There’s a hole in the Universe: Remembering Elise Winters

There’s a hole in the Universe:  Remembering Elise Winters
Elise Winters, Ruffle Brooches, 2008, each 2 1/2" x 2 1/2", polymer and crazed acrylic pigment. photo: Hap Sakwa

“A hole in the universe,” is how a close friend described the passing of Elise Winters.  It is with deep sadness that the Polymer Art Archive announces the loss of its founder, Elise Winters, on January 1, 2019.  

Elise was a force unlike any other in the history of polymer art.  She first learned of polymer in 1994 when she saw a pair of polymer earrings by Steven Ford.  She became curious about their fabrication and began to explore.  Within a few years Elise was submitting her own projects to books and innovating polymer techniques.  Elise was tireless in her research on how polymer interacted with various other materials such as pigment, glue and sanding papers.  Devising her own methods to roll thin sheets, cut tubes, use a tumbler to polish beads, create hollow form beads and even employ polymer as a mold to cast metal, Elise generously shared her knowledge in multiple published articles as well as through years of teaching. 

As an artist, Elise’s style was distinctive.  By the late 1990’s she was exploring pigments on polymer and her crackle patterning was emerging.  With a background in ceramics and photography, it is no surprise that the play of light and sculptural form became constant motifs in Elise’s art. The play of light over the surface of a dynamic form merged seamlessly with Elise’s unique crackle pattern to create a signature style.  Her elegant sense of design, exacting technique and harmonious use of color quickly brought recognition.  Elise’s art jewelry soon became highly visible through many feature articles, publications, craft shows, galleries and exhibitions.  Her jewelry is part of the permanent collection in six museums.  

Elise was an extraordinary artist, but she also was visionary in her long-term perspective on polymer art.  Elise began her role as an important polymer art promoter by organizing the Masters Invitational Polymer Clay Exhibition (MIPCE) in 1997.  MIPCE was a remarkable event that combined an invitational show, workshops and a face-to-face gathering of the best and most innovative polymer artists from across the nation. But Elise was just getting started.  In 2001, during the planning of the National Polymer Clay Guild’s “Courting the Muse” conference, she recognized an opportunity to record and document what had happened in polymer art since the publication of Nan Roche’s The New Clay in 1991.  Elise curated an exhibit at the conference of notable polymer art to date.  The title of the exhibit, Illuminating a Medium: A Retrospective on Polymer Clay, told viewers exactly what they would see. The process also generated an up-to-date bibliography.  While the exhibit was incomplete due to time and circumstances, it clearly seeded the idea for what became Elise’s ultimate gift to polymer art, the Polymer Collection Project.

Over the course of the next decade, Elise had a single-minded goal of elevating polymer art and placing it in museums and among collectors -equal to any other art material. To begin the process, she realized that polymer needed a written history. In 2007 Elise began the Polymer Art Archive. So much of what had occurred in the early decades of polymer art had happened in kitchens, during retreats and via individual explorations.  A great deal of “how to” information was recorded in articles, and newsletters but polymer art lacked a central place for consolidation with an eye to an overall history. The intent of the PAA was to do that, albeit in a non-linear manner. Elise’s establishment of the PAA enabled the on-going documentation of significant events, developments, and artistic achievements within polymer art.  

The PAA also was a project designed to help support the newly evolving “Polymer Collection Project”.  Elise’s concept was to gather through donations from personal collections and that of selected artists as much quality polymer art as possible to a single location.  Ultimately the collection project housed about 2,000 pieces, all of which were categorized and catalogued.  Elise put together presentation packets of information that were shared with a number of carefully considered museum curators.  Due to her vision, determination and steady focus Elise was able to successfully engage a range of curators to come and see the collection. By the end of the process, six museums elected to acquire polymer art.  Moreover, the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin, saw an opportunity to become a major center for the presentation and study of polymer art.  This culminated in the 2011 exhibition, Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads and its accompanying catalogue that includes a polymer history, an interview with Elise about her aspirations for polymer, a curatorial discussion between RAM’s Director, Bruce Pepich, and Exhibits Curator, Lena Vigna, on the future of polymer as well as multiple examples of work by each of the designated “boundary breaking” polymer artists. This event, which was very much influenced by Elise, marked a significant milestone in the history of polymer art.  Since then, polymer art continues to be acquired by museums, is included in exhibitions and enjoys a far broader appreciation and audience. 

And lastly, perhaps even more important than all of her contributions to the realm of polymer art, Elise was a wonderful person. She was a beloved wife, sister, and friend.  Although she battled her disease for well over a decade, she rarely talked about it, as she never wanted that to define her.  Elise’s commitment to teaching and mentoring connected her to many.  Her participation in shows fostered friendships with artists across the fields of art and craft.  Elise’s singular vision, kindnesses and influence touched all who knew her and does indeed leave a giant hole in the universe. Elise was one of my dearest friends. She will be much missed.  

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.