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Category Archives: Synergy

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.

dever_nestledresponse

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.”

winters

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.

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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?

dustin_pod

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.

stankard_mountainlaurelbouquetorb

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

More

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.

bettina welker and synergy

Synergy I is over, the blogging frenzy has all but subsided and we are back in our studios. Germany’s Bettina Welker is already tracking how the information, feedback and collective energy that she absorbed at the conference is affecting her work. Remember this necklace – the one that was on her neck when I met her at Synergy? Buoyed by the response to the necklace and armed with new information, Welker went back into the studio eager to push the idea a little further. ‘Sticks and Clusters’ is the first post-Synergy iteration.

welker’s sticks and clusters necklace: a post-synergy piece

The individual stamen-like polymer extrusions are captured cleanly in a silver framework that allows for a different view of the delicate strands. Each strand’s gentle curve gives the appearance of movement – as if they are bending and moving away from the stronger, more rigid silver tube that contains them.

I look forward to following her progression as the Synergy experience becomes fully integrated into her artistic process and I hope that this scene is being played out in studios across the globe. Concrete evidence that coming together as a community, sharing, exploring and nurturing each other benefits each of us individually and the group as a whole.

Did you attend the conference? As you return to your art-making in the weeks and months to come, I urge you to be mindful of the places where Synergy helped to move you along in your art, in your process and in your thinking. Let’s talk about it.

synergy snippets #2

Synergy Conference Panel Discussion

elise winters pentala brooch

Inspiration, Originality and Infringement

 

On permission to call yourself an artist and finding your artistic voice:

Elise Winters: “Take the time to allow yourself to be the student, the trainee. Call yourself an artist NOW – you can be a great artist without feeling like you have to go to a craft show and sell it.”

“You do yourself a disservice when you think you own the work you learn from a master artist. Recognize that it’s not your own. You will know when you’ve found your own voice because when it happens, your heart will soar.”

[EDITED to ADD: You can hear Elise speak in greater depth about the topic with Alison Lee on this Craftcast podcast.]

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On a personal note, Elise’s words resonated with me because I am still learning from the masters and I don’t sell my work and I am waiting for that moment when my heart sings and guess what? I am an artist. The hardest part was giving myself permission to call myself an artist, but I felt liberated when I gave up that struggle.

Have you given yourself permission to call yourself an artist or do you struggle with the title of ‘Artist’? Do you agree that you can be an artist without selling your work or do you think that selling your work justifies the title? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

 

 

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