What To Call It?

What To Call It?

Polymer, polymer clay, FIMO, Sculpey, Premo, Katoclay, Cernit?   Have you ever wondered how and why this colored, synthetic modeling material got its common name?   Prior to 1990 both artists and publications describe the material using a brand name like FIMO or polyform with a modifier such as “modeling compound”.  There is no mention of either “polymer” or “clay”.

Then in the late 1980’s Nan Roche began to write her groundbreaking book, “The New Clay”.   As she tells it,

Both the term “New Clay” and the term “Polymer Clay” were not used anywhere else by anyone prior to my book.  Both names were devised by me and Seymore Bress to have a new way to describe a “new” material and make it possible to refer to all the clay brands with one descriptive term.  The use of the word clay is referring to the way the material is worked. The use of the word polymer is the result of my investigation into the identity of the material. Initially, artists & users were not aware of what the material was made of.  The companies did not describe it as a vinyl chloride polymer in their literature.

With the publication of Roche’s book in 1991, the term “polymer clay” began to be used widely and continues to this day.

Over the past 20 plus years polymer has evolved as a product, has achieved worldwide use, and has generally become better known.  Polymer art is now included in the collections of major American museums and artists who work with it routinely exhibit at premier shows.   Is it time for the terminology to evolve again to just “polymer”?   For museums and galleries this eliminates internal and public confusion over classifications.  Polymer art does not belong with their ceramic collections.  It may be that there will eventually be a category for plastics or alternative materials in which case polymer is one of the various synthetics.   From a utilitarian point of view, the use of the material has become increasingly diverse so that many of the clay-like qualities are secondary to what artists do with it.  The term “clay” also leads to confusion in the retail market.  Customers who hear the word, “clay” often assume that an item is heavy and fragile, neither of which is true.   However, using the word, “polymer” alone frequently elicits the question, “What is it?” and provides a moment of education.

As polymer art moves forward in time, the term, “polymer clay” is unlikely to be abandoned, but the single descriptor, “polymer” could be embraced as a clarified and simpler description of this material.   And, the question of identification probably will continue to be refined.  As Roche recently asked,

I wonder if, as we become more sophisticated in our terminology regarding plastics in art, that the more precise descriptor will be vinyl polymer or that the term will just remain “polymer” which of course describes all the other plastics?  It’s an interesting problem as we move into the 21st century and the use of art materials broadens.

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.