The Early Development of Polymer Clay Bead-Making, Part Three

This is Part Three 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 .

19 voulkos early onlay cane necklaceIn 1984, Pier Voulkos conceived of simple millefiore designs based on some limited experience with glass-working in art school and her first beads tended to be spheres on which thin slices from a hand-formed millefiore cane were applied to a base color and then the clay was again rolled by hand into a spherical bead. Her early canes even included mask-like faces.

Pier went on to develop many other polymer techniques taking advantage of its unique properties, but relied heavily on millefiore concepts.

The Other Pioneer Artists
Martha Breen, Cane Slices

The years 1986-1987 appear to have been the pivotal time in the beginnings of a polymer clay bead-making movement. It was in 1986 that Martha Breen of Berkeley, California, was given a necklace of Pier’s beads made using the more straightforward “painting” technique. She immediately saw polymer clay’s potential and having some familiarity with hot glass techniques as well as an intense interest in patterns, she independently developed her own millefiore techniques in Fimo and began making her own beads

.Martha Breen, Caned Beads 1   Martha Breen, Caned Beads 2

In Martha’s work, a variety of simple millefiore canes were bunched together into one millefiore cane and then sliced thickly so that each slice made an individual bead. Therefore, her bead shapes tended to be square or cylindrical.

Michael Grove, Early Caned Necklace

Michael and Ruth Anne Grove, respectively a ceramist and an artist, frequented the same coffee shop as Martha Breen and when she showed them Pier’s necklace and what she herself was doing, they immediately understood the millefiore technique primarily because of Michael’s understanding of Japanese colored clay techniques in ceramics.  They took off on their own, but their work also tended to be individual thick slices of millefiore cane.
Ruth Anne Grove, Early Caned Slices

Soon they developed intricate non-geometric millefiore canes as well as stylized face canes developed primarily by Ruth Anne from which each slice is a bead or piece of jewelry.

Michael Grove, Appliqued Caned Necklace,1996

Eventually, they developed a millefiore applique  technique in which they layered and connected individual slices into one design.

Jamey Allen, research sampler beads

Also in California in 1986, but working independently, Jamey Allen began experimenting with Fimo partly as research into the construction of various types of ancient glass beads and partly to reproduce those he felt he would never be able to find or afford.

Jamey Allen, Byzantine Lady, 1989, 1 1/2″ wide

His first beads copied ancient furnace-wound types of beads and Phoenician head pendants, but Jamey soon developed his own form of the millefiore technique based on Viking Period beads because he had earlier made some millefiore out of colored wax.

 Jamey Allen, early millefiore bead

Swiftly developing his own artistic style, his millefiore beads consisted of slightly thicker slices butted up to each other on a base of polymer and then gently rolled into spherical or drum shapes.

 Jamey Allen, Lunate Collar, 1988, 12″ long

He sold his first neck piece circa 1987 and also developed a folded-type bead design based on Persian folded glass beads, a signature technique for which his work is generally most well known.

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.