PC, but not too PC
by Tommie Howell

Playin' with Clay

Hello once again gentlepersons. I am pleased with the response that my inaugural column created, and I hope that I can continue to win your hearts and minds. This month I have a tirade of a different stripe. Let us delve into the manner in which the rest of the world views the polymer clay medium and artists. I can only offer my perspective, and I am sure others have different experiences and bits of anecdotal evidence they could supply. Shall we then begin?

The Infamous Play-doh Story

A few years ago, when I was but an extreme novice with polymer clay, a friend convinced me that I should join the local artist guild. I thought that it would be a nice experience, and so I went to one of their periodic mixers.

I had been at the little party for about an hour wandering through the gallery and listening to the chatter, when my friend introduced me to another sculptor in the group. She left he and I to visit. He adjusted his Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses and slid his hand through his pomaded hair. He looked at me and asked, "So, what is your medium?" I told him that I worked in polymer clay. His expression immediately changed into that of an animated prune. "Oh," he grunted, "Play-doh."

This was my first and quite abrupt lesson in how my chosen media was regarded outside the comfortable confines of dedicated polymer clay newsgroups and websites. I really couldn't think of what to say. I felt like just leaving. I was forced by politeness to ask in what media he worked. "Well I work exclusively with found objects." To hell with polite -- I said, "Oh! Junk." It was at this point that I beat a hasty retreat, never to darken those doors again.

Uh, Ain't This Plastic?

Since that dark day, in sub-metropolitan Kansas City, I have seen this same basic attitude played out in many ways. Many individuals have commented to me that during craft shows they have been approached by passers-by who seem interested. Then they get that animated prune face and say, "Uh, ain't this plastic?"

This and similar responses can be heard in various venues. Galleries reject wonderful works because they're plastic. Art shows pass on giving awards to beautiful pieces because they're plastic. Buyers say no to intricate and competitively priced items because they're plastic. This is only one of the many negative responses that we hear about our dearly beloved art and craft material.

Closely related to the 'ain't it plastic' argument is the "Hell I can make that with bread dough" claim. As we know, this is an easy claim to make when standing in front of someone's booth. It is not such an easy thing to claim when actually sitting in front of that lump of bread dough. Still the simple beauty of much polymer clay work is mistaken for simplicity of creation.

The last comment that I will cover, though certainly not exhausting the list available, is "I can get that at Sporty's Five and Dime for two bucks!" The proliferation of mass-produced canes and resin figurines gives rise to this issue. You can find these items everywhere from Hallmark stores to 7-11. Most of them come from third world countries, produced by people being paid a pittance. It is a sad fact that people often don't understand the difference.

You might be wondering why people don't understand the difference. As you are about to see, I think the culpability can be placed in three major areas.

To Play or Not to Play . . .

Now we come to the nitty gritty. Who is to blame for the misperception that many seem to have of our prized polymer clay? Much like the orangutan lawyer, Dr. Zaius, said to the human astronaut, "Go! But you may not like what you find."

The first layer of blame falls to the public. This is especially leveled against other artists who ought to know better than to lambaste any medium. In a world where artists are defending the use of animal dung as a valid and even statement-making art media, the acceptance of polymer clay should be a given.

However, the general populace should be given a slight break. If people are uneducated or misinformed about polymer clay, it is up to us to let them in on the truth. I think we fail in this aspect on a few levels. Yes, my friends, we -- the artists and crafters -- are often to blame for how our work is seen. I cannot count the number of times I have heard polymer clay artists refer to the act of creation as "playing with clay." I do this too, although I try to be more careful these days. I don't think this is any great sin in our talks with other clayers, but it probably doesn't help people think of us as being serious about our work. It brings up images of the old Play-doh Play Station.

Another thing I see is the direct effort to avoid ever mentioning polymer clay in our presentation. What's worse is the semantic gymnastics people go through, calling it Vinyl Based Modeling Compound, and Low Temperature Fired Synthetic Faux Ceramics or some such goofiness. We should stick with the industry accepted name and make it acceptable rather than trying to dance around the issue.

Oh, and speaking of the polymer clay industry… we come to our third culprit. I should begin by being thankful to the makers of all the various polymer clays. Without them, I would still be making mud on canvas. Honestly, though, the advertising and promotion of polymer clay by the people that manufacture and distribute it doesn't help us. It is advertised as a product for children. It is marketed to the lowest end of the crafting market. It is stocked next to crayolas and Play-doh in the craft stores. You get the idea.

Do I have a problem with children and beginning crafters? No way! I was once both. I am merely saying that as long as the emphasis remains on marketing to mostly those demographics, that is how we and our medium will be seen.

Wrapping It All Up

I do hope that no one takes my comments this month as any kind of attack or worse, as evidence of an elitist mentality. It is merely meant to point out some issues that affect those of use who do art and craft in polymer clay. Be proud that you work in polymer clay! It is not a lost battle by a long shot. More and more artists in our community are breaking down the barriers. Kathleen Dustin was recently featured in The Smithsonian Magazine. That is just the beginning of what we will see in the future. With each passing day, more galleries and venues are opening to us. It is indeed a fight that we will win, as long as we continue to balance fun with professionalism.

That will be all for this month. Regards from your curmudgeon on a very chilly and cloud covered Puget Sound.

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