SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why”

Don’t focus on the “what”. Focus on the “how” and the “why”.
What’s it made of?
This used to be my most dreaded question to answer. Until it wasn’t.
Recently, Cynthia Tinapple, a long-time polymer clay artist/teacher/writer/curator, told about a recent visitor who said she “loved polymer clay.”
Cynthia was caught off-guard. Usually, we polymer clay users jump “defend” our choice of medium. This visitor acknowledged it, respected it, and praised it, all without prompting.
Polymer clay is an amazingly versatile, adaptable, and accessible art medium. And like any other medium, you can use it to make crap, or to make something astonishingly beautiful.
It was originally used in Germany as an art doll medium, and well-respected.
But when it was originally marketed in the U.S., it was framed as a simple clay for children and amateurs to use, especially Sculpey: Supersoft, easy to work, quick to fire in an ordinary toaster oven.
Those of us who worked with it soon found ourselves constantly judged as “less than”…. Less than “earth clay” artists. We worked in “plastic”. It was cheap, and it broke easily. I remember my first little craft fair, featuring pens I’d covered in patterned mosaic polymer, selling for a few bucks. A couple stopped by, and the guy picked one up. “What is it?” his partner asked, and he responded in disgust, “A cheap pen covered in plastic.” He put the pen down and walked away.
I felt flatter than a pancake.
Innovators like the late Tory Hughes (who inspired my faux ivory work), City Zen Cane, Kathleen Dustin, and many others, soon showed us what could be done with this material.
Still, the stigma remained.
Years ago, I noticed a disheartening phenomenon: Whenever a booth/studio visitor picked up my work and asked what it was, I’d reply brightly, “It’s polymer clay!”
And they would put it down again and move away.
I realized I had to reframe what this material meant to me, and why I chose to work with it.
First, I created a few small “sample” card of things I’ve made with the clay. There are faux bones and pebbles, mosaics and buttons, pieces of turquoise, coral, and amber, tiny fish and other wonders, all arranged attractively and attached to a piece of poster board.
Then there is my “Welcome to my world!” sign next to it.
I’m much wordier when I talk about it. I show them the little sign-with-samples that’s now an instant attention-getter in my studio and at shows.
I remark on what a miracle it is to have this material in the world at the same time in history that I’m in the world.
I put a little horse, or bear, into their hands, and tell them the story of a customer who chose her horse necklace based on how it felt in their hand.
I show them the grain, and tell them about the guy I met at the Boston Gift Show years ago, who owned a company that makes artifact reproductions for museum gift stores, who said they can’t make a scrimshaw reproduction that so beautifully mimics ivory like I do.
I share how important it is to make “bones” and “ivory” without harming animals, a choice that better reflects our modern times.
And I always add, “It’s not what the material isit’s what you do with it.
So once again, I am grateful to all the innovators and early-adaptors of polymer clay, for curators like Cynthia and others, new teachers who share their expertise and knowledge about this amazing medium, and the amazing, talented, unique artists who have chosen it to work with.  Thank you!!!
I would show you the sample card, but I’m not sure where it is right now. I’m moving to a new studio in a few weeks, and my space is filled with boxes, packing tape, and boxes marked like this:
moving studio box
Yes, I have a small collection of puppets in my studio. I LOVE THEM!!!
Which reminds me of when we packed for our move to California four years ago, and Jon labeled THIS box:
moving
I love this man. He always makes me laugh!

It is the fourth time I’ve moved my studio in four years, and we also moved our home twice times in four years.  I’m a lit-tul bit exhausted. But I think I see some light at the end of the tunnel!

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

11 thoughts on “SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Consider the “Why””

  1. I love reading your articles. I have bought too much of the polymer with great intentions, and not got my thoughts completed. So I have lots of Hard polymer clay packages. Is there anything I can do with it. There isn’t anyone here in the mountains, near Yosemite, that works with it, and no one that I can locate in the Valley, that gives lessons. Do I just throw it all out? Vivian Vivian Helena Website | Store | Blog | Facebook

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    1. Vivian, this is a long shot, but polymer clay doesn’t go bad. You can donate it to art centers, school art teachers, or even Cynthia Tinapple http://tinapple.com/cynthia/about/ who teaches art classes to inmates at a local women’s prison. (Activities and resources in women’s prisons are almost universally “less than” prisons for men, according to a friend who worked at both.) Shipping can get pricy because it’s so heavy, so donating to a local resource is certainly cheaper. Perhaps….you could offer a simple introductory class yourself?? I wish I could drive over and pick it up! Or post on Facebook to see if you have people nearby who could use it???

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  2. Brilliant article – yes, a vegan wouldn’t want actually animal bones but would still appreciate your beautiful work. Elegantly put.

    I really cringed at the story of the rude man who said – “A cheap pen covered in plastic.” People are so thoughtless with their throw-away comments. As you say it not what its made of but what you do with it.
    Thank you Luann.

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    1. I’m grateful for your comments, Emma! Fortunately, those people are now few and far between, as the medium has gained respect and acceptance. And now I know such people are hurting inside. Sometimes I can help with that, and sometimes not.

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  3. I LOVE polymer clay. It’s amazing what a gifted artist can do with it. I have played with it and made a few things but to see what an artist of your caliber can create with it is incredible. At the end of the day its not so much what a thing is made of but how it is created, what vision and expertise goes into it that should be important. As a watercolour artist, I have also been on the receiving end of belittling comments from ignorant people and I try like you do to educate rather than snap back at them, ( tempting and all as a good rant might be 🤣) many people see watercolour as inferior to oils.
    People who are insecure often display their ignorance by belittling other people’s work.
    I love reading your posts, they are so inspiring and enjoyable.

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    1. Aisling, what a wonderful comment, thank you! YES, there are hierarchies in ALL kinds of creative work. And I agree, I believe the belittlment comes from buried insecurity. We all have a lizard brain, and my mission is to appeal to our better selves.

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  4. Such a thoughtful article! Thank you. And so true. I heard similar comments more often when I first started working with polymer clay. After thinking about the “fine art” materials – from da Vinci’s tempera grassa paints (with egg) to earth clay. I like to call polymer the modern art medium 🙂

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    1. Christy, YES!! There have always been faux hierarchies in art media, and I’ve come to believe that judging someone’s work solely by their choice of media is poor judgment indeed. One reader said their family said they didn’t get the “big deal” about their work, because it’s “just chalk”. I said, “Tell them about the cave of Lascaux!” Certain materials just “feel right” for us, and that is all that matters.

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