Past, Present, Future

Ansel Adams, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, 1927Twice in my lifetime I’ve held golden treasure in my hands, two unrecognized artistic creations that were being offered up for sale — at the price of lead or tin. Buying both of those objects altered my life and led me to where I am today.

The second purchase, a pair of polymer clay earrings in 1995, resulted in an epiphany, one of those rare life-altering moments. Sales slip tucked safely into my wallet, I felt a mission coming on: somehow I was going to help elevate the status of polymer clay as a recognized art form. Some day, serious craft collectors were going to be bidding against each other for the kind of object I had just purchased for a mere $60.

Let me explain…

It was in 1976, before the name Ansel Adams became an iconic name in photography, I was able to buy one of his signed prints, for $30. The world had not yet recognized his genius, and who was I but a high school art teacher earning perhaps the same kind of pittance than Ansel Adams was scratching out peddling pictures of Yellowstone. But I knew artistic genius when I saw it, and was certain that the world would soon come to recognize that.

Nineteen years later, when that same signed print was being advertised in The New York Times for several thousand dollars, I had a parallel experience in Manhattan when I walked into Julie: Artisans’ Gallery. There on the bottom shelf of a showcase was a small collection of Pier Voulkos’s earrings. Price? All of $60 a pair. True, that was twice what I had paid for the Ansel Adams. But the allure, the sense of unrecognized treasure was exactly the same.Pier Voulkos, Earrings, circa 1994

In 1995, I was starting to think about leaving the classroom for a career as a fledgling polymer artist. With Pier’s earrings tucked safely away in my pocketbook, I walked down Madison Avenue asking myself a simple question: If Pier, the best in the field, can only command a wholesale price of $30 for her earrings, how could I or anyone else working as a polymer artist expect to earn a living wage?

Pier Vouklos, Earrings, circa 1996At the corner of Madison and 68th Street, in the middle of the afternoon, I stood patiently waiting for the red light to turn green. And by the time “stop” changed to “go,” I was ready to go. It was at that moment that I committed myself to find a way to raise the professional profile of polymer clay’s leading artists. Part of my motivation was selfish, I admit. For it was my belief that if Pier and her peers could get the kind of recognition and financial reward that they deserved, if the crème de la crème could rise to the top, then there would be more possibilities for the rest of us below.

Pier Vouklos, Earrings, circa 1996How to begin that process of elevating polymer artists, how could I expose the beauty and merit of their creations to a yet unaware public? From these questions, the concept of MIPCES, the Masters Invitational Polymer Clay Exhibition and Sale of 1997 was born.

The mission statement came first: to elevate the status of polymer clay among serious craft collectors.  The primary obstacle: hardly anybody had ever heard the phrase, “polymer clay,” and those who knew the words would not have linked it with the descriptor, “serious artistic medium.”

My action plan evolved quickly, helped out by the fact that I lived in Haworth, New Jersey, a community that recognized and supported local artists. Less than a mile from home stood the local art center, the Old Church Cultural Center. For many years, the OCCC had been running an annual December fund raiser, a weekend-long pottery sale curated by the Karen Karnes, a grande dame of the ceramic world. The quality of the show was so high, its reputation so golden, that collectors came from up and down the east coast to buy work. Lines formed outside the door an hour or so before the opening. The mailing list numbered more than 10,000, and by Sunday’s close, bare shelves were more in evidence than unsold items.

Using the OCCC’s pottery show as a model, why not create a spring event for polymer?  I set out to design an event in which everyone could win.

The OCCC would provide the venue and their mailing list for a similar weekend sale.  The NPCG could provide national advertising and a color catalogue – an upgrade that the OCCC had long dreamed of. The invited polymer “masters” would get to exhibit their work, and sell pieces to major collectors. The local news media would publish articles about the show, happy to have a new cultural event to cover.

Once I wrote out a formal proposal, I made my pitch to the OCCC Board of Directors. Some of them, naturally, were a bit skeptical that people would come from across the country to look at or purchase this undiscovered art form. But I cajoled, wheedled, and pulled every persuasive lever I could reach. Finally, after I agreed to shut my mouth for a while, they agreed to take a leap of faith.  In addition to my initial vision, they proposed adding a month-long exhibition of innovative work that I’d assemble from artists throughout the country.

We agreed that to enhance audience appeal, every artist represented in the show should be present for the opening night. Whether they had come from California or Montana or Maine, they had to commit for a personal appearance. To cover those costly travel expenses, the NYPCG organized a teaching weekend filled with workshops that quickly reached full enrollment.

In the year that I spent organizing MIPCES, I began to acquire slides, letters and print materials from all the artists.  I instinctively knew that one day these materials would be valuable to art historians.  And so began the collection of archival materials that have become my source for the Polymer Art Archive you are visiting right now.

MIPCES became a seminal gathering in the history of polymer clay art. In the next several weeks, you’ll be able to read a post describing the event and see a range of images documenting the pieces that were exhibited and sold.

With the satisfaction that came from birthing that event, I began to realize that MIPCES was just a beginning – not a culmination by any means. The work of elevating polymer art in general and awakening collectors, museum curators, journalists and art lovers to the yet unrecognized treasures being produced by the masters of this medium, had hardly begun.

Since 1997, I have acquired a small private collection of polymer art masterpieces. My intention was to use the bequest of my collection as bait to entice a major craft museum to create a center for the study of polymer.  I believed that the establishment of such a center would then become a magnet for future bequests.  Within the last year I have been in conversation with several curators and interest is high.

This Collection project is building even before I’ve had time to chose the venue and negotiate final terms. Other major owners of polymer art have contacted me with offers to donate their collections as companions to mine. Within the next year or two, I hope to have all the details finalized to establish a museum center for polymer study. And with that, my mission that began thirteen years ago on the corner of Madison Avenue and 68th Street, will have been accomplished.

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.