Monday, February 28, 2011

Mountain Laurels and Metal Clay

Posted by Jennifer Roberts

The semi-annual PMCC International Artists Retreat is a wonderful educational experience for anyone interested in metal clay. Great teachers, a huge variety of classes, lots of new tools and toys to peruse. You know all that.

But the retreat is more than just a great learning opportunity – it’s a great vacation. So, while you contemplate all of the wonderful classes and teachers on the schedule, don’t forget some of the things that make the retreat an experience you will remember.

- The Arrowmont School of Arts & Crafts. It is truly a beautiful, serene, inspirational place to be.

- Getting there and going home. If you are flying, you will find that fares to Knoxville are a great bargain. Fly in, take a shuttle to the campus, and you are set for the week. If you plan to drive, build in some extra time for stopping along the way and enjoying the Great Smoky Mountains. During the month of May, this entire region is gorgeous and an extra day to see part of the Appalachian Trail or the Blue Ridge Parkway is time well spent.

- Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Whether you plan some time to visit or you send your family there to play while you enjoy a class, this place is loaded with fun stuff to do. Bicycling, camping, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, waterfalls, wild flowers, and wildlife. This park is America’s most visited national park for good reason. Arrive a few days early and you can even take part in the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.

- Good food. Really good food. The staff at Arrowmont takes good care of us and the food is no exception. Homemade every day - the breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets are packed with delicious food. I am a picky vegetarian and I usually wind up eating very little at these affairs. Not so at Arrowmont.

- No grocery lists, carpools, meetings, or deadlines. Breakfast is a short walk away from your room on a beautiful campus. Classrooms are right across the drive from meals. Free time is for finishing projects, walking through the beautiful grounds, and sitting on the porch enjoying new friends. It’s an easy place to be quiet and create. Of all the reasons to go, this is the big one. Give yourself permission to set the noise of everyday life aside for a week, slow down, take in the beautiful setting, and then turn your full attention to your next metal clay creation.

Make your plans to attend today!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Meet Our Teachers...

Introducing Debbie Rijns

How long have you been working with metal clay?
I discovered metal clay about nine years ago and have been at it ever since.

What did you do before that?
I was a porcelain restorer in my former life (or pre-PMC days) and enjoyed bringing treasures back to their former glory. My specialty was the restoration of Oriental porcelains and marble busts.

What other mediums do you work with?
I have a fascination for pre-loved treasures and enjoy putting together small scale mixed media installations.

How did you come to be a PMC Connection Senior Teacher? What year?
I was so enamored with the PMC concept that I went full out to get as much experience as possible, taking courses when and where I could and researching what was happening elsewhere in the world. After working on my own for about two years, I decided it was time to become a Senior Instructor. In 1994 MaryAnn Devos came to South Africa to qualify me, and it was shortly after that that we became Mitsubishi`s official importers for South Africa. I have been the Director of Education for seven years.

What do you think is the most exciting aspect of teaching?
From a selfish perspective, it is the creative satisfaction I get. To share this obsession and to inspire others to a creativity they swear they did not possess when they started is an absolute thrill.

Do you have a studio in your home? What does it look like?
We live in mud house, in fact it looks like a huge anthill with a roof on it, My studio probably takes up one third of the floor space of the house. It`s a magical place. The windows are stained glass, shaped like leaves, the walls are curvy (no corners in my house!) and the ceiling is covered in tree branches. The walls are covered with shelves, architects drawers, haberdashery counters and cubbyholes for all my treasures. I have a table big enough to accommodate ten students and a small lounge in the studio where we drink coffee and chat PMC.

Do you teach at home or another venue?
Mainly home, but I do courses and workshops at a couple of craft stores and in private homes. I also like traveling to exotic places and have taught in Dublin, Dubai and on an airplane to Amsterdam!

Do you like to take classes yourself? What kind?
Love to learn from others! I recently attended the Art and Soul Retreat in Portland, Oregon and took classes from Susan Lenart Kazmir, Robert Dancik and Richard Salley. I also had the treat of visiting (and brainstorming) with [fellow Senior Instructor] Ruth Greening.

Do you sell your work? Where?
I have a bit of a following here in South Africa, and have no problem selling my work. I do not have a store that sells my work, I do most of my selling from my studio and at shows we attend during the year. When I can, I do a trunk show in Austin, Texas at a boutique owned by my dear friend Andrea Sher Leff. The Texans like my work.

Where do you find inspiration?
Where don`t I? I can look at a pile of garbage and find something fascinating to inspire me...

What are you working on at the moment?
I picked up some wonderful sea weed in Cape Town a couple of months ago. Shaped like a pipe with a bulbous end on it, I cut a piece about 20cm long. The bulbous end had leaves hanging from it which I cut off. That left me with a flat ridge on the end that I am embellishing with PMC, Vintage African beads and various other treasures. Because the piece is hollow it will become a vessel, I still have to decide how I`m going to make a lid for it.

Where has your work been published?
Setting Stones in PMC by Jeannette Landenwich, PMC Guild Annual, MetalClay Artist magazine and our local Bead Book. I was recently asked if I would like to write a book on PMC with an African flavor, of course I said yes!

Tell us about an artistic hero or influence.
My favorite influences are Baobab trees, flower bulbs and tubers, and the architecture of Morocco. I had an exhibition at an art gallery and entitled it just that "Baobabs, Bulbs and Timbuktu". All the pieces were formed on cork clay. The doors of the little buildings were embellished with Keum Boo and then oxidized to look ancient.

Is there a new direction that you’d like to explore?
I am loving colour on metal and would like to get into enamels in bigger way. I like the idea of my bulbs decorated with an explosion of colour.

What else would you like to tell us about yourself?
My studio door is always open, and I am hoping that one day, some of my American peers will find their way through...

Thanks for chatting with us Debbie. I'd love to visit you in South Africa and I bet many of our readers would too, but we'll have to be satisfied to meet you at the PMCC Retreat at Arrowmont in May.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Be Prepared!

Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

The Boy Scouts were certainly on to something when they coined that phrase. And the world must agree or it wouldn't have migrated into the popular lexicon. It's such a universal truth that professional chefs say something similar to emphasize the importance of preparing a dish. Or so I learned on Worst Cooks in America. The term struck such a chord that I'm still thinking about it weeks later. Mise en place means "everything in place".

Camping, cooking and creating are not all that different. No matter your choice of art, making sure you have all the right ingredients close to hand is tantamount to a successful outcome. Having all your "toys" (tools) in front of you before you start any endeavor just makes good sense. Whether you need stakes, hammers and rope for a trip to Yosemite; sharp knives, mirepoix vegetables and spices for a holiday dinner; or clay, rollers and texture sheets for a metal clay design - knowing what you need to fulfill your vision and preparing your workspace in advance will help make it a stress free day in the studio.

Wipe down all surfaces with a damp cloth to eliminate the cat hair that may linger after an impromptu snuggle fest; gather every tool that you need to complete the project; and make sure that plastic wrap, sandpaper and other expendables are in good shape. The last thing you want to do is go searching for an important item while your clay becomes dry and unworkable.

Ashley Jewelry
But even before you begin to gather the tools of your trade and start to unwrap that precious lump of clay you need to know what you're going to make. The day you decide to step up your designs from simple textured, cookie cutter slabs is the day you want to start carrying around a sketch book to jot down the fabulous ideas are invading your consciousness.

Then when you decide to realize one of those sketched designs you may want to make a proper rendering - showing the piece from different angles. This is a great description of one of my Flickr goldsmith friend's rendering method. If your design is complicated or labor intensive you may even want to create a model or maquette out of polymer clay, stiff paper or a less expensive metal. High end jewelers try out their gold or platinum designs by first casting them in silver. When silver is the desired material, they may fabricate it using copper.

Quench Metalworks
It might help your design process to lay out stones, found objects or chain on top of the drawing to better visualize the final piece. Or to photograph the elements and draw the metal clay elements around them. You might even photograph and cut out a collection of different items and use them to make a musical chairs style collage. Switching them around to see what fits better with which.

Whatever method you develop, knowing where you're going and making sure your supplies are close to hand will enable you to go into the studio with confidence, happily anticipating a productive day at the bench.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Slippery Subject

Posted by Mary Ellin D'Agostino
Technical Advisor

While it is clear that we almost always need a bit of slippery stuff when working with metal clays, I am often asked questions about what type, how much, where, and when to use it. Feel free to chime in if I leave anything out!

Why Oil?
Why do we need to grease up? Metal clay can be sticky. It can cling to your hands, tools, textures, and work surfaces. Some days it behaves politely and doesn’t seem to stick much; other days it gets all over everything. Some brands or formulations of clay are stickier than others. Reconstituting clay is a particularly messy and gummy process.

Very often, the answer is to grease up. But not too much. Too much oil will make it hard for you to make strong connections between pieces of clay or to get the lines out of that clay you just wadded up and are re-rolling for another try. What you really want is a light coating of grease.

The type you use is not very important, but there are a few do’s and don’ts. Do use natural or organic oils or balms. These can be plain olive or other cooking oils, spray cooking oils, hand-lip-body balms, or “official” metal clay “release agents.”

Don’t use petroleum based products—anything that includes petrolatum or similar ingredients because these can degrade the binders in metal clays. If you do use a petroleum based product and you form and fire your metal clay object soon after, you may not have a problem. If you store the clay for some time and the binders have degraded, you may find the clay ends up crumbly instead of workable. If you have this problem you can often shape the clay, but may not be able to do fine finishing without damaging the piece. If the binder is degraded and the clay is too fragile to shape after drying, you can make simple forms or elements that don’t need fine finishing or that can be finished after firing.

I like balms because they don’t spill in my kit or on my work table. The brand doesn’t really matter (I use Badger Balm) as long as they are not petroleum based. Most contain ingredients like olive oil, beeswax, and essential oils. You can get them scented or unscented. These are great for hands, tools, work surfaces, and textures.

Cooking oils are great. They are cheap and found in almost any kitchen. I tend to spill bottles of oil. To keep your work area safe from a large oil slick, place a piece of sponge in a shallow container (preferably one you have a lid for) and saturate it with the cooking oil. This will give you a non-spillable source of oil.

Spray oils, whether of the cooking type or a metal clay specific brand can work well, but they are at the mercy of the spray nozzle. Some of these give a fine mist. Others spit gobs of oil. For safety sake, always spray against a solid surface (table, paper towel, or whatever) rather than over the floor. Keep in mind that the extra oil will end up on the floor and create a slipping hazard.

If you do have dry hands, be sure to moisten your hands with warm water and pat them dry before applying any of the hand creams, balms, or barriers. If you just go straight to the grease, you will have dry greasy hands that will suck the moisture from your metal clay. It is also very important to let the cream or barrier to soak into your hands before doing anything else. This makes a huge difference and is something you should do anytime you use moisturizer—not just when working with metal clays.

Spend the minute or two it takes the balm to soak in before you start working meditating, mentally rehearsing your design plan, or visually checking to make sure you have all the tools and supplies you need. You will know you are ready when you don’t have any greasy or visible residue on your hands. If you really over-do it with the grease and it hasn’t soaked in after 5 minutes, go ahead and rub the extra onto your arms or wherever else you need a little moisturizer. If you get into this habit, you will have a much easier time with the clay and cleaning your hands after working.

The options listed above are great for all metal clay applications. Here are a couple more that are just for the hands that are a boon for those of us with dry skin: Some people swear by Gloves In a Bottle, Bee Balm, and similar products. Some of these products are petroleum based, so you really don’t want to over use them and you want to be sure the lotion has completely soaked into your hands before starting to work.

My own personal favorite for dry hands is lanolin. This is an inexpensive natural product that is used to protect and seal the skin. It comes from sheep and is what keeps sheep’s wool water resistant. I have found lanolin to be the best and longest lasting product available. Rub on your just-washed and lightly dried hands until it is worked into your skin. I usually find this in the baby care section of the drug store. Just be sure to get the pure lanolin (lanolin usp), or you might end up smelling like diaper rash cream. You don’t need the extra expensive one for nursing mothers as that one is food-grade. You can buy pure lanolin online as well.

Where Else?
Rollers, textures and work surfaces may also need some grease when they are new. Once you get a very thin coating of grease on your tools, you don’t usually have to re-apply unless you have cleaned off all the lubricant. Also, some work surfaces need lubricant, others don’t. I use cheap ceramic tiles in my studio and these do need a little lubrication, but once they are “seasoned” I never have to re-lube unless I determinedly wash with hot water and dish soap. Rollers and most textures (brass, rubber, cloth, etc.) will also need some release agent applied to them before being used the first time.

When applying balm to deep textures, you may find Sherry Fotopolous’ trick of using an old toothbrush helpful for lubing up all the recesses and not leaving too much balm clogging up the texture. The toothbrush is great for cleaning those deep rubber stamp textures as well.

When I use cloth for a texture, I add some oil and scrunch and roll the cloth in my hands until it the entire surface is well coated. Nylon and polyester lace and cloth are best because the clay doesn't usually stick to them. Cotton and other natural fibers are a bigger problem, but if you coat natural fibers with a release, you can often get a good impression without the clay sticking and becoming embedded in the cloth. Be sure to roll the slab out most of the way on a smooth work surface and only do the final rolling on the cloth. This technique of pre-rolling your slab is good practice no matter what type of texture you are using.

On the Clay?!
Alternatively, you can apply the balm to your slab of clay before the final roll on the texture. This is my favorite technique. I roll my clay out a little thicker (1-2 playing cards) than I intend the final piece to be on my smooth work surface, apply a thin layer of balm or oil on the entire surface of clay with my finger, then lay it on the texture (or vice versa), and make the final roll. The balm spreads smoothly and evenly with the clay and works as a barrier/lubricant between the clay and the texture. Apply balm to both sides of the clay if you both sides of the clay if you are rolling between two layers of texture.

The downside to this last technique is that if you do it too often to the same piece of clay, you can end up adding too much lubricant to the clay. So don’t think you can oil, roll, scrunch up, and repeat indefinitely! If you do find you have added too much lubricant, check out my post on Clay Consistency for tips on reconditioning your over-lubed clay.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Cat's Out of the Bag

Linda Kline
Director of Curriculum

"How can we expect another to keep our secret if we have been unable to keep it ourselves?"
~ Franćois de La Rochefoucauld ~

Writing this post got me thinking of all the different expressions we have for divulging secrets. Who spilled the beans? She let the cat out of the bag. He sang like a canary. Loose lips sink ships.....You get my point. We just love to dish.

Truth is, it's really hard to keep a great secret. We all want to be in on it --get the dirt; know the lowdown; share the skinny; be the first to get the scoop. No one wants to be left out on a big, fat, juicy secret. And don't we just hate it when we are the last to know? That's why I couldn't wait to let you in on my great big secret!

For several months now, the PMC Connection senior teachers have been busier than Santa's elves on the 24th of December. We are redesigning our entire certification program! Yep, Levels 1, 2, and 3 will be completely restructured to feature more challenging, skillful, and technically-inspired projects. We are throwing out the baby with the bath water and developing all new projects addressing current trends in metal clay artistry while focusing on achieving more refined results.

Metal Clay has evolved from its humble beginning in the Crafter's Corner to be recognized in the arena of fine art. It has earned the respect of artists and jewelry-designers around the world as we have pushed, tested and finessed this amazing material into exquisite works of art. PMC Connection is also evolving. With our new president, Jennifer Roberts; a juiced up administrative team; and a dynamic group of senior instructors, we are putting a whole new face on PMCC. So it seems only fitting that our educational program should have a face lift, too.

Like any new endeavor, it's going to take some time to bring it to fruition. Call me crazy, but I love the challenge. I love the opportunity of planting a seed and watching it grow. I love working with a team who are full of amazing ideas. I love being a part of a collective energy charged up team that visualizes and embraces new concepts and idea. This is really good stuff!

So now the cat is out of the bag, I've spilled the beans, and blabbed about our secret. What a relief! It feel good to get that off my chest. I never could keep a secret!

This post was written by Linda Kline. Lora just edited it.

Friday, February 11, 2011

It’s All In How You Look At It – Part 2

Posted by Jennifer Roberts

Last month, we looked at perspective and its role at the beginning of the creative process. But, how you choose to look at your finished piece is just as important to your growth as an artist. So, how do you get an objective opinion?

The Finished Piece

I heard someone talking on TV recently about what dress she was going to wear to an awards show. She told the reporter, “I don’t trust my eyes, I don’t trust my stylist, and I don’t trust mirrors – so I take a picture.” Setting aside her trust issues for a moment, she had a good point. We all have people in our lives to whom we could show a formless, charred piece of still-smoking PMC that had been fired within an inch of its life, who would tell us how “interesting” or “creative” it is. You’ve seen the look. You show them your latest piece and you see a flash of “there is no right answer to this question” in their eyes.

How do you get an honest opinion? I like mirrors and cameras.


I started using a mirror to view my life drawings many years ago and it has become a favorite tool. I don’t know what it is about the seeing the image in reverse or the way the light bounces off the smooth surface of the mirror, but what I catch in the mirror can be amazing – not because I see it, but because I didn’t see it before. Sometimes my internal dialogue goes something like this: “hmmmmmm. . . that leg really isn’t proportional to the torso. In fact, it kind of looks like it belongs on a chicken.” Other times, I see things I really like that I had not noticed or intended to do, such as the use of a color as an accent. Either way, the process is instructive and it works for all kinds of media. The important thing is to jog your perception. Look at it from a different angle with a different point of view. For jewelry, all it takes is a small mirror on your work surface.


Cameras have the added value of creating a more permanent image. Also, you can set the camera down and work with both hands while looking at a picture, whereas holding something up to a mirror ties up at least one of your hands. Pictures are also great because you can share them. Even if you aren’t ready to post online for the entire world to love or hate, sharing with a few people whose opinion you trust can keep you moving in the right direction.

Perhaps one of the best uses of photographs is the ability to observe trends. You may not realize that you repeat patterns or that you favor a particular construction technique. You may never have noticed that your work tends to be all of the same scale, that you use textures of roughly the same depth on most pieces, or that you finish nearly every piece with the same patina, finding, or bead. But looking at your last ten pieces can make that undeniably clear. When you spot these patterns, you may decide that you need to vary your approach to break out of a rut. On the other hand, you may want to make your repetition more deliberate to develop and refine your particular “voice.” No matter how you react to what you see, looking at a cross section of your body of work can help you make more conscious decisions the next time you sit down with a fresh lump of PMC.

I like mirrors and cameras. What tools do you use to really “see” your own work?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meet Our Teachers...

Introducing Linda Kline
Director of Curriculum and Teacher Development

How long have you been working with metal clay?
11 years

What did you do before that?    
Do you mean a “day job”? I worked in public relations and marketing in higher education and the travel industry.  If you mean, what did I do artistically - metalsmithing and fiber artist, primarily.

What other mediums do you work with? 
Fiber arts, metal, mixed media, ephemera.

How did you come to be a PMC Connection Senior Teacher? What year? 
It was 2002. I basically bugged then Educational Director Mary Ann Devos until she appointed me!  

It was a pivotal time in my life with lots of transition. I was going through a divorce and moving from the Florida Keys to Vero Beach, Fla. Whew! Such incredible change on a multitude of levels. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to reinvent my entire life. I took the scary big leap, quit the “day job” and devoted myself to art and teaching full-time.

Things always work out according to Divine Order if we just get out of our own way and allow the process to unfold. I had no idea that my passion for metal clay would evolve to the point where I’d be appointed the Director of Education and Curriculum Development for PMC Connection. 

What do you think is the most exciting aspect of teaching? 
It’s magical, watching someone “get it.”  It’s like the light goes on and they begin to see the limitless potential of their creative ability.

Do you have a studio in your home? What does it look like?
My home IS my studio! It’s a magical little house with fabulous creative energy.  My backyard is an “Old Florida” jungle with big, lush, beautiful trees, orchids, and flowering, tropical vegetation. I’ve had students visit from all over the world and everyone appreciates its uniqueness and natural beauty. 

Being single, I don’t have anyone else to please. It’s just me and my Golden Retriever Bear, and he never complains. So I can make all the mess I want and play in every room. I do have a dedicated metalsmithing studio in my garage, but it gets really hot out there in the summer months. Mostly, I work in my dining room where the view of the jungle is the best. 

Do you teach at home or another venue?
Where ever! I’ve been blessed to teach all over the world, and I hope to do lots more traveling. I teach weekly classes at Vero Beach Museum of Art, and most of my certification classes are held at home. I’m more than happy to go where ever I’m invited. I’ve also started offering jewelry-inspired group travel opportunities. So far we’ve had two very successful trips to France and Spain and I’m currently working on another destination for 2011. 

Do you like to take classes yourself? What kind?
YES! Every teacher needs classes to refresh the creative juices and broaden their artistic vision. What kind? All kinds - writing, painting, art history, collage, mixed media… There is so much to learn.

Do you sell your work? Where?
Yes, but not as much as I used to. I hate putting everything on the recent economy, but I’m afraid it has made an impact on what people spend. I have had great success with a friend’s gallery, Lady Gaia in Colorado. She knows me well and she knows how to sell my work. She “gets”my artistic voice and artistic vision.

From the Rain Forest Series
Where do you find inspiration?
From history, nature, and environmental concerns, mostly. I live on one of Florida’s beautiful barrier islands. Bear and I walk the beach almost every day and there is no end to the inspiration nature provides. A bigger problem is finding the time to create all the ideas that come to me. 

I like my work to have a voice, make a statement about a social or environmental issue, so I often dedicate entire series of work to a cause - the deforestation of the rain forests; the oil spill in the gulf; animal welfare; etc.

What are you working on at the moment?  
In jewelry I'm working on an evolving series of earth elements and natural formations – stalactites, stalagmites, lightening, coral, icicles, etc.  I’m also working on pieces dedicated to animal welfare as a fundraising effort for the Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals.

Tell us about an artistic hero or influence.
I’m most impressed with “outsider art,” primitive art, the work of unschooled artists… those with limited resources who create for the sheer joy of expressing themselves.

I’m a big fan of the “romantic” styles of jewelry design, the Elizabethan period…so elegant, feminine, and stately. And I’ve always been a big fan of Thomas Mann’s work. I love the eclecticness of his work… mixed media, found objects, movement. He was a pioneer in this area.

Thanks Linda. It was great getting to know you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Creative Key

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

When did the public at large begin to take part in mass challenges? The first media contest I remember seeing was Queen For a Day when I was a child. What started as an obsession for game shows has evolved into a passion for reality based one upmanship. From who can last on a desert island longer, to which master chef concocts the tastiest tidbits, to determining the next model to rise to the top - pitting one person's skill against another has become an international phenomenon. In the past couple of years it's even migrated onto the internet.

Last year I took part in a Flickr jewelry making challenge called Ring a Day. But instead of it being a race to better another, the only person we were all encouraged to challenge was ourselves. Such a liberating concept!

I took a picture of a newly created ring every day for three months before my energy for making dwindled to an ember. Some of them were wearable and some were only conceptual. In addition to using metal clay and sheet metal, I made a ring out of freezer frost, felt, and a melted plastic spoon to name a few. Other participants utilized food, twist ties. and children's toys.
Mike & Mary Jewelry, Vagabond Jewelry,
Colleen Baran, Thomasin Durgin

The freedom of being able to let my imagination go wild was exhilarating. I learned so much about design, discovered a few new materials that I want to explore again and had a blast all the while. It was such a wonderful experience that this year I'm taking part in Ring A Week. And I fully intend to go the distance. I'm challenging myself to improve my hard metals skills, and am including a list of Lessons Learned for each ring so I can remember all the new skills and knowledge I acquire this year.

In the spirit of inspiring our readers to be all that they can be, PMC Connection and CornerStone would like to invite you unlock the door to your imagination with a challenge of our own.

The Creative Key challenge invites you to design a piece of jewelry based on the posted theme. There is no right answer. No one perfect design. No winner and certainly no losers. You succeed or fail only by your own criteria. And even then - failing is not an option. Because all perceived failures are just opportunities for learning.

To sweeten the experience, PMC Connection would like to reward you for taking part. Each Creative Key will open the door to a new prize. One winner will be chosen using a random number generator. To be entered into the drawing, upload a photo (or two) of your entry into our Flickr group and tag it with creativekey. No space between the words.

The rules are simple. Use any material you like to realize your vision. If you need to hone your hard metal skills - use traditional fabrication. If you're a wiz with photoshop or have access to (and the knowledge of) CAD software - illustrate a masterpiece. If you have a complex idea you need to work out - make a polymer clay or paper maquette. Or just take the plunge and create something fabulous out of our favorite material, metal clay. Design any piece of jewelry out of any material, any size; shape or color. It can even be purely conceptual. This is a challenge you set yourself. Designed to inspire you to work outside of your usual comfort zone. Some of our Senior Instructors will even be joining in (although they're not eligible for the prize).

Creative Key Challenge #1
Since the international day of love (Valentine's Day) is coming up I thought it might be fun to design a piece of jewelry using the theme Heart's Desire. It's a concept that can be taken in a myriad of directions and use a multitude of inspirations. Let your imagination run wild! Include at least one found object.

The prize this month will be one of PMC Connection's new fiber firing containers and 5 lbs of either activated or coconut carbon (your choice). The winner will also be featured in our newsletter and right here on the blog. Just remember to post a photo on our Flickr group to be eligible. We'd also love a description of how you made your piece and the inspiration for it. There's a space for text directly under the photo. The final day to post your work is February 25. The winner will be announced on March 4th. I can't wait to see all the fabulousness that is bound to appear!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Clay Consistency

Posted by Mary Ellin D'Agostino
Technical Advisor

Ah, a brand new package of metal clay! There are no bumps, lumps, bits of toothpick, cat hairs, or other detritus in it. The moisture is just right and I can make it do what I want it to do. It is always so tempting to open up a new package of clay for my projects. But what about all those abandoned un-fired projects? The lump of too-dry clay in the package that didn’t get quite closed? The trimmings from the last several projects? And what about the clay that got too much badger balm on it? I gave up on that bit a while ago and it is still waiting for me to get back to it. Not to mention the earlier attempt at re-hydrating old clay that I got too much water in.

I already have scads of paste and don’t have any paste-only projects planned.

With the price of silver so high, it is time to get back to re-constituting that old clay. Even the bronze and copper clay scraps have piled up and it is hard to justify opening a new package when I have so very much clay already opened.

No matter what type of metal clay you have, being able to get it back to a good working consistency is a great skill to have and there are many approaches to the project.

Rehydrating Dried Clay
The basics are to grind the clay into a fine powder and slowly add distilled water while mixing or kneading until you get it to the right consistency. Personally, I use a mortar and pestle to break up big lumps, then use a coffee grinder to turn it into powder, sift through a bit of brass screen, then spritz with water and mix. Too much water and you will need to either add more powdered clay or leave the mess open so the excess water will evaporate. Whenever I have this problem, I usually forget it, and come back after it has become too dry! LOL.

There are good instructions on how to reconstitute completely dried clay at
Once you have it in powder form, Hadar Jacobson’s directions for mixing metal clay are fantastic as well.

Maggie Bergman’s method is great for rehydrating whole pieces that you abandoned by putting it between layers of moistened sponge until it re-absorbs the water. Try one or more methods and see which works better for you.

Once the clay has enough (or almost enough) moisture, use the methods described below.

Too Dry to Work
Sometimes clay is too dry to work with—too stiff or crumbly—but not completely dry. My favorite way to deal with this problem (or to continue the rehydration process for dried clay) is to place the offending clay on a cut up plastic bag (this is thicker and sturdier than most plastic wraps), add a spritz or drop of water (sparingly!), fold the plastic over the clay and roll until it is flattened. Open the plastic, fold up the clay, and repeat until the clay seems to be consistent and all lumps are crushed into submission. You can add a little water as you go if it seems necessary, but use less than you think you need.

Finally, and I have never found a substitute for this step, roll and knead the clay in your (lightly greased) hands until it is the desired consistency. You will quickly find out if it is still too dry or too wet. If it is too wet, use one of your tools to scrape the mess off your hands and put back onto the plastic. Then, either add some powdered clay to the mess and go back to working in the plastic or leave it exposed to the air so it dries a bit and try again later.

Crumbly or Hard to Work
If you overwork even new clay it can become cracky and difficult to make it do what you want. Sometimes even when it has the right amount of moisture, the clay just doesn’t work right; it is overly cracky and you can’t make a coil or piece you can manipulate because it just breaks. The easy, but inelegant solution to this is to make a form that doesn’t require a lot of manipulation or finishing. A better solution is to work a few drops of glycerin into the clay. A drop or two of lavender or citrus essential oil is beneficial and will keep mold and mildew from growing on the clay.

It may help to let the clay rest and the water and/or new ingredients to meld into the binders overnight. While “resting” the binders fully absorb the water, glycerin, and essential oil and are re-activated so they are effective again.

Too Much Oil or Balm
Overworked clay often has too much oil or balm on it from your heavily greased tools or hands. This will give you the crumbly, hard to work, cracky problem. Often, if you just spritz a bit of water onto it, wrap in plastic, store and let sit overnight, the clay will be workable. The next thing to try is to add a bit of glycerin. If letting the clay rest and the addition of glycerin doesn’t work, your next best bet is to add more clay to the lump to dilute the grease. This can be fresh clay or reconstituted clay. Mix them together then knead/fold/roll in plastic until it becomes workable again. Letting it rest after mixing is a good idea.

But what about the fibers, hair, and other bits of stuff that get in the clay? If you are grinding and sifting the clay, you can remove many of these bits of fluff and stuff during the process. Little dust bunnies form and can be picked out of the clay powder with a tweezers.

Another approach that is especially good if your slip has too many fibers or contaminants in it is to add water until the clay/paste is thin enough to force through a piece of gauze (the kind of gauzy nylon used for sheer window curtains) into a clean container. I usually stretch the fabric over a jar and hold in place with a rubber band. Then I use a pallet knife to force the paste through the mesh. All the lumps and contaminants stay behind and the good paste ends up in the jar. You can either use this as paste or let it dry back to clay consistency. As for the contaminated mess left on the cloth, you can scrape it off and use it for texture, heat bits of it with a torch until they melt to create your own casting grain, or just add it to your recycle bin to be sent to the refinery.

I have found that these steps will revitalize all my problem clays. I hope this helps. Let me know if I have left anything out or if you have a different approach to solving these problems.