number generator, on September 8th on this blog. If you want to attend and don't want to leave it to chance, I still have a few seats available.

Oceanic Organic beads - polymer clay, crayons,
handmade texture plates

Geomorph cuff - polymer clay, acrylic paint, handmade texture plate

Beads - polymer clay, bamboo yarn, oil paints

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Working in a Series

Working in a series, sticking with a particular theme or focus for your creativity, was something I had little interest in until recently.

I came late to the polymer clay game, having followed all manner of artistic paths throughout my life-- drawing, sculpture, ceramics, textiles and wearable art, papermaking, rug making, knitting, embroidery, upholstery, furniture painting, interior design, jewelry and finally-- polymer clay. Being fairly new to this medium—since 2008 or so-- I have so many ideas and techniques that I want to try, I've never been willing to “box myself in” by restricting my ideas to a particular series. I know I have a very distinctive style and people tell me they can always spot my pieces in any online grouping like Flickr and have come to expect my work to fall outside the box.

So why have I suddenly decided to work on a polymer clay series I'm calling “Earthscapes”? Well, sometimes when we encounter an idea that we really don't agree with our vehemence in rejecting it could indicate that perhaps there is some merit to be discovered. Or even attempt it for the purpose of debunking it. So I began the latter a few weeks ago in my studio, assured that I would bore myself to death by working within one theme only-- textured polymer, layered in various shapes, creating various elements.

After just a few days, what I discovered was that restricting one dimension of your work—in this case to a technique involving stacked layers of organic textures-- produces a cohesiveness over the total body of work while allowing creative expansion into other areas like shape, color and surface.

I'm a real omnivore when it comes to shapes-- I love 'em all! I saw a Facebook post recently about a Matisse exhibit and his fabulous work inspired me to draw several notebook pages of shapes.

Here's a pair of earrings that followed those sketches and subsequent ideas I had.

Earthscape Series - "Walkabout" earrings-- Souffle polymer clay, handforged copper, chalk, crayon
If you leave your imagination open to the world around you, anything can be a source of ideas, including what you're making for dinner.
Kabocha squash sections
Beginning with the Walkabout earrings, my weeks of inspiration in the studio were doubly blessed with the discovery of a new polymer clay, Souffle by Sculpey, with a suede-like texture that takes very well to pencil and crayon embellishment, a consistency that can pick up subtle patterning and the ability to be thinned to an amazing degree in a pasta machine even in the summer's heat. Thank you, Claire Maunsell for the inspiration to try this new product!

Earthscape earrings, in process-- Souffle polymer clay, chalks, acrylic paints

Gibraltar cuff and bangles - Nunn Design copper cuff  and bangles base, Souffle polymer clay, acrylic paint

 Green Darkness necklace in process-- polymer clay, crayons, acrylic paint, annealed steel wire

 Tidepool pendant - Souffle polymer clay, chalk, embossing powder, acrylic paint, handforged bails and connectors
The above piece and the next show very well, I think, how the "Earthscapes" theme and the Matisse-inspired shapes were combined.

 Samuri pendant - Souffle polymer clay, acrylic paint

All in all, my explorations into working in a theme definitely yielded some gratifying results, which are ongoing as I redesign and load up my Etsy site. In our next Art on the Farm session here in Vermont, coming up this October 8-10, 2014, we'll be using this information to inform our studies about shape, texture and surface. Join us if you can, there are still some spaces available-- see my website: for more information.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014


I love shapes-- ones from nature, from pottery, from architecture, from sea life, from archaeology-- there are so many forms out there that can be starting points for polymer work.

One of the exercises I suggest to my workshop students is to do a very short (3 minutes or so) series of drawings focusing on a common shape-- circle, square, triangle, etc. I do this myself once a year when I make Valentine's Day hearts. I want to work with a heart shape that is fresh and uniquely mine so I get a plain piece of paper or a page from my journal and start to sketch hearts, as quickly as I can and try not to edit myself or attempt to make them perfect. These line drawings come straight out of my right brain and after I fill a page or so with them, I can then choose the ones that most appeal and tweak the shapes a bit if necessary.

Lately I did a page of rectangles and triangles, both of them finished in under three minutes. Each of these little sketches could spawn a whole series by themselves.
 Triangle-morphing page
Rectangle-morphing or "20 Rectangles in 3 Minutes or Less"
With the aid of my trusty Canon copier, I can size the shapes up or down to create elements that fit the scale of pieces that I want to create. And they are similar enough that a few could be grouped together as elements to form a necklace or hang from a lariat.Of course they transform even more when I add texture and color.
Landscape Earrings in process - truncated triangles
Morphed faux Bakelite rectangle earrings with
distortions and voids
Triangle morphed into a clamshell shape with organic extension added
One of my favorite, signature shapes comes from a primitive clothespin that my friend Renate found at a flea market in Germany. I've gotten so much mileage out of that simple outline.

Machu Picchu Earrings- polymer and copper metal clay
Cave of Dreams Earrings - Polymer and Copper Metal Clay

Sage Bray, editor of Polymer ArtsMagazine, is doing a series on morphed forms this week. She calls this post "Pushing the Triangle". Seems summer brings us out of our caves and into the light where Nature is dazzling us with a vast display of shape and color. Play around a bit this week while you're watching the kids at the playground or having lunch al fresco. I promise your work will take on new energy and what you come up with will be all your own.


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Inspired by Reading: The Interpreter of Maladies

It's been a while since I've participated in the Inspired by Reading challenge but this time I got a jump on the reading and obtained a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri's book of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies a month or so ago. I've always been a fan of the writing of Indian women-- Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Mistress of Spices is one of my favorites and was made into a great movie, by the way.

I love the short story format and was looking forward to reading this book but after reading a few stories, Lahiri's generally pessimistic characters and plots I found too depressing. She does have fine insight into the maladies of modern relationships, which apply universally and not just to Indian society. But how to translate this angst into a piece of jewelry?

I decided to meld elements from a few different stories into my design. In the story of the same name as the collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, the main character is a tour guide in his spare time but also works for a doctor as an interpreter for the numerous Indian dialects of his patients-- hence the title. Most of the story takes place as he drives around an American famiy of Indian heritage, visiting temples and places of interest. My imagination was captured by the author's description of an historic temple built in the shape of a gigantic chariot with elaborately carved stone wheels so since these could also represent the shape of a mandala, I decided to make that my primary shape and build the rest of the piece around that. I found this image of a wheel from the Konark Sun Temple, built in the 13th century. This ornate beauty is an impressive 10 feet high and is one of twelve pairs in all.

Another one of the stories focused on a character who moves into a home and finds in the attic a large statue of the Virgin Mary which offends her Indian husband but she becomes obsessed with it and at the same time, the goddess Kali. Kali-- such a rich source of imagery-- to me she represents an entire culture more than any other religious symbol. She is the goddess of time, change and distruction-- basically, entropy--we're born, we live, we die. From Wikipedia: “In spite of her seemingly terrible form, Kali Ma is often considered the kindest and most loving of all the Hindu goddesses, as she is regarded by her devotees as the Mother of the whole Universe. And because of her terrible form, she is also often seen as a great protector.” I love Her multiple arms so I determined that my focal must have some too. I decided on the 10-armed incarnation and included a turquoise and red palette as in traditional interpreations of the goddess.

"My Mother is the principle of consciousness. She is Akhanda Satchidananda; indivisible Reality, Awareness, and Bliss. The night sky between the stars is perfectly black. The waters of the ocean depths are the same; The infinite is always mysteriously dark. This inebriating darkness is my beloved Kali."
        -Sri Ramakrishna

Inspiring, huh? In college I had a real love affair with the writing of Rabindranath Tagore, a 20th century Indian mystical poet who was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky”

But I was still searching for an idea for the interpreter portion of my design when inspiration struck and I decided to mix up my cultural symbolism and use milagros, traditional Mexican metal charms used for shrines and as personal amulets as a focus for prayer and healing. Luckily I found a 10-piece set on Etsy with just body parts that was perfect.

So I mixed up some bronze polymer, set about making the mandala/chariot wheel, backed it with some textured turquoise clay with red antiquing, added a spiky red halo to represent ones I've seen painted around Kali's head, then ten arms antiqued to match the pewter milagros charms. They spill through the mandala in a river of supplication to the Goddess. The arms could be angel's wings, carrying the prayers of the supplicants to Heaven where Kali can hear them. Write your own story about it.

Here's a list of the other participants-- be sure to check out their fine work.

Sarajo Wentling
Jeanne Steck
Mary Harding
Karin Grange
Ann Schroeder
Mary K McGraw
Rachel Stewart
Andrew Thornton, Laurel Ross, Alison Herrington, Terri Greenawalt, and Karen Hiatt