Polymer Clay Polyzine - December 2000 -Artist Interview with Nan Roche
An Interview with Nan Roche
by Deirdre F. Woodward

I began playing with polymer clay about five years ago. Not long after I picked up my first piece of clay, I purchased my first polymer clay book: The New Clay by Nan Roche. The book was eye-opening for me: the possibilities it presented seemed endless, the pictures it offered were spectacular.

When I went to my first Potomac Polymer Clay Guild meeting, I didn’t know that Nan Roche was a member. I arrived late and sat in the back. As the speaker continued his discussion, I became more brave and edged my chair closer to the table where everyone else was sitting. A woman with long blonde hair made room for me, and, as the evening progressed and I became more comfortable with my surroundings, my neighbor and I began discussing different techniques and tools as the speaker passed around his various items. I’m sure she doesn’t remember that evening, but I do: this woman was kind and welcoming, and answered my newbie questions as if she and I were discovering the techniques for the first time.

I was delighted to find out, later in the evening, that it was Nan Roche with whom I was having such a wonderful time. It was like speaking with a close friend. Roche is warm and engaging, intense and delectably friendly. When I called her recently to conduct this interview, I was pleased to find her as warm and welcoming over the phone as in person. The energy she exudes is contagious; the intelligence she displays is inspiring. I learned a great deal during this interview, both about the history of polymer clay in the United States and about following one’s creative urges. I hope the experience is the same for each one of you.

The first question I had to ask Roche was why did she write The New Clay? In her answer, I received a short course on the history of polymer clay in the United States (see the Pier Voulkos profile in this month's magazine for more history on polymer clay in the United States).

Roche, a trained scientist who works at the National Institute of Health (NIH), is also a skilled artisan who is affiliated with a number of Washington, D.C. based guilds and associations. Among other groups in the late 1980s, Roche was a member of the Potomac Craftsman Guild and the Washington Bead Society. Helen Banes, a member of the Bead Society, took a trip to New York City where she discovered a polymer clay necklace made of plain white beads adorned with colorful simple faces, crafted by Pier Voulkos. Banes bought the necklace and, upon returning to Washington, D.C., showed the necklace to Kathleen Dustin and asked her what polymer clay was.

Dustin, a ceramics artisan, was familiar with polymer clay. She had used the clay as a child in Germany, and she had worked with polymer clay while she was in Saudia Arabia. Inspired by Voulkos' necklace, Dustin began to work with polymer clay again.

The Torpedo Factory, a vibrant artisan's community housed in an old torpedo factory in the heart of historic Alexandria, Virginia, "pestered" (says Roche) Dustin to teach a class in polymer clay bead making. Of the sixty or so people who signed up, Nan Roche was one.

Roche was a weaver, spinner, and dyer at the time, but she also had a love of glass and was an avid bead collector who spent many hours studying the Roman millifiore glass beads in the Freer Gallery in Washington, D.C. Signing up for the class was a natural continuation of her interest in beadmaking, but the class, says Roche, was more than just information: "[It] was groundbreaking."

Roche's interest in the possibilities of polymer clay was so peaked that after the class, she "stayed up all night long, making beads and necklaces." Her initial enthusiasm continued to grow, and she even taught some classes in her dining room to fiber artist friends.

Seymour and Helene Bress, who ran a mail-order craft bookstore called Unicorn Books, were interested in starting Flower Valley Press, a publishing firm dedicated to the publication of special and unique craft books. Since there was nothing in English written about polymer clay, the Bresses were interested in finding someone to write a comprehensive polymer clay book. Helene Bress took one of Roche’s dining room clay classes and felt that Roche's organization, teaching style, and interest in polymer clay made her an ideal author for the book.

After Roche was convinced that Kathleen Dustin -- whom Roche felt was a natural choice for the author -- was not available to write the book, the rest, as they say, is history. After one and a half years of exhaustive research, during which time Roche scoured the country for other polymer clay artists, The New Clay was published.

As Roche recounted this history to me, she told me an interesting story about a group of polymer clay artists she met through her research for the book. Pier Voulkos's mother, who lived in Oakland, lived near Martha Breen's mother. These two women lived near Steve Ford, David Forlano, and Michael and Ruth Ann Grove. Along with Martha Breen, this small community formed Urban Tribe and, using polymer clay as their material, made and sold millifiore beads. Voulkos, on a visit to her mother, recognized both the clay and the possibilities it had for her: here was a material she could use for jewelry-making without having to have a kiln in her small New York City apartment.

What, I wondered, was the reaction to The New Clay? "It was a complete shock [to me]," says Roche. "It was a complete hit." Her intention was to make a book with a dual purpose: she wanted to make a book that could teach how to work in polymer clay, but not one that was simply a how-to book. She wanted to make a "beautiful book," one that people could admire as well as use. She also wanted to create a basic book that offered open-ended possibilities that could refresh the reader's creative center rather than dictate necessary steps to pre-formulated projects. The book hit a nerve with the crafting community and for several years was a best-seller.

Roche is currently working on The New Clay II. It is 20 chapters long and continues the tone of the first book, with over 500 pictures and structured to function as a how-to book that allows the reader to think about and process the various techniques. Roche expects to have the book finished by the end of the year.

In addition to finishing her book, Roche is busy with her day job and other projects. She is a scientific lab manager in a research lab at the National Institute of Health (NIH), where she has worked for the past 16 years. Her work, she says, is very exciting, and she mentions as a career high point her participation in the discovery and elucidation of an important protein.

Her work at the NIH is important to her, she says, because she has a strong dual drive to focus in the fields of science and art, but I wonder how many hours she gets to have in a day. It must be more than my 24 allotted hours. "I have a fabulous husband," says Roche. "He covers a lot of the basic house things."

Roche has a workshop in her house where she is busy working on new techniques. She has created a technique for braiding polymer clay extruded from a souped-up chalking gun, and she has had a mokume gane and rubber stamp technique published in Bead and Button. Roche is currently interested in exploring the possibilities of bending polymer clay and is experimenting with different fibre techniques with the clay, such as basketry, woven structures, knotting, braiding, Kumihimo (a Japanese braiding technique) and lace making. She is also experimenting with different metal techniques such as faux wire, loop in loop chaining, chain mail, and armor and armor plates.

Her influences, Roche says, are all around her. Living in Washington, D.C., affords her the luxury of spending time in various museums, soaking in information from across the ages and across all media. A day in the city will find her studying Calder's mobiles, Picasso's ceramics, and ancient Chinese bronze work.

Unfortunately, Roche does not sell her work in many venues as she doesn't have time to create the inventory needed to be in galleries or craft shows. While she does attend some invitational shows and has sold some pieces at Julie's Artisan's Gallery in New York City, most of her work leaves her studio in the form of raffle donations for the Potomac Polymer Clay Guild or the National Polymer Clay Guild. Roche sometimes also sells her at workshops. It seems to me that owning a Nan Roche piece, then, is quite special.

When I asked Roche was advice she could give anyone starting in polymer clay, she suggested very strongly that everyone should join the National Polymer Clay Guild. It is important, Roche said, to support through membership the vibrancy of this art medium. As a founding member of the National Polymer Clay Guild, Roche knows what it was like for artists trying to get their work accepted for shows. Many times pieces were rejected simply because they didn't fit any category (See this month's Issues in the Crafting World for more on this subject).

The National Polymer Clay Guild is based, in part, upon educating the artisan community to the artistic possibilities of polymer clay. When one Washington, DC fibre artist, Pat Berlin, had her polymer clay work rejected by a regional crafts council because they didn’t fit into any of the categories they recognized, she decided to start a polymer clay guild. Several people, including Roche, banded together to form the National Polymer Clay Guild, and with 25-30 more members joining at the first meeting, they soon had enough strength and presence to join the Washington, DC’s regional Creative Crafts Council. As members of the council, their guild was able to have polymer clay pieces accepted to the Creative Crafts Council Show, where a polymer clay piece won best of show. "It was very exciting," says Roche. Another important connection for people interested in polymer clay, say Roche, is the National Polymer Clay Guild's 2001 Conference, Courting the Muse. Located on Bryn Mawr's campus, which Roche describes as "something out of A Mid-Summer's Night Dream", the conference runs for one week in June. Roche suggests looking at the National Polymer Clay Guild website for more information about the conference.

In parting, I asked Roche what is different now from when she first published her book in 1991. "There are dozens of books published now," she said, but more importantly, "there is a wonderful heritage now, a community. There is so much innovation and excitement, and new people are recognizing what great possibilities there are for polymer clay.”

"Polymer clay," Roche assessed, "is here to stay."

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