Monday, December 15, 2014

Profiles in Artistry - Susan Ellenton

Susan Ellenton is a metal clay artist living in Canada, and I might not ever have been aware of her work if not for the Master's Registry. When planning a design for one of the construction projects, Susan created a bi-cone bead with such an interesting texture that I had to learn more about it. When I found out she had been experimenting with regular old baking yeast, I was floored!

CS: How long have you been working with metal clay?
SE: I've been working with metal clay since 2006.

CS: What skills, interests, or achievements did you bring to your designs from previous work?
SE: I was trained in sciences and worked as a biologist in my 20's and 30's, first as a technician and later as a park naturalist. In 1973 I took a part-time job with a hippie silversmith. My Dad said, "It will be good for you, Susie - it will be something to fall back on". I've been messing around with silver ever since. I've always made my living with a combination of biology, silversmithing, and songwriting.
Bi-cone bead with yeast texture

CS: How did you discover and/or develop your signature style or technique?
SE: I kept wondering if there was some way of creating texture that would be unique to metal clay, i.e. something you couldn't also achieve with traditional methods like casting. One day after rummaging through my kitchen cupboards for things to embed in the clay surface, I headed off to the studio with poppy seeds, fennel seeds, and instant yeast granules. It wasn't until I was pressing the yeast into the metal clay that it occurred to me: given more moisture and the right temperatures, yeast would feed on the binder and grow. I ran lots of test samples to discover a range of wonderful effects, which you've seen on the bi-cone bead I made for the Registry.

Susan's yeast tests

The resulting textures are so interesting to me. Unlike many texture techniques I've tried, the yeast-grown textures look even better under magnification. Given how often the images of our work get enlarged for publication, that's a real plus.

CS: Tell us more about your work
SE: I have two different lines, which overlap, of course. What they have in common comes from my love of nature.

Beachgirl Barrette with moonstones.
First, my Cascadia designs, which are literal interpretations of the flora and fauna around where I live on Vancouver Island.  These designs were some of the first things I made in metal clay, and originally I was only thinking about what I myself would want to wear... Blackberry earrings, a bracelet of overlapping moon snails, and a sea urchin textured setting for a pearl ring. The Cascadia designs are my most popular sellers. However, I am better known within the metal clay community for technical innovations like experimental patinas, altered extrusions, and yeast grown textures. It was at a 2009 enamel workshop with Deb Lozier that I really embraced what it meant to be 'process oriented'. After that I began experimenting in earnest, letting the behavior of the metal clay 'speak' to me. As my accumulation of enigmatic metal forms and effects has grown, I've begun to treat them like found objects or beach-combed treasures, sometimes developing them into wearables, sometimes displaying them as sculpture. 

CS: How has your work or skill set evolved since you began working with metal clay?
SE: My manual dexterity is much improved - I can hold things with a delicate balance of gentleness and firmness, even when doing something that requires great concentration.  I've learned to see problems as opportunities. I've learned to torch fire enamels. I'm deepening my relationship with design. I've learned a lot about close-up photography and I've become a better presenter.

CS: Do you teach? If so, do you consider yourself primarily a teacher or a maker/seller?
SE: I do teach, and I value the teaching as much as the making - but I make more than I teach at present. 

'Extruded Undulations'. These forms are made by introducing a
wire into the nozzle of a syringe clay extruder. "I've tried
all sorts of extruding arrangements over the years.
Messy, but rewarding."
CS: How do you feel about teaching others your signature techniques?
SE: I'm especially interested in helping students become more process-oriented in their own practice, so when I share my techniques, I expect that my students will use them to develop their own style.  

CS: How would you like your future with metal clay to evolve?
SE: I want to bring more moment to moment awareness into my studio practice, and more trust in the process. I hope to pass on my love of making. 

CS: Why did you choose metal clay as your primary jewelry making material? What qualities do you particularly appreciate?
SE: It excites me! It builds on my background as an artisan silversmith. It is easy on the hands - I have repetitive strain, so when I heard about metal clays I had already given up hammering and sawing, etc. for nearly a decade.

I love that metal clay is easily recycled, and encourages playfulness. There are so many ways to work it - wet, dry, flexible or not, by accretion, by subtraction... After firing there are even more possibilities - you can decide to make it shiny or matte, solder it to other metal forms, play with color on metal, etc. And it is still fairly new, so there is room for pioneering. I like that a lot!

CS: What would you like new users of metal clay to know?
SE: Many skills from other craft media are beautifully transferable to metal clay - like basketry, paper arts, soap carving, pastry making, and others. The community of metal clay artisans is friendly, generous, and fun!

Thanks for playing Susan! It's so great to meet you and learn a little more about your work. Perhaps one day I'll get to see those fabulous extrusions in person. 

Posted by Lora Hart
Artistic Advisor

1 comment:

Cindy Pope said...

Susan beautiful work