Sunday, November 20, 2011


I love the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite school. They were actually considered 'avante-gard' for 1848 in that they rejected the prevailing style and aesthetic and embraced color, romanticism, the morality of the Middle Ages, spirituality and the natural world with enthusiasm and originality. I find their depictions of women are incredibly sensitive and sensual for (mostly) male painters in the mid-19th century.

Their color palette is rich, highly saturated and vivid, even when depicting dark woodland scenes and costumes, as represented in this month's Art Bead Scene's inspiration, the Renaissance-influenced work of Marie Spartali Stillman, called “Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni”.

Madonna Pietra degli Scrovigni

I was immediately drawn to this painting, but not because of the theme-- as I usually am-- but to the colors-- bronze, sage, russet-- especially the bronze. In mixing this color in polymer clay, gold and black are mixed in equal amounts to create a metallic with great depth and opulence. So I started to create some textured elements that I planned to use to frame molded cabochons in polymer tinted with my other favorite colors from the 'Madonna'. I started with texture sheets and molds that had more naturalistic themes but added  some of my favorite abstract ones to change it up.

I found myself getting rather carried away with these textured frames and once they were cured and antiqued with burnt umber heat-set paint, I was conflicted-- had I strayed too far from the painting in my interpretation? Well, isn't that the point-- to use the work of art as a springboard to some completely new ideas?

My method is to re-do and keep working until I have exactly what I want, even if I have to do it over and over. I did just that in this piece-- the third time was the charm. My first attempt was to cut cabochons to fill the textured frames from very abstract pieces of scrap clay in a colorway from the painting but the result was wrong for the ornate quality of the frame. After I carefully chipped out the cured, glued clay with an X-Acto knife, I tried a mokume gane veneer but it was too busy and distracting. I finally went back to one of my favorite molds, made from a piece of Victorian picture frame that was the basis for my Jane Eyre cuff and recently was reinvented for the current issue of Handcrafted Jewelry magazine as the Shangri-la Cuff tutorial. I centered the cutouts for the cabochons on the leaf motifs, placed the clay slices to cure on an upturned metal palette so they curved and used my heat-set oils and gilders paste to color and gild the cabochons. I liked that they had a porcelain-like look to them. To delineate them from the frames I used some notched scarlet clay as an edging and lightly gilded it.  I used some reproduction Victorian bookchain to hang the elements, completed a set of earrings and I was finally satisfied with the results.

Now I've got a very opulent necklace to wear for the holidays and a new technique to play with. Not a bad investment of my creative time!

"Gilded" - detail

"Gilded" - detail


"Gilded" - earrings

Friday, November 11, 2011


For the past two years I have done a special piece for Hallowe'en, which is also Samhain (saw-wun) in the Celtic/Wiccan calendar. It is believed that on this night the boundary between living and dead souls is very permeable and that we are able to communicate with those who have departed to realms beyond. My research says that since not all spirits were benevolent the Gaelic custom of wearing costumes and masks was an attempt to copy the evil spirits and ward them off, also achieved by hollowing out and carving large turnips with faces and placing them in windows with candles within. I imagined a piece to evoke these “haints” based on Ray Bradbury's classic short story “Something Wicked This Way Comes”.

I had already envisioned a pendant, a sort of tribal design with mini-wings and wire-wrapping but decided to add a face. I've never done faces but I have altered commercial face molds so I started with that. The result was interesting but my little man wasn't at all scary! I had added some pieces of other texture molds to his face and he looked kind of Mayan--not the look I was going for.

My sister was here visiting from Berkeley last week. She had taken a class with the legendary performance artist, Sha Sha Higby, where they made several jewelry-sized masks in some sort of plastic/resin. So we copied them using the RTV mold stuff I love, Alley Goop. Then we made some faces in polymer clay and some in resin. I liked the results but since they weren't my own original designs, I kept going.

Sha Sha Higby molds, done by me in polymer and antiqued

Even before I worked in polymer clay, I had notebooks for my fiber ideas and drawings of outfits and textile techniques. The most potent design trick I know is to revisit my old sketchbooks and mine them for idea gold. And so I found myself searching in them for some pictures I drew of the avenging Morrigu--a triad of goddesses of war and death,  from the Celtic epic poem, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. (It's a fascinating story and there's a very good fictionalization of it by Greg Frost if you're not into heroic poetry).

The Morrigu, from the Táin - from my notebooks, circa 1996

My original idea was to hook a large tapestry rug illuminating scenes from the epic and I had made some sketches in preparation. They were scary and primal and came right out of some dark place in my imagination where humankind holds a terror of avenging spirits. I decided that a face based on these spirits would be perfect for my Something Wicked. After free-sculpting the face in polymer, I painted it with Genesis heat-set oil paints.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - detail

I pulled the face and the base together with some coiled Whim-Z Wire, patinated it and chemically bonded the whole assembly to a long piece of mammoth fossil bone. Now I can stand it up in a corner of the window facing my bench.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Hope your Hallowe'en wasn't haunted by something this scary-- in terms of evil spirits or calories from too much trick-and-treating!