The Early Development of Polymer Clay Bead-Making: Part Four

This is Part Four of the speech delivered at Synergy: the 2008 National Polymer Clay Guild Conference held in Baltimore, Maryland in February 2008.  The entire speech will be publish in serial form in five parts on Polymer Art Archive .

32 dustin early onlay beads

In the Washington, D.C., area also in 1986, where I was working as a ceramic artist, I was given a necklace of Pier Voulkos beads displaying the “painting” technique. (The necklace had been acquired from Julie: Artisan’s Gallery, in New York City.)  I had been introduced to polymer clay while studying in Lebanon in 1971, and immediately understood the concept of joining colored clays together in a bead and began making beads.  Familiar with the work of noted ceramic artist Jane Peiser, who layered colored porcelain into large “loaves” and sliced them thickly, I immediately conceived of my own millefiore technique in polymer clay.

 33 dustin early necklace

I began using the American brand Sculpey III and my first necklaces included spherical beads bearing thin millefiore slices and multiple twisted candy cane-type beads in a variety of shapes.

 34 dustin caned figures   35 dustin onlaid cane bead

I began selling work in 1986 and some of my earliest millefiore also included faces and figures.  Later, inspired some David Forlano beads, I developed a translucent layering technique that produces a rich depth of surface not unlike enamel or ceramic glaze.

36 toops early pinched bead necklace

Elsewhere in 1986, Seattle artist Cynthia Toops was introduced to Fimo in Hong Kong and began making beads initially to reproduce historical beads she’d seen in Lois Dubin’s book, The History of Beads.  After making some simply shaped beads with texture, she made face beads based on ancient glass face beads she’d seen in the Dubin book.

 37 toops people bead demo   38 toops people beads

Without devising her own millefiore technique, however, she essentially used tiny bits of colored polymer in her own version of a “painting” technique to make these beads.  Cynthia went on to make simple millefiore, but developed her own techniques without being inspired by polymer artists and didn’t know of other polymer beads until 1990.

 39 toops detail of sampler necklace

She later developed her own micro-mosaic technique in which she makes minute tessera, cures them and then lays them in her own design onto a base bead of uncured polymer, then cures it again.
40 shriver early caned necklaces

At about the same time (1987), Sarah Shriver began working with Fimo while working in an art supply store.  Her supervisor owned a Martha Breen necklace which inspired Sarah to develop her own form of millefiore.

 41 shriver early caned beads

Early on she developed canework designs such as a face, a figure, a fish bone and Celtic knot from which she took thick slices to make loose geometric-shaped beads. 

 42 shriver caned pin

She has continued to perfect and individualize the millefiore technique and is most well known for her painterly blending of colors and elaborate kaleidoscopic millefiore designs.
43 ford forlano ikat cane slices

Also in 1987 but in Pennsylvania, painter Steven Ford first saw the millefiore beads of Martha Breen and those of Pier Voulkos. Because Martha’s mother was his parents’ neighbor and a high school mentor, she wanted to show him what Martha was doing. He immediately recognized the technique from the glass program where he was studying. With his art partner, David Forlano, Steven started making simple thick-sliced millefiore beads in square and spherical shapes out of Fimo and in 1988. Steven and David began selling their work to shops in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.

44 ford forlano caned jewelry   45 ford forlano step blend caned earrings.

This creative team went on to perfect millefiore technique with gradual color mixing variations which they called the step blend, a precursor to the Skinner blend.  They continue to invent new techniques and today stands arguably at the forefront of polymer art jewelry.

9 Ford/Forlano

Kathleen received her Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramics and sculpture from Arizona State University in 1979 and has been a professional artist since that time. She was introduced to polymer clay while a student overseas in 1972, began working with it in small ways again while living overseas in 1981-2, and then began working with it more seriously to make jewelry in 1986. She taught the first workshop in the US on using it as a fine craft medium in 1987 and wrote the first professional article on it in ORNAMENT Magazine in 1988.