Dotty McMillan: The view from the bridge
by Trina Williams

"I believe that all humans are born creative, but to different levels and in different ways. Creativity to me is the ability to create something in ways that reflect the view from our very own bridge. We all stand on a different bridge, and we all have a different view. Some people look out at their view and see all kinds of things and get all kinds of ideas, but they are reluctant to share, perhaps because they believe that none of it is important. Others look at all aspects of their view and immediately begin recreating their special versions of what they see and delight in sharing them. " When she shared these words with me, I realized that this is the essence of Dotty McMillan.

I first met Dotty in August of 1994 when we became charter members of the Orange County, CA, Polymer Clay Guild. There were about ten of us, mostly newbies, and from the start we were drawn to Dotty's expertise and willingness to share. She was one of our first presidents, which was good practice for her current job as President of the National Polymer Clay Guild.

Dotty started "playing" with clay with her kids when the only thing available was Sculpey white (see History of Polymer Clay). They made beads, then painted them, which, according to Dotty, was a messy job at best.

From merely playing with clay, Dotty went on to make puppets and had a traveling puppet show for several years, a natural interest since her earliest creative adventures were in theater and writing. " I started doing theater when I was three. I was cast in the Little Rascals but my mother vetoed the idea."

Dotty's formal art education included classes at Pasadena City College, the Laguna Beach School of Art, and Orange Coast College. Theater classes at Pasadena City College led to acting and radio gigs. " I spent a lot of time at the Pasadena Playhouse and did a lot of radio and early TV until I was 19," Dotty recounts. "I almost got sued for pulling out of the 'New Talent' program at Paramount Studios to get married."

After getting married, Dotty began her writing career. " I had started writing seriously after I was married and began to publish various articles," she says. "I wrote two plays and had them produced at a little local theater. Then I began novel writing. A couple of my novels almost made it to the movies." She's pleased with the turn her career took, and "only miss[es] acting when I go to a really good play."

In 1991, when Nan Roche changed the polymer clay world with The New Clay, Dotty began to become serious about the craft. By the time our guild started, she was on a first name basis with many of the polymer clay gurus and is a member of both the Orange County guild and the San Diego Guild, home of Marie Segal and Syndee Holt.

As a crafter, Dotty has done many things. Before lampworking was popular, she was making her own glass beads on copper tubing, with glass enamels. She has also done weaving and machine knitting. But it was polymer clay that kept her interest, and she is keenly aware of how polymer clay allows for perfection in imperfection. Recently in an on-line group, we were discussing what to do about mistakes and flaws. Dotty said "Everything I make has some flaw in it. But then, after all, they are handmade! Machines made items are closer to perfect, but they also often have flaws. No one and nothing is perfect. Just aim for perfection, do your best, make beautiful things that come from the heart. That is what matters."

During her four years working with the Orange County Transit District, Dotty learned the ins and outs of the computer and put that knowledge to good use in writing her novels. Writing, according to Dotty, has been part of her since grammar school when she sold horror stories to her friends for 10 cents each. She figures she is not doing that much better now when she calculates her earnings rate to be about 29 cents an hour! She has written four horror novels and is working on a fifth. She has also written for Jewelry Crafts, Michael's Craft Magazine (now Arts and Crafts) and has a new clay book coming out. She also has a polymer clay video for Mindstorm called Transfer Magic.

Dotty's new book, Creative Ways with Polymer Clay by Sterling Publications will be out this fall. I can tell you from experience what an undertaking writing a book is! I watched the development of this book from the collection of projects to the photographing of step-by-step directions. I went with her to the photo shop where the owner raved about the quality of her photos. And I shared her disappointment when the publisher decided to reshoot a number of photos (the ones with my hands in them!).

That Dotty should be asked to write a book on polymer clay is no surprise. At craft fairs and her permanent booth at a local craft store, Dotty's work drew admirers. Her "junk" beads drew people from all over. When she decided to devote her time to kaleidoscopes and had a close-out sale, the booth was packed to capacity! When we have guild sales, we all looked forward to Dotty being with us and setting up a small table where she can "play" and educate the passersby.

Devoting her time to making kaleidoscopes was not just a sudden whim for Dotty. "I've wanted to make scopes since I was about six years old and received a wonderful scope for Christmas," she says. "It was the kind that had a revolving tray under it and you could put anything on it and make amazing images. A number of times through the years, I made rudimentary scopes; just tubes with shiny aluminum instead of mirrors. However, I longed to make really nice kaleidoscopes. I bought every book in print about them and read them over and over. I drew designs and my husband, Al, an engineer, found some quality mirrors. We got hold of a video that taught us how to cut mirrors, and watched it dozens of times. Research kept the construction at bay. We were scared to begin."

Things changed, though, one day at a craft show. "I was looking at yet another book," Dotty says, "and I told my friends I was going to start making polymer clay kaleidoscopes. And I did. All the research paid off. Collectors say our mirrors are really good." Her kaleidoscopes are collected all over the US and she has now introduced a line of smaller "world" scopes -- a fish-eye viewer that makes anything you look at fracture into kaleidoscopic images -- that hang on a necklace.

Dotty also teaches polymer clay classes and has taught all over California, at Ravensdale in Washington state and other US conferences including this year's Muse. Her video, Transfer Magic, started the polymer clay community on a new adventure in transferring images that now includes products such as Lazertran and PhotoEZ. Her guidance on the computer lists has helped us all. In a recent kaleidoscope class for our guild, four of the scopes got burned in a faulty oven. In record time, she had new tubes out, organized the class to help make new elements, and had us all caught up by lunchtime.

Dotty can take a concept and have a working model before you know it. When she learns a new technique, she is wearing a piece of jewelry or showing off a vessel featuring that technique the next time you see her. It reminds me of a cook who says, "Oh, this, it's just a little something I whipped up."

For all of her creative adventures, Dotty feels that working with the clay brings her the most satisfaction. " All of that was fun and exciting" she says about her acting days, "and I would love to do another stage play, but I never want to give up working with the clay."

Dotty says, "Some people insist they are not at all creative. However, they simply need to learn to release their innate ability and discover how to make it grow. Society, in general, seems to value art as the mainstay of creativity, yet there are many ways to be creative. Medical researchers are continually being creative, which is often the path to new and exciting discoveries. What, besides creativity, has built the Internet? What were Edison and Marconi using to develop their inventions? One does not have to paint a picture or sculpt a figure to be creative. We are creative everyday, in many ways. And that is what makes this such an interesting world."

And what makes Dotty McMillan such an interesting person.

View Dotty's work at


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