PC, not too PC
Tommie Howell

Mold or Mildew?

I have to thank the folks at Polymer Clay Interest for providing me with the topic of this month's arts and crafts rant. Very often I get my ideas for these articles from hiding in the various mail lists, chat rooms, and news groups. This keeps me up-to-date on what the current controversies are in the polymer clay world. There are two current threads that caught my eye this month. The topics really mesh well for my purposes and just screamed out for a rant. The first topic dealt with questioning what the acronym OOAK meant -- "one of a kind." This discussion then led to a discussion of just what one of a kind entails. The second topic, which rose from the first, was addressing the use of molds in one's artwork. There is a lot to work with on these topics, so I thought I had best be about tackling the issue of Mold or Mildew.


Establishing a Universe of Discourse


It is very important when discussing any topic to be quite clear about one's definitions. In the academic world of 50 cent words and $5 phrases, it's called 'establishing a universe of discourse.' To that end, I am going to spend a few lines defining the words and phrases that I will be tossing around.



Those are the three main ideas that I wanted to define in this writing. There may be other words that will require some illumination as I progress.

Now that the concepts have been defined in our universe of discourse, what the hell do they all mean to us in our work? Well, I am about to tell you my not-so-humble opinion, so hold on to something and let's go.


Is you is, or is you ain't my baby?


In our list of definitions, the strictest definition is for the word original. Any piece that is touted to be an original by some such artist must be the creation, from design through execution, of that artist. But even here, there is room for a little bit of expediency. Although the piece as a whole must be the work of the artist in order to be an original, it's not true that every part of said piece must be so.


When one sees a beautiful hand sculpted and costumed art doll, I doubt they blame the artist for not being a glassblower and making their own eyes. The glass eyes are a tool used by the artist to bring a depth to the piece that they may not be able to achieve through their own means. This is but one example, but the concept applies to all of the tools the artist uses to make an original piece. The Balinese filigree artist relies on a clay gun. The egg artist needs the egg for the basic shape. This is such a common type of thing that most artists in other media don't even think to ponder if the use of these kinds of tools and items would make their work unoriginal.


My guess is that you would be very surprised to learn how many artists use molds in their work. Most of the molds are those created by the artist themselves, but they are molds. They exemplify the truth that originality need not always mean something totally new. To be original can also mean having the ability to take what has been and use it in a new and creative way.


The upshot is simply that to be original, a work must be designed and brought to completion by the artist. If that work uses a few molds or some found objects, so be it.


In the house that Jack, Jane, Mei, Gunther, and Rosalita built.


I will preface this by saying that when you go to a collectibles shop or some such place and the piece you are looking at simply says "handmade" or "handbuilt," it pretty much means nothing. It might mean that an artist created the piece from scratch, but that's not bloody likely. What "handmade" or "handbuilt" usually means is that an artist or designer somewhere came up with the original piece, which was then broken down into its individual components that were put together on an assembly line in a third world country. These pieces were most likely molded and cast from the original.


How this works is that Jack is the first person on the line, and he has a peck sack of wizard bodies in front of him. He takes the wizard body out of the peck sack and adds two of the cast boots. Jack then sends the booted body down to Jill. Jill puts an arm on and passes it to Mei. Mei adds another arm and sets the wand in place before passing it on to Gunther. I am sure you get the picture by now. Yes, the piece is "handmade," but not in any generally understood sense of the word.


Don't misunderstand me, I am not saying this is bad. It makes some fun and interesting knickknacks available to folks who have very little spending money. What is borderline unethical about it is the known factor that people will assume that something handmade was made by the artist's own hands. The companies that produce these things do so with that in mind. It is the deception rather than the process that is damaging to the artistic community.


I ain't never seen nothin' like that before!


Lastly, the very slippery and evasive phrase "one of a kind" comes into play. I think that many people still interchange the concept of original and one of a kind. The are NOT the same. I don't care if you cast 100 of the same piece, using the same mold and material, no two of them are going to be exactly alike. In a very technical sense, everything in the universe is one of a kind. But let us not deal in technicality here, for it shall ruin our fun.


Artistically, something that is one of a kind will have some deviation from any piece that came before or after. If you sculpt fairies, for example, and you do each one from scratch using no molds or pre-fabricated elements, each fairy will be one of a kind. If you make ten fairies all from the same mold, then tweak each one, paint each one a different color, and costume them differently, they too are all one of a kind.


This understanding of what the phrase means is not a technical one. As stated above, technically everything under the sun is one of a kind. It is also not a haughty, self-important way of thinking. What it is, gentle reader, is a real world, how things work, honest idea of what it means to say something is one of a kind.


Bringing it all back home


So now what? Now that all of these terms that we thought were so cut and dry are really a cobbled-up mess of semantic gymnastics... what do we do? It's really quite simple. Take the time to learn about the people who create the work you love. The material is out there. You can find out who is making their own pieces and who is farming it all out to China. If you buy a critter scene from Tara Brayshaw, you know she made that sucker herself. If you buy a cane slice from a former mime who shall remain nameless, well... it was probably only designed by him.


If you don't want to take the time to find out who is or is not copying, casting, or farming out their work... first off, shame on you! Failing those steps, look for works that are guaranteed by the artist to be not only handmade, but also original and one of a kind. Take all these elements together, and you should be assured of having a unique piece. Sure, parts of it may have been molded or prefabricated. In the scheme of things, however, does that really matter if it's something that you find to be creative and exciting?


Once again, I thank you for your time and wish you a fond farewell. I'll be writing to you again next month from the Pacific Northwest, where I am glad that I am a one of a kind, handmade original.




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