Elise Winters, Ruffle Brooches, 2008, each 2 1/2" x 2 1/2", polymer and crazed acrylic pigment. photo: Hap Sakwa

“A hole in the universe,” is how a close friend described the passing of Elise Winters.  It is with deep sadness that the Polymer Art Archive announces the loss of its founder, Elise Winters, on January 1, 2019.  

Elise was a force unlike any other in the history of polymer art.  She first learned of polymer in 1994 when she saw a pair of polymer earrings by Steven Ford.  She became curious about their fabrication and began to explore.  Within a few years Elise was submitting her own projects to books and innovating polymer techniques.  Elise was tireless in her research on how polymer interacted with various other materials such as pigment, glue and sanding papers.  Devising her own methods to roll thin sheets, cut tubes, use a tumbler to polish beads, create hollow form beads and even employ polymer as a mold to cast metal, Elise generously shared her knowledge in multiple published articles as well as through years of teaching. 

As an artist, Elise’s style was distinctive.  By the late 1990’s she was exploring pigments on polymer and her crackle patterning was emerging.  With a background in ceramics and photography, it is no surprise that the play of light and sculptural form became constant motifs in Elise’s art. The play of light over the surface of a dynamic form merged seamlessly with Elise’s unique crackle pattern to create a signature style.  Her elegant sense of design, exacting technique and harmonious use of color quickly brought recognition.  Elise’s art jewelry soon became highly visible through many feature articles, publications, craft shows, galleries and exhibitions.  Her jewelry is part of the permanent collection in six museums.  

Elise was an extraordinary artist, but she also was visionary in her long-term perspective on polymer art.  Elise began her role as an important polymer art promoter by organizing the Masters Invitational Polymer Clay Exhibition (MIPCE) in 1997.  MIPCE was a remarkable event that combined an invitational show, workshops and a face-to-face gathering of the best and most innovative polymer artists from across the nation. But Elise was just getting started.  In 2001, during the planning of the National Polymer Clay Guild’s “Courting the Muse” conference, she recognized an opportunity to record and document what had happened in polymer art since the publication of Nan Roche’s The New Clay in 1991.  Elise curated an exhibit at the conference of notable polymer art to date.  The title of the exhibit, Illuminating a Medium: A Retrospective on Polymer Clay, told viewers exactly what they would see. The process also generated an up-to-date bibliography.  While the exhibit was incomplete due to time and circumstances, it clearly seeded the idea for what became Elise’s ultimate gift to polymer art, the Polymer Collection Project.

Over the course of the next decade, Elise had a single-minded goal of elevating polymer art and placing it in museums and among collectors -equal to any other art material. To begin the process, she realized that polymer needed a written history. In 2007 Elise began the Polymer Art Archive. So much of what had occurred in the early decades of polymer art had happened in kitchens, during retreats and via individual explorations.  A great deal of “how to” information was recorded in articles, and newsletters but polymer art lacked a central place for consolidation with an eye to an overall history. The intent of the PAA was to do that, albeit in a non-linear manner. Elise’s establishment of the PAA enabled the on-going documentation of significant events, developments, and artistic achievements within polymer art.  

The PAA also was a project designed to help support the newly evolving “Polymer Collection Project”.  Elise’s concept was to gather through donations from personal collections and that of selected artists as much quality polymer art as possible to a single location.  Ultimately the collection project housed about 2,000 pieces, all of which were categorized and catalogued.  Elise put together presentation packets of information that were shared with a number of carefully considered museum curators.  Due to her vision, determination and steady focus Elise was able to successfully engage a range of curators to come and see the collection. By the end of the process, six museums elected to acquire polymer art.  Moreover, the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin, saw an opportunity to become a major center for the presentation and study of polymer art.  This culminated in the 2011 exhibition, Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads and its accompanying catalogue that includes a polymer history, an interview with Elise about her aspirations for polymer, a curatorial discussion between RAM’s Director, Bruce Pepich, and Exhibits Curator, Lena Vigna, on the future of polymer as well as multiple examples of work by each of the designated “boundary breaking” polymer artists. This event, which was very much influenced by Elise, marked a significant milestone in the history of polymer art.  Since then, polymer art continues to be acquired by museums, is included in exhibitions and enjoys a far broader appreciation and audience. 

And lastly, perhaps even more important than all of her contributions to the realm of polymer art, Elise was a wonderful person. She was a beloved wife, sister, and friend.  Although she battled her disease for well over a decade, she rarely talked about it, as she never wanted that to define her.  Elise’s commitment to teaching and mentoring connected her to many.  Her participation in shows fostered friendships with artists across the fields of art and craft.  Elise’s singular vision, kindnesses and influence touched all who knew her and does indeed leave a giant hole in the universe. Elise was one of my dearest friends. She will be much missed.  

Jeffrey Lloyd Dever, Seeking Solace (teapot), 2011, polymer, plastic coated wire, steel wire, 5 1/8" x 10 1/2" x 5 1/2", RAM gift of Acquisition Fund, Photo: Gregory R. Staley
Jeffrey Lloyd Dever, Seeking Solace (teapot), 2011, polymer, plastic coated wire, steel wire, 5 1/8" x 10 1/2" x 5 1/2", RAM gift of Acquisition Fund, Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Do you want an uplifting experience viewing polymer art in museums?  If so, then please pay attention to the new exhibition, Polymer Art: Recent Acquisitions at the Racine Art Museum in Racine, WI.    Often RAM shows include art works of multiple mediums, but this show focuses exclusively on polymer art.  Polymer Art: Recent Acquisitions highlights additions made to RAM’s collection since 2011, as well as other examples of polymer art from their  permanent collection.  Much of the polymer art at RAM is jewelry but the collection includes furniture, wall art and sculpture, thus demonstrating the wide range of polymer as an art material.

For museums there are many paths to the expansion of a permanent collection.   These varied means of acquisition have always played an important role in any museum’s holdings.  While PAA intends to examine several of the works mentioned below in greater detail sometime soon, for now, here is a preview of what is new and a bit about how it came to RAM. Read more ›

Lindly Haunani, Crayon Lei in Oranges and Greens, 1998, 8 11/16" x 8 11/16" x 1 3/4"
polymer, crayons, nylon. collection of Racine Art Museum

A new show, Spectrum: Contemporary Artists in Color, has opened at the Racine Art Museum.  Humans live in a vibrant world full of color.  In many cultures, young children are taught color identification as they are first learning about their world.  Initially the naming of color is descriptive but over time color associations come to carry meaning as well. Artists throughout history have used color to create or enhance their work in various ways.  Color helps to define form and content as well as to further an emotional reaction.   Spectrum focuses on the idea of color as a dominant motif that extends through RAM’s permanent collection. This show of non-figurative objects presents the work of contemporary artists working primarily in glass, ceramics and polymer.

The ability to express oneself via color is a core component for many artists, including those who work in polymer. Modeling in 3-D color via polymer is one of the joys of the material. Spectrum includes 8 works in polymer by four artists. Read more ›

Sophie "Fifi" Rehbinder-Kruse, Sunflowers, 1940s, FIMO, photo: Staedtler

The story of how polymer originated generally begins with Fifi, her mother, Kathe Kruse, and a by-product from oil production late in the 1930’s. Kathe Kruse, a well-known German doll maker, had experimented with the strange new compound in hope of finding something new for her doll heads, but found it did not suit her needs- so it was set aside. A few years later in 1941, Kruse’s daughter, Sofie, rediscovers the discarded substance and began to re-examine its properties. Sofie adds both plasticizer and color to the material and eventually developed an easily workable modeling compound. Read more ›

Ford/Forlano, O'Keeffe pin, 2015, 3"h. x 3" w. x 1/5" d., polymer, sterling silver. Photo: Patina Gallery

Patina Gallery in Santa Fe has been featuring the work of Ford/Forlano this month in a special show called, “The Language of Color”.   While Ford/Forlano are long time exhibitors with Patina Gallery, this show dovetails with the city of Santa Fe’s overall focus on a “Summer of Color”.   From their earliest step-by-step color modulations as City Zen Cane to their current “painterly” applications of hue, Ford/Forlano’s distinctive use of color has always been one of the defining characteristics of their work.  The show is up for a few more days but Ford/Forlano’s work remains a staple of the extensive jewelry selection at the gallery.

On Friday, June 26, at 5:30 PM, Ford and Forlano will speak about their work at the New Mexico Museum of Art, which is hosting a slide show/ lecture titled, “Speaking in Color”. Their talk will address the evolution of their understanding and use of color as exemplified through their artwork over the past 28 years.  Ford/Forlano’s thoughtful and direct commentary on their creative work ought to make for a memorable evening. This event is also part of Santa Fe’s “Summer of Color”

Ford/Forlano have been the subject of many PAA posts.  You can start here with this list.

For more information on this successful collaborative relationship, please visit Ford/Forlano.