This week's blog was written by polymer clay artist Laurel Swetnam.
Many artists who sell in wholesale markets or in multiple venues have “lines” of designs. Others, including me, rarely repeat designs, always making one-off pieces. So I have to remind myself from time to time that working in series is an important part of a creative practice. Redundancy can strengthen the artist’s individual voice- not the same thing done over and over again in exactly the same way, but rather concepts improved and tweaked in different yet interconnected ways. It creates a recognizable style, which is important for refining one’s artistic voice.
By creating multiple pieces around the same idea, we are helping the audience understand what our art is all about; pattern or intent is evident, so viewers can get a sense of who you are. The process is not about repetition, but rather about being able to explore, investigate, examine or address particular themes, compositions or concepts in progressively deeper and more meaningful ways than is possible by making just one or two.
And then there’s the sheer aesthetic pleasure, because a cluster of similar pieces looks fabulous! Above are a group of my bowls from 2017. When I make millefiori cane designs, I first choose a palette and mix clay, then I create a series of canes using my mixed colors, finally combining the patterns in different ways to make pieces. Each of these bowls is unique, yet they clearly belong together as a set. Every new iteration is an exploration, and inevitably the last pieces are more interesting and more refined that the first.
Each summer, I have the privilege of attending an invitational retreat of fellow artists who work with polymer clay. The highlight of the week is an exchange of pieces. We have made pendants, bowls, totems, and beads among other things. The group decides on general guidelines and each artist creates about 25 similar versions of the same piece. Voila! A yearly experiment in working in series!
Sometimes a series varies by just a bit of color, like these Chinese inspired carvings of artist Nan Roche, one of the founding mothers of understanding polymer clay as a fine art medium. Other times, a series can explore variations on a theme. Here are Katie Way's totems, both made for the same swap. Katie’s differ quite a bit in color and texture, yet are still easily identifiable as a set.
For my contribution to the totem exchange, I was inspired by the wonderful designs of the aboriginal Tiwi tribe. Like the bowls, each one differs slightly from the group, and, as always, I improved as I worked. The experience of working in series has been valuable for me as a learning experience - prototype, make samples, discard failures, reevaluate and refine!