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

This is Part Two 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 .

The Earliest Polymer Bead-makers

11 hughes rocksMany of these American artists first became aware of the polymer brand Fimo in the early 1970s, but it was Victoria Hughes who was one of the first to see its potential as a jewelry medium. In 1971, while living with her family in France, an art teacher introduced her to the product.  12 hughes strawberriesShe began making little sculptures and continued working with it through college, until she began using it to make jewelry. 13 hughes ethinic mixed mediaIn 1981, Victoria began selling at small arts & crafts shows, and then at the American Craft Council show in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1984. By using basic hand-sculpting and some color marbelizing she made beads resembling natural materials somewhat like stones. 14 hughes amber beads Later in her career, she became most well known for her faux techniques in which she reproduced in polymer clay such things as copal beads, turquoise, jade, bone and ivory.

15 voulkos earliest workThe artist who first truly grasped this material’s potential for beads-making, however, and was arguably the most influential at the time, was Pier Voulkos.  Daughter of the American ceramist Peter Voulkos, Pier was introduced to Fimo in 1971 while in Germany. However, she didn’t work with it until making her first simple beads in 1978. Initially she used sculptural hand-forming techniques, but also began experimenting with joining colors together, twisting two colors into a candy cane arrangement or using bits of different colors of polymer clay and pressing them onto a base color, in sort of a painting technique. 16 voulkos early onlay necklaceShe then rolled the clay into a sphere or formed it into another shape so that all the colors were melded together into a single shape while still retaining their individual color design. This concept of fusing colors together and then making a shape instead of using each color for individual shapes in a sculptural way was the key to using polymer in bead-making.

17 voulkos early onlay necklaceIn 1982, Pier, by then a professional dancer, moved to New York City where she continued making beads with polymer clay. She approached Robert Lee Morris at Artwear Gallery where her work was shown for about a year and a half. She also approached Julie: Artisan’s Gallery where her work was sold well into the 1990s. From these venues, Pier’s work became the initial inspiration for a handful of American artists to develop sophisticated jewelry and beads out of polymer clay.

The Millefiore Concept
18 candy cane demoThe melding colors concept also found its way into polymer clay technique in the form of millefiore, initially a hot-glass bead-making technique. This technique, also called mosaic glass, was first seen in Hellenistic and Roman periods in Alexandria,  in Viking mosaic glass beads from the Middle Ages, and was later employed by Venetian glassmakers who coined the term meaning “thousand flowers” It is one of the most basic techniques today in polymer clay and is more intricate, more highly utilized, and more successful in polymer clay than in glass. Because of the clay’s malleability, it can be formed by hand or by using simple tools into a variety of components of different colors which then can be organized into a design within a thick log or “cane” of virtually any profile shape.

19 voulkos early onlay cane necklaceThis cane may then be pinched, squeezed, rolled and drawn out along its length so that it becomes longer and narrower while the colors fuse together and the design within it reduces proportionately, often to an incredibly intricate degree. Slices in any thickness may be taken off the cane using a razor-type blade. Paper-thin slices may be applied to a base color or thick slices may be used as beads in themselves.  Because this technique is so uniquely matched to the properties of polymer clay, it was quickly — but independently and individually — developed by this handful of American artists. The earliest and simplest cane designs include such things as a spiral, bullseye, daisy flower, stripe, and checkerboard.

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.