SRO at the Fuller

Cynthia Toops, Metamorphosis, 2009
1 3/4″ x 1/18″ x 92″
polymer, rubber cord

Cynthia Toops’ Metamorphosis, pictured above, could have been a good highbrow title for the standing-room-only panel discussion held last weekend in the Great Room at the Fuller Craft Museum, as part of its opening ceremonies for the Sculpting Color: Works in Polymer Clay exhibition.

Literary allusions aide, the hundred audience members were treated to an extended afternoon discourse about art history, technical breakthroughs, experimental modes, the place of polymer art studies in college curricula.

Led by moderator and show curator Kathleen Dustin, the panel included Bonnie Bishoff, Jeffrey Lloyd Dever, Elise Winters and Grant Diffendaffer.  Audience members included renowned museum curators and staff from other institutions, noted collectors and members of several craft guilds in the New England area.

Kathleen began the discussion by looking out over the audience, noting the 91 degree temperature reading outside and then promising the crowd “more fun than going to the beach.” Then she asked the artists how they came to be attracted by polymer.

Bonnie Bishoff spoke for many in the audience when she said, “My addiction started after tripping over Nan’s book.” She didn’t have to mention Nan’s last name or say The New Clay to the seated sophisticates in front of her. She discussed how polymer, as an art medium, perfectly complemented “my fascination with natural forms.” She spoke of polymer as “the golden retriever of craft mediums,” with both its accessibility for adults and its ability to cuddle up to children as an endearing early art experience.

Jeff Dever picked up that thread not only in his remarks, but with the sweeping wall assemblage he created for the show, comprised of 56 individual primarily pastel components, each one evoking degrees of animation, undulation or floral bouquet. He credited the Fuller and this show in particular saying that he had been “thinking for the past five years about doing a major wall piece. This show gave me the incentive to stop thinking and start doing. It will hang in the conference room of my office after the show ends.”

Most of the comic relief during the afternoon was provided by Grant Diffendaffer, who had flown in from California for this event with copies of his book available for purchase and signing. Grant spoke about being a young artist and feeling the allure of being able to work without the need for expensive tools, workshop space, or exotic materials: “For seven years I worked with nothing but a mayonnaise jar and a wallpaper blade.” Unlike other artists in the field, Grant hasn’t felt confined to the pasta machine as his primary shaping vehicle. He beamed out at the audience and said, “I use polymer, both raw and cured, on a lathe.” That left a few in the crowd slack-jawed in wonder.

Elise Winters, creator of this Polymer Art Archive website, wasn’t at any loss for her own words during the afternoon. She described her first experience with the “new clay” revealing that it had occurred in a workshop taught by New Jersey’s Liz Mitchell. Elise, whose artistic career prior to that workshop had been a soujourn through ceramics, photography and even sumi-e painting, said that with polymer, “I felt like I had reached home.”

Elise was expansive in discussing how museums have been historically reluctant to recognize a new artistic medium. “In the 1960’s, ceramics were dissed by museums……but in time it worked out, for Peter Voulkos and then others. With polymer art, it will work out also. Five years ago there were only a few pieces of our work in American museums.” It was at that point she nodded to Yvonne Markowitz, noted author and curator of jewelry at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, who was seated in the front row. “By the end of the year, Yvonne’s museum will have the finest group of eleven pieces……” That group of work is part of Elise’s Collection Project, described elsewhere on this site. Elise pointed to the future by saying, “The tables are turning very quickly.”

Grant quickly came in to emphasize the efforts at outreach to museums currently taking place. “Kathleen and Elise have knocked on a lot of doors…I’m happy to see polymer taking a stage of its own.”

Kathleen ended the panel discussion by asking two probing questions: Should polymer art be taught in college art departments?

That launched Elise into a recollection about an art student she recently met at a SNAG (Society of North American Goldsmiths) conference. “She spoke enthusiastically about the initial design for her master's project at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design)…….but then she confessed, ‘my professors wouldn’t let me use polymer.’ ” The RISD professors seemed to be more invested in teaching techniques for computer assisted design than anything involving handcraft. Which led Elise to put on her Nostradamus cap. “Shortly there will be more polymer work in museums than CAD design. Maybe then the universities will wake up.”

For her last question, Kathleen played devil’s advocate and asked the panel members if they had any regrets about polymer’s lack of “green” credentials, since its not the most ecologically friendly material an artist can work with.

That brought a vigorous and immediate defense from the four. “I don’t waste anything,” was the spontaneous response from Bonnie Bishoff. “I don’t throw away anything……unless I drop it on the floor and step all over it.”

Jeff took the microphone and in his soothing voice said, “There’s no medium that doesn’t leave its impact on the earth. But nobody in the room (of artists) is any cleaner than we are.” He emphasized that polymer artists typically work in small volume and therefore leave a minuscule carbon footprint.

Keeping the tone light, Grant proposed one way that polymer’s environmental impact can be improved: “Make it out of corn.”

Which left Kathleen with the last comment of the afternoon: “Our work does enhance people’s lives.” She didn’t have to explain that the “people” she was thinking about would include visitors to museums throughout the country who are now able to see polymer art both exhibited and celebrated. As well as the all the gifted professional artists working in the medium who have created that work.

The room then resounded with applause, and the audience members were left with the choice of going to the beach ———- or going upstairs to explore the exhibition. By the smiles on the faces, I thought I knew where most people were headed.

And you too will get a closer look at the work in the exhibition in upcoming posts.

Woody is an accomplished poet and recognized writer but his most important role is as muse to Elise