AN INTERVIEW WITH SUZANN THOMPSON






Suzann Thompson, author of Polymer Clay for Everyone, is a polymer clay and fiber artist, and a member of the British Polymer Clay guild. She is a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, and currently lives in Sheffield, England with her husband and daughter.

Suzann Thompson, author of Polymer Clay for Everyone.





Polymer Clay Polyzine: What is your background in polymer clay?

Suzann Thompson: The 1990 meeting of the Society of Craft Designers was in San Antonio, Texas, not too far from my hometown of Austin. Maureen Carlson was there with her wonderful clay creations. I saw her millefiori and I knew instinctively how to do it. The following Christmas, I asked my husband for a FIMO sample kit. He obliged and I never looked back.

Since I had already been designing in knitting and crochet, it was fairly easy for me to transfer that knowledge to polymer clay. When you know how to do one craft, it's much easier to pick up the next craft, and even easier when the next craft comes along. You learn how to learn, and you quickly figure out what techniques will suit your needs.

Before I go on, let me say that I have a B.A. in Biology, which goes to prove that you don't necessarily need to go to art school to be a polymer clay artist or designer. I hope this makes someone out there feel more confident.

For the first few years, I designed quite a bit and published most of my designs in early issues of Jewelry Crafts. Suzanne McNeill's Design Originals published nineteen of my polymer bead and jewelry designs in a booklet called Folk-Art Beads. Some of my early designs were pretty amateurish, as you might expect.

Then we moved to England and I really started learning. Technique-wise, I have learned most from Sue Heaser. She knows so much about polymer clay. It is amazing. I attended classes at Polydays, which is organized by the British Polymer Clay Guild. I pick up most of my information by reading, listening, and experimenting. Nan Roche's The New Clay has been valuable to me from the first. Later I found much inspiration in Sue's books and Donna Kato's book.

Polyzine: What work do you do and what guilds, if any, are you affiliated with?

ST: I've been a full-time freelance writer and designer since 1993, designing and writing for magazines mostly. Knitting and crochet were my mainstay while we still lived in the US. Several of my crochet and knitting designs are on the Web.

I still write regularly for Jewelry Crafts in the US. In the past year, I have started designing projects for Popular Crafts in the UK. Recently I started designing for Crafts Beautiful here in England. Crafts Beautiful likes designers to do several projects with a common theme. For Easter, I designed a dozen eggs: three polymer, three felt, three Wundamelt (oven-melt plastic), and three crochet. That was fun!

I teach workshops, too. This is how I fund trips to the US to visit family. Last April, I taught a polymer button workshop to the Dallas Handknitters Guild. I like teaching textile people how to make buttons, because they have the best time just playing with the clay. Buttons can be so easy and fun to make. I make lots.

Finally, I am developing my knitting and crochet in the art direction. I'm having a solo exhibition at the Colour Museum in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, October through December, 2002. It will feature my knitted and quilted wallhangings and garments, including the coat called "Cosmic Peacock," which is on the textile art pages at Delphi.

I'm a member of the British Polymer Clay Guild. We are having our first exhibition at the Colour Museum, too, March through May, 2002. If you find yourself in England around that time, we hope you'll drop by!

Polyzine: Why did you write the book?

ST: I've always wanted to write a book, so when this opportunity came along, I went for it. The original publisher (Hamlyn in London) wanted to do a polymer clay book and they were looking for an author. They first asked Sue Heaser, but she was too busy, so she told me I should phone them.

After a few months of correspondence and phone calling, they invited me down to London to talk. I brought my portfolio and a few new projects. They must have liked what they saw, because they asked me to do the book.

Hamlyn already had the chapter titles and project titles, but I was allowed to make a few changes. That helped me focus on designing the projects. This was good because I didn't have much time to write the book (about four months from start to the last deadline).

Before the book, I mostly made jewelry, so that chapter was easy. The chapter on miniatures was the hardest, because I knew that miniaturists are very particular about scale and details. Writing a book is hard work and sometimes I despaired-what have I gotten myself into? But being a published author more than makes up for the hard work.

The English version of the book came out in April, 1999 under the title The Polymer Clay Sourcebook. It has finally come out in the US, published by Rockport Publishers, Inc., and it is called Polymer Clay for Everyone. It's the same book, so if you have the one, don't get the other! It has also been translated into French, with yet another title and cover.

Polyzine: The book is not set up like most I've seen, which include a gallery of professional polymer clay work. In fact, the projects themselves are not "perfect" -- highly sanded and buffed. The pictures show nicks, fingerprints, and other imperfections. Was this a conscious design choice, and why?

ST: The publisher had already determined the outline of the book. It was meant to be a project book. To tell you the truth, I never even thought of putting in a gallery!

Yes, I know those projects aren't perfect, and no, it wasn't a conscious design choice. When I first saw the page proofs, I was pretty horrified to see all those imperfections highly magnified in the close-up photography. "If I had only known they were going to take such close-up shots!" I moaned. On reflection, I wasn't sure I would have done anything differently, other than maybe being more careful. My time was so short, I couldn't afford to hone everything to perfection. And in the end, I didn't lose much sleep over it.

But I am glad you raise this point, because it means I can climb onto a soapbox for a while. This fingerprint thing has always struck me as a non-issue. Before you get all worried about fingerprints and other imperfections, take a moment to determine what your goals are. If your goal is to enjoy yourself, you can do whatever you want with the clay and it doesn't matter as long as you're happy. On the other hand, if you want to sell your work in high-end craft galleries, then yes, you will probably have to spend the time to finish your work beautifully.

My husband, Charles Frederick, does quite a bit of fieldwork in Mexico (he's a geoarchaeologist). He brought home some lovely handpainted platters from Puebla. The painter presses his fingertips into the glaze of the platter on purpose! Charles knows of two archaeological projects at the University of Sheffield that seek to document fingerprints on prehistoric artifacts. We may be depriving the archaeologists of the future by obliterating any sign of human contact on our work.

I have seen the equivalent of the fingerprint dilemma in knitting, crochet, and quilting. People become so focussed on perfecting the details, they forget the joy of creating. We need to concentrate on the larger issue of making better designs. The details will sort themselves out as a matter of course. Life is too short to worry about this stuff!

Polyzine: What is your favorite project in the book? (I love the Christmas tree, btw!)

ST: Thank you. I liked making the little presents. We get the tree out at Christmas and put it in my daughter's dollshouse. She doesn't seem to care one way or the other, but I have a great time!

My two favorites are hanging in my bedroom--the "Sun and Sea" clock and the "Sunset Silhouette" picture. I love the sun in the clock. It looks like it's really glowing with that white center. Mosaics are definitely in my future. We've been saving bits of broken china for a mosaic and we're planning stone and glass mosaics for our patio and bathroom.

When my husband first saw the "Sunset Silhouette," he said, "Black flowers??" He thought it was a little Gothic. But it turned out so different and interesting that it remains one of my favorites. I am working on a knitted wallhanging with a similar idea of a sunrise and a net curtain and a vase full of flowers in silhouette.

My favorite photo in the book is the one of the glow-in-the-dark eyeballs. The photographer was excellent, and I was lucky that Hamlyn hired such a good one.

Polyzine: Is there any advice, technique, or project you say, "Oh, I should have put that in the book?"

ST: If I were doing the book now (or if I do another one someday) I would put in more about powders and mixing non-clay things into clay. Also rubber stamping and more translucent-effect projects. I would also ask for about 24 more pages.

I'm hesitant to put in too much advice, because so much of the advice we have heard over the years has been proven wrong or it's only good for certain people. For instance, now we know that we just need to condition clay enough so that it is easy to work with. There's no need to condition clay for a set length of time, as so many people advised in the last of decade. I'd love to redo my bead and button pages, because I've done so many better-looking ones since then.

Polyzine: What were your influences in writing the book?

ST: Nan Roche has been my biggest influence from the beginning, but I also studied the books of Sue Heaser and Donna Kato. I'm always listening, reading, and experimenting, so I pick up information all the time, and it's hard to give specific credit.

Hamlyn wanted a book that had projects for beginners but would appeal to a more knowledgeable audience. This requirement influenced me quite a lot. Left to my own devices, I tend to make complicated projects.

I relied a lot on common sense and observation. What did I like to see in a book? One answer was, " I like to see my favorite colors." So, I made a great effort to see that the book's projects included a wide range of colors. This way almost everyone could find their favorite color in my book.

In the long-term, my upbringing influences my designing a lot. Our house was always filled with pretty and decorative objects with lots of different colors (i.e., not a lot of matching stuff). I try to do the same for my daughter, because I think it's important for kids to live with color and pattern.



Polyzine: If someone is considering writing a book on polymer clay, what advice would you give them?

ST: Join a writer's guild or league and get advice from people who have done what you want to do. Read about how to prepare nonfiction book proposals. There are many books out there to help you.

Networking is incredibly important. Remember my story about how Sue Heaser was too busy to write what later became my book? That's a textbook example of the benefits of networking. Get involved in polymer clay groups, art groups, writers' groups and any other groups that will help you attain your goal. Don't just join, but volunteer!

As you prepare your proposal, remember that polymer clay books rely on photography. That means your projects need to look good in photographs. Contrast in color and shape and size are so important in making interesting pieces that will look good in a photo.

Once you've sent away your proposal, you have to wait and wait and wait. Fill this time by designing other projects for publication, developing workshops, or whatever will strengthen your credentials.

When one publisher sends you a rejection slip, take the opportunity to fine-tune your proposal and send it to another publisher.

Finally, be polite but persistent in your dealings with potential publishers. Don't give up!

Polyzine: I notice you are a Texas gal living in England. How did that happen, and what kind of support do you have for your clay work there?

ST: We always knew that when my husband finished his Ph.D., we would probably move away from Austin. An academic job in his specialty came up at the University of Sheffield. He applied and was offered the job. We decided to go. Our daughter was only 10 months old when we moved, so we like to bring her back to Texas once or twice a year. We want her to know her grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Our dogs moved to England with us, too. They spent the required six months in quarantine, which is meant to keep rabies out of England.

England is very different from Texas. The cool weather is great. We don't have or need an air conditioner here, which I love! The winters aren't too bad, but our old house gets pretty cold sometimes.

Sheffield is the home of steel manufacturing, silver plate, and The Full Monty. It's close to the Peak District National Park. Sheffield is a great place to go antique shopping. It's off the beaten path of tourists, so the prices aren't as high as in some of the other cities.

The pace of life is slower here. We lived without a car for three years, so we had to walk or take a bus everywhere. You can't hurry too much without a car. England is a beautiful country, and it is a pleasure now to drive around the countryside and see old, old buildings and lovely green fields and hills, with stone fences and sheep all over the place. I also like living in this city, where the bus system is good, and we can get most of the things a person would want, even tortillas!

I find it very interesting living in such a small country. You don't have to drive very far to get to the seaside. London is only 2-1/2 hours away by train, York only just over one hour. There are all kinds of touristy things you can see and do in a day or weekend trip. It seems very concentrated, compared to Texas and certainly compared to the USA.

We moved in 1996. A year or so later, Sue Heaser and a few others started the British Polymer Clay Guild. I am on the Committee, which is like being an officer. My most important job has been to organize our exhibition at the Colour Museum. The guild is very supportive of clayers, with an excellent newsletter and workshop weekends every two years.

As far as professional support, the craft magazines have started publishing a lot more clay projects, and some distributors frequently hire demonstrators and support designers with endorsement fees.

FIMO is by far the easiest clay to get over here (price is usually around 1.39 or about $2.10 for those who want to know. The price includes 17.5% value-added tax). I've seen Sculpey III in stores more than once. Premo is harder to get, but a determined person can find it or get it through mail order. Thank goodness for Sue Heaser, who runs a mail order business specializing in polymer clay equipment, supplies, and kits.

Polyzine: I did a search on Altavista and discovered that you are a quite wonderful artist in knitting! How does your background in fiber affect your work in polymer clay?

ST: Thank you! I learned to knit when I was seven years old and I always come back to it. My many years of learning about knitting and crochet do spill over into my clay work. People often say my clay work has a textile look to it.

Since ivory, abalone, and other stones have already been copied in polymer clay, I look at textiles and think "How could I do that in polymer?" My polymer patchwork is the best example.

The picture to the right shows several of Suzann's polymer patchwork eggs.









I even teach a workshop called "Textile Techniques in Polymer Clay."

The picture to the left shows examples of Suzann's polymer clay textile techniques.








I love to combine lots of crafts and materials in my knitted wallhangings. "Shards 2: Sometimes" has millefiori heart-shaped flowers, polymer-covered china shards, as well as buttons, trims, knitting, crochet, embroidery and quilting. I have collected a lot of little things over the years, and now I have found a way to use them all. Another workshop I do, "Treasure Textiles," introduces textile people to quilting with unusual materials (like old sweaters), and I show how to use polymer to help attach bits and pieces to the fabric that you wouldn't otherwise be able to sew on.

Suzann's mixed media wallhanging, including polymer clay hearts.


A detailed look at the polymer clay hearts.


Polyzine: Do you do workshops, conferences, etc.?

ST: I've already talked about my workshops. I am pleased to send or e-mail my class list, and I am willing to develop new subjects on request. When I teach in the US, I only charge travel expenses from Texas (not from England). To spread expenses for guilds, I will teach for several guilds on one trip. If there aren't that many polyclay guilds in your area, look for knitting and crochet guilds to share expenses with, since I do a lot of workshops for them, too.

I'd love to teach at conferences, but so far I either haven't been accepted to teach, or the dates have been difficult. It's a long way from England to the US-can't easily hop over and back in a weekend!

Polyzine: How strong a connection is there between English and American polymer clay communities? Do the two interact frequently -- conferences, mailing lists -- or no? Does your guild belong to the NPCG, or is there a British NPCG? How does that work overseas?

ST: I believe the British Polymer Clay Guild exchanges newsletters with the NPCG, and I think we have several members from the US. The British Guild is separate and independent of the NPCG.

Americans (me included) sometimes forget that the whole world isn't American. The National Polymer Clay Guild is national only in the USA. To the rest of the world it's that foreign polymer clay guild, even though for several years it was the only game in town.

Now there are guilds in other countries, but I think they are a little more specific about their names. As far as I know, any individual can join any guild in the world, as long as they can cough up the money for an international subscription.

Because there are so many teaching and learning opportunities in the US, some of our members travel over to teach and learn. Sue Heaser is the most widely travelled of our members. She has taught in the US many times. Margaret Reid has travelled to the US to take classes at Ravensdale and to teach at guilds.

We've had Marie Segal over here to teach at Polydays. People love her classes and love to watch her demonstrate. We're hoping to have other instructors from the US in the future.



Thank you Suzann, for the wonderful interview and the great book. The book is now available for purchase through bookstores both on-line and off. There is also a transcript of a chat with Suzann Thompson available at Polymer Clay Central.

Finally, contact Suzann Thompson with any questions, comments, or possible workshops!

 

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