Polymer Clay

I had an excellent time teaching my Introduction to Polymer Clay class at The Crucible recently.  I get so focused on my latest technique or project and it’s nice to return to where it all starts by giving people their first experience with the material or just opening their eyes to some of it’s possibilities.

It is in that spirit that I return to Seattle, a city that holds a special place in my heart, to talk about my new book, “Polymer Clay Beads”. I’ll be giving a slide show to the Northwest Bead Society along with my talk, covering my history with polymer clay, the process of creating the book, and the state of the medium today.

The talk will be at 7pm at the Greenwood Masonic Lodge, 7910 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle WA.  I’ll be looking forward to returning to my old stomping grounds and seeing good friends, including Cynthia Toops and Dan Adams as well as long time buddies from my alma mater.


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I’m still making jewelry, though I have been busy with other things lately. As soon as I started my blog I found myself making a career expansion, and not having the time to blog that I had hoped for. Studio time is harder to come by too, but I have managed to put together some new jewelry and take some photos too.

I am in the beginning stages of cleaning out my studio in order to finish it properly and am not sure when I’ll be back in making work. So I hope you enjoy these. I’ll be bringing some of this jewelry with me to Seattle next week.

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It started at home with the Northern California Bead Society, went on to Tucson AZ for the Best Bead Show, and is rolling out to Synergy on Thursday. Synergy is the conference of the National Polymer Clay Guild, and it runs from Feb 21-23 in Baltimore MD. Featuring such luminaries as Kathleen Dustin (keynote speaker) and Tim McCreight, the conference will be a series of panel discussions and seminars relevant to the polymer, mixed media and craft communities at large. As an added bonus, American Craft Council will be hosting its annual show right across the street. I’ll be taking plenty of time to browse the work of Kathleen Dustin, Elise Winters, and Ford and Forlano. I was too busy writing my book last year when the time came to come up with a proposal to present to the conference but am very excited to be coming as a conference attendee. I’ll be bringing copies of my book and jewelry to stock the conference gallery. See you all there!

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Duly famous for her exquisitely finished polymer clay handbags, Kathleen Dustin is also a talented and expressive beadmaker. She is a craftsperson par excellence, producing work of a quality made possible by years of devotion to her craft and a painstaking dedication to all parts of her process. One of the earliest people to realize the artistic potential of polymer clay, she first encountered it while living overseas in 1972 when she was given a gift made of Fimo, the German polymer clay. She next came across polymer in 1981 when her world travels led her to find it in a children’s store, after which she made dolls from the clay. Back in the United States, Kathleen gained her M.F.A. in ceramics and about the same time began working with polymer clay, which she describes as “the only material where you don’t have to use tools between your fingers and the color.”

It was a material “whose time had come,” and it was Kathleen who put it in front of the world when she wrote the first published article on polymer clay for Ornament Magazine in 1987. The article, titled “The Use of Polyform in Bead Making,” brought Steven Ford and David Forlano knocking at her Torpedo Factory studio door. She also met Tory Hughes, among other artists who were previously working alone and unaware of each other (this was before the internet). It was Pier Voulkos though, who Kathleen credits for being the first to really do much with polymer clay beads or the millefiori technique, and who really turned her on to the artistic potential of the clay.

Kathleen’s mastery of her craft amplifies her artistic voice, which rings clear with a keen appreciation for the depth of the human experience as well as the beauty of nature. Clearly not one to rest on her laurels, she has resisted the temptation to stick with the winning formula she found with the series of beads and purses she created which feature the figures and faces of women of the world. They range from village woman wrapped in layers of lush fabrics, to complex emotional portraiture, all lovingly treated with a bevy of patterning techniques. Combining Skinner blends, (gradient blends) millefiori canework, hand drawn image transfers, translucent clay, and much more, this work demonstrates her technical dexterity and compositional skill, weaving all into a lush and inviting visual tapestry.

The latest work to find its way out of Kathleen’s rigorous development process is influenced by botanical forms. Her “Woodlands” and “Pod” series represent a departure for Dustin, who is admittedly reticent to explore her natural world influences, lest the results seem “trite.” She escapes that pitfall with grace, creating convincing naturalistic pieces with all the contemporary flair of her “Classic” and “Modern” series.

While Kathleen finds great satisfaction in her artistic process, which she describes as “daydreaming” she emphasizes that is also “plain old work.” It takes perseverance and focus. Dustin, trained as a mathematician, is by nature a problem solver. She does not sit down to play with the clay so much as to solve specific design problems, to which she gives much focused thought.

“You are more creative when you have limits than you are when the world is open,” says Dustin, who advises that aspiring artists and craftspeople choose a medium and stick with it for a few years. After 28 years as a professional craftsperson, Kathleen says she is becoming more interested in mixed media. That will likely be a gradual process for Dustin, for whom form follows function, and creation follows idea. Over the years we have been treated to an artistic journey, as her transforming work mirrors the transformation in her life. Here’s to 28 more years of beauty in both. Thanks Kathleen for all your great work and for being part of my book.

Thanks to Craftcast for all of the quotes and much of the information in this article. Listen to Alison Lee interview of Kathleen here. You can check out archived interviews of polymer clay artists here, including other “Polymer Clay Beads” artists Celie Fago and Elise Winters.

Kathleen will be the Keynote speaker at Synergy, the upcoming conference of the National Polymer Clay guild, where her topic will be the development of polymer as a fine art medium. The conference which will take place in Baltimore Feb 21-23, 2008, runs concurrently with the American Craft Show, where Kathleen will be exhibiting her work alongside 700 of the nation’s finest craft artists. Hmmm Synergy. That sounds fun. Maybe I can still get out there…

The next step for the advancement of polymer clay as a significant medium is for museum quality work to be recognized as such, and Kathleen is right on top of that. She has been chosen by the Fuller Craft Museum near Boston to curate a show focusing on polymer as a sculptural medium, due to run from August to November, 2009. I believe that this will be the second museum show to focus on polymer, the first being that held at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Design, which took place in March and April of 2004, and in which I was honored to be invited to participate. The upcoming show will be focused more exclusively on sculptural polymer installations and promises to be groundbreaking.

You can see more of Kathleen Dustin’s work on her website and track her latest information on her blog. She has also been writing for Elise Winter’s excellent Polymer Art Archive.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for further posts about the artists of “Polymer Clay Beads: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration.”

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I am very fortunate to have been able to publish a book full of my own work. I am at least as lucky to have the participation of an amazing roster of polymer clay beadmakers. Each is a specialist in their own way, forging their own path on the frontier of polymer clay exploration.

Beginning today, I present to you a series of articles featuring the artists of Polymer Clay Beads: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration. This is polymer beadmaking at its finest. Here they are, in the order they appear in the book:

Kathleen Dustin

Sarah Shriver

Cynthia Toops

Jeffery Lloyd Dever

Elise Winters

Celie Fago

Dan Cormier

Debra DeWolff

Judy Kuskin

Lindly Haunani

Wendy Wallin Malinow

Kazuyo Kono

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Polymer Clay BeadsI have promotional copies in hand and the first shipment of Polymer Clay Beads: Techniques, Projects, Inspiration is on its way to me now. It looks like those of you that already ordered with holiday gifts in mind might be in luck. If you are surprised by the new cover, that’s because its the surprising new cover. Surprise! The first one was a mock-up for early catalog purposes. The new one features Textured Tube Beads (red and grey), a Lathe Turned and Textured Bead (gold and orange), an Extruded and Lathe Turned Bead (gold), and an Extruded, Twisted, and Lathe Turned Bead (green). All of these beads and many more are featured in the tutorials and lavish photos of this gorgeous hardbound book from Lark Publishing. Capping off 144 pages is a gallery of work from twelve of the worlds finest polymer clay bead artists. Come back here for more on them in days to come. You can order the book here.

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