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synergy 2, part 1: in pursuit of excellence – the evolution of a medium

I know you come to Daily Art Muse to be inspired by interesting, beautiful fine craft – my survey of handcrafted excellence – but indulge me as I reflect on some of what I absorbed at last week’s conference. I offer my thoughts as inspiration of a different sort.  This essay is a call to action, not only to those working with polymer, but to all on a creative path.


The Conference

Synergy2 offered many things including a rich learning environment; a feast of vivid, well-executed art; an exciting, sophisticated conversation between passionate, intelligent, experienced master level artists and a variety of other equally passionate interested parties.  At the end of this post you will find links to images of the work that was on display and further commentary from others about what resonated with them. Today I want to focus on one area of discussion that speakers touched on during the conference and that I believe is critical at this point in the history of the medium: The pursuit of excellence.


Jeff Dever, Nestled Repose, polymer clay, 2010 Niche Award Winner

The Commitment

Bruce Pepich joined the crowd of more than 250 people as both a guest speaker and a panel participant.  As Executive Director and Curator of Collections for the Racine Art Museum (RAM), Pepich has assembled one of the most significant contemporary craft collections in the nation.  Elise Winters, who has persevered in her efforts to elevate polymer as a credible art medium, describes the relationship with RAM, explaining that “Bruce is currently planning a major museum exhibition complete with hardcover catalog to accompany the establishment of a permanent collection of polymer art at RAM. When his vision is realized, RAM will become the national center for the elevation, exhibition, and academic study of our chosen artistic medium.”


Elise Winters, Red Cascade RUFFLE Neckpiece, polymer clay

Winters and Pepich make a formidable team and we should be deeply grateful for this level of commitment from Winters, the Racine Art Museum and several other museums who have followed Pepich’s lead, acquiring smaller collections of polymer art for their permanent collections. It is indicative of just how far the medium has come in a relatively short period of time, but read on – we have an obligation to ourselves, to RAM, to the medium – we still have work to do.


Bruce Pepich, Rachel Carren, Kathleen Dustin

The Lesson

Pepich compared polymer’s journey with another medium that shared a similar journey as it sought its rightful place in the world of fine craft. The glass art movement was, at one point in its history, where we are today. Pepich talked about the undeniable fact that the glass art movement’s successful evolution has culminated in an important body of “competent, respected work that has broken boundaries” in the fine craft world. He went on to say that it is time for us to “think much broader than the medium”; time to “pull as many resources and references as possible outside of the techniques.” What I heard is that if we want to be taken seriously, we must first take ourselves seriously and rise to the challenges that lie ahead.

The Challenge (maybe two…)

Pepich boldly challenged us, saying “Don’t be afraid of excellence.” A glorious challenge, perhaps matched only by Kathleen Dustin’s when she asked the polymer artists present to consider making a museum quality piece as a way of elevating their own work and assisting the medium on its journey. Dustin was ultimately encouraging artists who are using this medium to think differently about their work; to think bigger than the medium; to think on a higher level – reminding us that it’s not just about selling.

A valuable conversation, but these challenges raise some questions:  How do we begin the process of thinking bigger than the medium? How does one go about making work that is museum quality? And heck,  isn’t the pursuit of excellence SCARY?


Kathleen Dustin, Nature Fix, polymer clay
3’h x 3’w x 9”d [yes, you read that right, each pod is 3 FEET high]

The Example

This brings me back to Pepich’s reference to glass art.  As I listened to him speak I was reminded of an artist who was part of that important journey many years ago.  Paul Stankard is one of the world’s master glass artists and “a member of the pioneering generation of glass artists in America.” He was both witness to, and a participant in, the history of the studio glass movement.  In his book, No Green Berries or Leaves, he writes about the importance of seeing and experiencing great works of art if one hopes to make good art.  A champion of commitment, exposure to great art, practice and perseverance, Paul is passionate about the necessity of growing in artistic maturity and his views on the long-term value of a focused education and how one achieves excellence in art making are compelling and worth noting – regardless of your chosen medium.


Paul Stankard, Mountain Laurel Bouquet Orb,
flameworked elements encapsulated in clear glass

“Excellence transcends categories and whether a piece is glass sculpture in the fine arts tradition, a murrini, a marble, a goblet, a paperweight or a bead, if one’s work is personal and is made well, it will be respected by informed art enthusiasts and other artists.” Paul Stankard

The Formula

Bruce Pepich challenged us, asking us to put aside our fear of excellence and I think Paul Stankard, who has been in pursuit of excellence in glass art for almost 50 years, has a valid formula that can assist us as we move forward. The pursuit of excellence requires a commitment of time, effort and resources. Many people think the artists who rise to the top do so because they have talent, and I agree with Jeff Dever’s theory that “90% of talent is seat time and sweat equity.” However, I maintain that first you must move away from the familiarity and comfort of your ‘seat’ and educate yourself about Art with a capital A and Craft with a capital C.

You are reading Daily Art Muse, which has become a rich, global resource for examples of handcrafted excellence accessed by art students, makers and collectors, so you have some understanding of what I mean. Paul Stankard helps his students (and anyone who is serious about making good art) mature as artists by encouraging them to develop an informed artistic vocabulary. His message is clear: Study art in museums, galleries, art history classes, lectures. Become a student of nature, one of the most powerful sources of inspiration for artists. Consider pursuing graduate level education in art.  Maintain a steady, consistent reaching and stretching outside of your artistic comfort zone. Continue regular practice and experimentation with your medium. Marry all of this to your voice, your message, your expression and you will be well on your way to creating art that is authentic and substantive. If you follow this formula, you benefit, your work benefits, your medium benefits and the larger community benefits.  And perhaps, somewhere along the way, you might even make that museum quality piece.

Synergy Sound Bytes

“Talent is 90% seat time and sweat equity” Jeff Dever

“We have matured to the point that we know we need master level work, we need to promote master level work.” Kathleen Dustin, artist

“A master is somebody who is using the medium as a form of self expression and not only has great skill, but also has something to say.” Rachel Carren, Art Historian, Ph.D. (Art History)

“This is a golden moment in the history of polymer clay and NOW is the time.” Jeff Dever, artist

“Researching and documenting the history of polymer clay creates validation and credibility.” Bruce Pepich, Executive Director and Curator, Racine Art Museum

“Fine artists have a voice – the material is transparent.” Jeff Dever


For more about Bruce Pepich, read Woody Rudin’s article about the man, the curator, the Superhero.

Read my review of Paul Stankard’s book for more sage advice from a master.

It’s not too late to make a donation to the RAM collection. Here’s the link.

Cynthia Tinapple shares thoughts and many images from Synergy2 – here is a collection of posts – click on each one to see the images and to discover links to thoughts from other attendees.

Next week: Synergy2, Part 2 from DaMuse.

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11 Responses to synergy 2, part 1: in pursuit of excellence – the evolution of a medium

  1. Thank you for giving those of us at the other end of the world a glimpse at the wondeful people who make this art medium so interesting.
    I’m not in favour of masterclasses system Gloria Askin refers to. I would love to see individuals push themselves to new levels without the lure of certificates, discounts or having to please a narrow audience of judges. This is one medium, where we have so much freedom of expression, without the burden of history (not that history cannot be of vital importance). We should be free from manufacturer controlled masterclass systems to be able to expand our artistic horizon without fear.

  2. Thank you Susan for your thoughtful recap of the synergy2 conference. You did a great job capturing the tone and direction many are proposing for the medium. Let’s continue the discussion. I will look for Paul Stankard’s book. Sounds like it is well worth reading.

  3. I have enjoyed reading your posts about Synergy 2 Susan. Although I don’t work in polymer clay myself, I am always inspired by the top practitioners in that field. Thank you for showing us (daily:)) what great things are possible in all areas of contemporary crafts.

  4. In addition to pursuing excellence in the execution of our art, we thirst for this sort of elevated commentary and discussion. Thank you for the depth and insight you provide.

  5. I was happy to see you write about Jeff and Kathleen’s conversations about master status. We need to have in polymer master classes in the same vein as the PMC master classes.
    The importance of following Stankard’s (and Kelly’s) advice can’t be over emphasized. Making the polymer do the established tricks through caning is often wonderful as in the work of artists like Sarah Shriver but it is time to use this material for construction and experimentation in design as well. Art is fed by sight and sound, we should all learn to use every experience to add depth to our art.

  6. Love the formula! I always tell my students to go and look at everything from books to painting to the things around them and find out what they really love and to then figure out what they are wanting to make a statement about. I think there would be less conversations about copyrights and more about the art. I know I am not saying this as nicely as you do, but I really love the formula! Thank you for putting it into words for me! Kelly

  7. Brilliant.
    Much food for thought and action here.
    You continue to bring clarity and strong, incisive journalism to a field that is all too easy to trivialize.
    For all of us who could not attend, your lucid summation enables us to take powerful creative steps for ourselves and whatever our media are.
    Thank you, Susan.

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