Deconstructing Skinner

When I started to plan the sequence of innovation-based articles for this site, the task seemed daunting since there were so many events to choose from.

That led me to reread Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention”, which provided helpful guidelines for making those choices. Mihaly distinguishes in his book major differences between what he calls personal creativity and cultural creativity. He would describe the latter as an innovation which can change an entire artistic medium, much more meaningful than innovations which alter a single individual’s artwork.

With that definition in hand, my editorial path became apparent: identify and highlight those innovations which actually changed the way we polymer practitioners work and think. I needed to emphasize innovations which have become a community standard, part of the common knowledge or practice we all share. I’ve already touched on two of these, caning and the introduction of the pasta machine.

Judith Skinner’s breakthrough clearly provides us with a third example of “cultural creativity.”

Judith Skinner, Flower Shell Necklace, 24″ longThe basic story of the Skinner Blend has already been documented by others. Briefly, by 1996, Judith was familiar with the step blend but was looking for an easy way to create a sheet of clay which gradually and seamlessly shifted from one color to another. When I asked Judith how she came up with this major innovation, her response was surprising: “Did it take a lot of testing? No, it took none. I had one of those “aha” moments. I didn’t even need to test it to know it would work.”

Archimedes didn’t come upon his Eureka! moment in that bathtub by accident. He had a lifetime of scientific thought behind him. And Judith was an accomplished innovator long before she found polymer clay. Here’s what she said about her primary occupation. “My whole life has been in the computer business. At 19 years old in 1962, I was computer programming with the big boys. My partner and I invented the first moving weather system for television, nobody else had ever done that.”

Little wonder then that Judith approached her work in polymer from a mathematical and geometric point of view. “To do a smooth gradation, the idea is a simple math solution. Let’s say I wanted a sheet with pure white on one side and pure black on the other, and with a ½ and ½ blend of gray in the middle.  You draw a box and get a center dot. Then connect the dots to map out triangular sheets of clay.  Then the triangles get wedged together and fed through the machine.”

In deconstructing that innovation for this site, I realized that when Judith first demonstrated this technique in 1996, she actually gave us two gifts. The first was the recognition that she could diagram a mathematical plan to create color shift across a sheet of clay. I asked Judith to define her process and she confirms that her Skinner blend is based on abutting tapered sheets of clay in order to achieve a subtle gradation across the entire sheet. But second, and as important, this plan worked only so long as she constantly maintained the same orientation of her sheet as she directed it through the pasta machine.

Donna Kato, Assorted Caned BeadsI make this distinction because as PAA moves forward, we will be looking at artists who built upon Judith’s mathematical approach thereby adding to our basic vocabulary. Just one example being Donna Kato’s many reconfigurations of the ombre sheet and extrapolations on the skinner blend within her caning repetoire.

Carol Zilliacus, TapestryIn future posts we will also look at artists who simply began to explore ways to blend color in a much more freeform approach.  They explored the results of applying or adding in color while maintaining that constant orientation to the pasta machine.  Carol Zilliacus stands as an example of this approach.

Note:  Judith Skinner image courtesy of Judy Belcher from her book “Polymer Clay Creative Techniques.”

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.