What a Difference a Decade Makes

hughes94-imitative-plaque-detail.jpgReading Kathleen Dustin’s essay on the early development of polymer clay, which has been so much of the PAA the past few weeks, brings to mind something Victoria Hughes wrote for the archive.  Her piece, “On the Road” opens by mentioning a ride with Pier Voulkos and how the two of them were getting to know each other.  However, the essence of the recollection really is about the different ways both Victoria and Pier approach the process of exploring and making art.  I was reminded of this post as I was looking at images of Victoria’s and Pier’s early works within the Dustin text as well as through Elise’s auxiliary posts.  Pier Voulkos,Short Fancy Necklace detailAfter viewing the collective body of their images, their different approaches are readily apparent.  Victoria generally seems to examine new ways to challenge the material through faux effects and assemblage techniques, while Pier pursues an approach that tends to probe the full realm of possibilities within a structured format such as the bead.

I also noticed how far two extraordinary artists had come as practitioners of polymer clay within the scope of about ten years.  From the early works of Pier and Victoria, to the more realized work of a decade hence, there is an obvious improvement in skills and understanding.  None the less, the seeds of their later, more established styles are all there in the early work just waiting to be nurtured.

15 voulkos earliest workPier Voulkos’s evolution as a student of polymer clay is quite remarkable.   Her thorough and extensive pursuit of what polymer clay might and could do was initially focused almost exclusively on the bead.  In Pier’s 1978 early jury image, one can already see indications of her fascination with rhythmic pattern and variation in bead shape.   By 1984, after a number of years of personal experience with the clay, Pier had fashioned techniques to make canes and apply them to a base bead.  Her playful sense of color, movement and design is fully evident in the work that appeared at this time.  Pier Voulkos, Double Strand Round Beads, 1986 During the  mid 1980’s Pier’s work involved on-lays from canes and other bits of clay.  The use of color is a strong component in Pier’s overall approach to design, as in her 1986 “Double Strand Round Necklace.”  Pier Voulkos, Odd Rock Beads, 1986While continuing to work towards varying the surface of her beads, Pier also experimented with the shape of her beads.  19 voulkos early onlay cane necklaceBy the late 1980’s- 1990, after years of investigating cane work, she was using combinations of related patterns to create the infinite variety seen in this crazy quilt effect. Pier Voulkos, Caned Necklace, 1989In other pieces, such as the circa 1990 “Sliced Canes Necklace” Pier shows a confident complexity of design and exhibits a sure sense of the material that would carry over into the next decade of her work.

From the beginning, Victoria had a strong sense of design and a range of engaging directions to follow.   Victoria hughes, Klamath, 1984Her 1984 piece, “Klamath”, reveals an intuitive sense of composition and an interest in faux effects.  12 hughes strawberriesTwo years later,  with “Strawberries”, Victoria continued to examine the idea of “faux” but in a different, rather whimsical way as well as employing the layering of bits of clay for dimensional purposes.  Victoria Hughes, Chinese Lantern Pin, 1989Victoria’s “Chinese Lantern Brooch” of 1989 presents a mélange effect of assembled materials.  Postage stamps, drop weights, trinkets and other bits of found whatevers have been incorporated into the totality of the whole.  The use of the clay, mix of color and presentation are all more complex than three years prior. Victoria Hughes, The Globe pin, 1990Her 1990 “Globe Brooch” carried on with the concept of assembled parts, but through a more intricate, layered form, and an asymmetric design.  By 1994 Victoria had become a masterful innovator of many faux techniques that she incorporated into her work.  50 hughes faux jade vesselWhen united with her subtle sense of design, Victoria’s faux techniques and willingness to combine different materials developed into a distinctive style.  Her work from this point on would continue to evolve, but the necessary components for unlimited expression were well established.

So, what was it that enabled this kind of artistic growth in both Pier and Victoria?   It is not hard to relate Pier’s early efforts, such as that in the 1978 jury slide, to many first tentative experiences with polymer clay.   Among Victoria’s early works, the “Strawberry Necklace” looks close enough to that which many have tried.

Practice, practice, practice would seem to be a common element in both Pier’s and Victoria’s growing expertise with their material.  Within a 1997 essay on craft*, author Peter Dormer wrote about the necessity of “tacit knowledge” which he defined as “knowledge acquired though experience.”  A bit further into the essay he cites the crafter’s long years “mining the same vein of possibilities” and then says “if a craft is to be pursued in any depth then it (tacit knowledge) can take years to acquire.”  More recently, in the book, A Theory of Craft*, Howard Risatti writes, “For craft, practice is essential for the hand to acquire the necessary technical manual skill to process material into functional form.”   Mastering technique, which takes extended amounts of time, is crucial in that it allows for the maker to seamlessly fuse that which the mind envisions with what the hand can create.  After viewing images from the early years of Pier’s and Victoria’s work in polymer clay, one can see the results of what their time with the material made possible.

*Peter Dormer, “Craft and the Turing Test for Practical Thinking,” in Peter Dormer (ed.) The Culture of Craft, 1997, pp. 147-149.
*Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft, 2007, pp. 100-102.

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.