Suzanne Valadon at the Barnes Foundation

I saw the Suzanne Valadon exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia last Fall. Now that the dog days of August are upon us, I have finally decided to write about it.

The Barnes Foundation, for those who are not familiar with it, is an art oasis on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. It used to be located in Merion, a Philadelphia suburb. The move to Philadelphia was controversial, and a testament to the fact that money pretty much rules everything in the art world and everywhere else. But there’s no denying that it practically took an act of congress to gain admission to the Barnes when it was in Merion. And there’s also no denying that many more people get to see the collection now that it’s in Philadelphia. You can read more about the history of the Barnes Foundation here.

Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938) was a French artist who “never attended the Academy and was never confined to a tradition.

She was tough because she had to be. She was born out of wedlock and had to make her own way in the world that didn’t treat women very well unless they had money or position behind them.

But she was talented, ambitious and smart. She didn’t have any formal training but started drawing at an early age. She knew many of the French Impressionists, and served as a model for some of them. She was reportedly in love with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Edgar Degas was a friend who greatly respected her drawing and served as a teacher and artistic mentor. He taught her printmaking so she would have a way to make a living other than being a model, a laundress, milliner, waitress, or countless other jobs she held.

She was an independent woman who lived as she wished and who was admired because she “painted like a man,” or with masculine sensibilities. Some said that she painted “with an energy unheard of in a woman.” I am not sure what that’s supposed to mean. She used bold colors and bold contours. I guess you could say that she painted like she meant it.

She ultimately married and had a son who became a well-known artist in his own right.

In an interview late in her life, she said, “I found myself, I made myself, I said what I had to say.”

If you are interested in learning more about Suzanne Valadon, here’s a timeline of her life, a short biography, and a summary of her artistic legacy.

A New Twist on Faux Techniques in Polymer Clay

Polymer clay can imitate just about any substance from turquoise, to amber, to red coral, to lapis lazuli, and just about any other stone you’ve seen. Beach glass, fordite, ceramic, and different metals. You can do it all.

Tory Hughes was, I believe, the first polymer artist to popularize faux techniques in polymer clay, first through her work, then through her videos, then in her book, Polymer – The Chameleon Clay (2002).

I tried most of the faux techniques when I first started working in polymer back in the stone age. (here’s an example), but I haven’t tried any of the imitative techniques lately. Then a friend gave me a lovely Southwestern silver cuff bracelet set with different colors of turquoise, onyx, coral and mother of pearl. Some of the stones had fallen out. Could I recreate them in polymer? Why not try? I don’t have any “before” pictures of the bracelet, but I am happy with how it turned out.

You can see that turquoise comes in many colors as does mother of pearl.

I used Premo translucent, white, and a bit of pearl and silver for the mother of pearl and a combination of a Premo blue mixture, green, translucent, and a smidge of black for the turquoise. I did my best to match the colors to the stones in the bracelet, baked them, and then trimmed and filed them to fit into the bracelet. I couldn’t bake them in the bracelet because the real stones are held in with epoxy which would have melted in my oven. Then I would have had to reglue all the stones!

Here’s one of the faux turquoise pieces and a tiny chip of faux mother of pearl that I glued into the bracelet with fresh epoxy. I roughed up the baked polymer and the metal as best I could before gluing. I left a dab of the mixed epoxy on my work table to make sure it cured thoroughly.

I hope my friend likes the results.

New Tools for Making Polymer Clay Earrings

I wrote last week about my latest attempts to design and create unique polymer clay earrings. I’m designing my own shapes rather than relying on purchased cutters. This involves creating designs on Vectornator and making templates on a Silhouette Portrait 3 machine using plastic notebook dividers I’ve found around my house. I’m able to design and cut almost any shape I want. The notebook divider material is not rigid, but it’s easy to trace around it with a craft blade. And you can use the shapes over and over.

You will always have to clean up your shapes, whether make them with a cutter, or a craft knife. But it seemed that I could never catch every burr and crumb before I baked. I thought that a bow sander would be handy for getting into tight places. Why not use an emery board, a sanding stick, or a file? Didn’t work for me. I wanted to be able to choose any grit of sandpaper, and I didn’t want to be throwing away spent sanding sticks and emery boards and constantly buying more. But most of the bow sanders I saw were too big or too expensive. Then I saw these.

The bow files are on the left and the sanding blocks are on the right. I bought them from Rockwell Exchange on Etsy. They are small, 3d printed, and reasonably priced. I started out with the bow sanders and liked them so well, I ordered the block sanders a few weeks later. The tools are held together with plastic screws. You unscrew them, insert strips of sandpaper that you’ve cut, reassemble them, and you’re good to go. Since they’re plastic, you can wet sand without fear of them rusting. Here’s how I’ve been using them.

Some shapes

You can see that the sanders let you get into tight corners and wrap around curves. I know that a lot of people like to use rotary tools or Dremels for finishing, and sometimes I do too. But a problem with mechanical tools is that they can spin too fast and do some damage if you’re not careful. Hand tools are great when you’re trying to slow down like me.

I’m not the kind of person who buys every tool under the sun, and I try to make my own tools when I can. And I don’t accept any payment or other remuneration for products I recommend on this site. (See my Disclosure statement.)

But I have found these sanding tools very useful and recommend them if you are looking for some sanding help. You can buy them here.

I’ve found a few other inexpensive tools to recommend and will write about them in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the earring adventures continue.

On My Work Table

I continue to experiment with making polymer earrings. Why earrings? I know that seemingly everyone went on a polymer clay making earring bender during the pandemic lockdown. YouTube is full of tutorials on how to make and sell them. There are Facebook groups dedicated to polymer clay earrings (including this group which I belong to), and a myriad of earring sellers on Etsy. But that’s not why I chose to start making earrings. I chose to focus on earrings (for now) because they’re small projects, I can move from project to project quickly, and I can try new things as soon as ideas jump into my head.

And I haven’t really been making earrings. What I’ve been doing is making components and shapes.

See all the shapes I’ve been collecting? Some of them might even find their way into earrings one of these days.

Here’s one of my favorite tools: a hair curler that Susan Gross gave me at a Clayathon. It’s great for texturing the back of earrings.

For now, I am designing new shapes with Vectornator, and cutting out templates on my Silhouette Portrait 3. I want to stay away from cutters except for basic shapes I can alter. I am trying to make something unique. I have succeeded in making plenty of duds but I am making progress slowly.

I’ve also been working on my craftsmanship and slowing down. And making a LOT of pieces. Practice really does make better. A few years ago, I designed this necklace for Step by Step Wire Magazine. It took 10 feet of wire and someone remarked that I was very good at making those coils. I replied that if I didn’t start off that way, I was certainly good at it by the time I finished the necklace. You’d be surprised at how good you get when you do something over and over.

People always say that it’s easier to smooth out the boo boo’s in polymer before you bake. Well, yes and no. The key is touching the clay as little as possible to get the effect you want. And that takes practice. The right tools help, but a tool will not automatically make you a better crafter unless you know how to use it. And that takes practice. Didn’t I just say that?

Another thing I learned is that UV resin, as beautiful as it can be, can’t make up for bad craftsmanship. Ask me how I know.

And with earrings, you can get the shape and the color, and you still have to decide how to hang it from the ear. Kathleen Dustin says that the ear wire should be an integral part of the design or totally invisible. Beading Yoda agrees. I like to make my own findings so I can try different alternatives and see what works.

At the rate I’m going, I wonder if I am going to have any of my own teeth left when I finally produce a well-designed, well-crafted pair of earrings. We’ll see.

The Cat Collection

I wasn’t always a cat lover, believe it or not. I didn’t dislike them, but I didn’t understand them. I loved dogs, but I didn’t get cats at all. Then, when I was in my 20’s, someone offered me a cat. It seemed like a reasonable proposition. I had mice in my apartment. So a cat named Electra came to live with me. That pretentious name had to go, and she became Pooky. It took me a year to get used to her. And then I was a cat lover.

That’s Pooky on the right in the little frame and her nemesis Bandersnatch on the left. Boris’s likeness is on the mug to the rear.

Pooky and Bandersnatch have gone to the bridge, as well as Plumpton who lived with us for 20 years.

Why did I start collecting cat memorabilia. Why do people collect anything? We traveled widely before the pandemic and it seemed nice to focus on one kind of travel memento. Plus I have a very small house and there’s not a lot of room to display things. An added benefit is that it makes it easy for people who want to give me a gift. I can always find room for another little cat on the three shelves and corner walls in my dining room that hold the collection. And unlike Pooky and Bandersnatch, the cats never fight with one another.

Boris

I haven’t shown all of the cats in this post. Even a cat lover needs a rest now and then. If you are ever in Amsterdam and want to see a great collection of feline keepsakes, be sure to check out The Katten Kabinet.

Ziggy Stardust (A cat from Japan)

Young Artists at Fleisher Art Memorial

I didn’t have regular art classes when I was a child. I went to a Catholic grade school and art class happened a few times a year. The teacher, usually a nun, would give each child one piece of art paper, a box of eight Perma Pressed crayons, and a postcard with a religious painting on it. A painting like The Last Supper, or The Flight into Egypt. We were instructed to copy the painting onto the art paper with our crayons. That was it. I remember one nun must have been having a particularly bad day because she informed us that she would inspect our work carefully when the class ended. If there was a trace of white anywhere on the paper, it would mean detention for a week for the hapless child artist. We spent most of that class filing our crayons to nubs on the rough art paper terrified of the prospect of detention with this whack job dressed in a habit. To be fair, not all of them were quite so bad. I finally got to take a real art class in the 7th grade with Sister Louise who was a great teacher. I still have the box of pastels from that class.

I’ve always loved children’s art. I’m not sure why. Children’s art displays a simplicity and an honesty that can get suppressed as people grow older. (See above for one example of how this happens). We know now that art is important to a child’s development, and not just a frill. I mean, there was a time when going to school after the second grade was considered a frill, right? Art education, like all education, costs money. You need more than supplies and teachers, you need access in the first place.

Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia offers low cost art classes for children and teens. Every year, Fleisher puts on a Young Artist Exhibition. This year’s exhibit closes on July 29. It’s always better to see the work in person, but in case you can’t, here are some pictures.

Make Your Own Pottery Tools: DIY Spinner Disk

You really don’t need a lot of tools to make pottery, although having the right tools make it easier and more fun. Something every potter struggles with, especially when they’re starting out, is centering the clay on the wheel. But even after the clay’s centered and the pot thrown, it has to be trimmed. That means centering it again, and trimming it without distorting it.

One tool that makes trimming pots a little easier is a spinner disk. It helps to hold the pot steady while you’re trimming and distributes the weight guarding against pot distortion. Although you can trim without this tool, once I saw spinner disks like this one and this one, I wondered whether one would make trimming my pottery a little easier. While there is no substitute for a well-designed, well-made tool. I try to make my own tools if I can get away with it, especially if it’s a new gadget that looks interesting, but might not really help me too much.

Here’s what I came up with

I had a double sided cap that came with a prescription. One side is child proof and the other side is not. But you could use any dual purpose cap you might have lying around, like this one, or any cap where the center spins and the threaded outside part remains stationary.

Center your pot to be trimmed on the wheel and place the cap, top down, in the center.

Then put something inside the lid so you can hold onto it while you’re trimming. I used a smaller cap that fit into the lid.

Some other items you might try that are lying around the house are fidget spinners, small massage roller balls, or anything else that will spin freely while you hold it on the top of a pot and trim. If you have an old water bottle with a closure like this one, that might work too. All you need is something that spins with the wheel and a top that remains stationary that you can hold onto while you’re trimming. Raid the junk drawer!

You Can Do a Lot With Lines and Dots

Wondering how to decorate your pottery with slip? Make a ton of bowls and experiment! I’ve been decorating small terra cotta bowls with slip and commercial underglaze. I have a lot of bowls to screw up, but my hand is getting steadier and steadier. That’s what practice will do.

I got the needle-tipped squeeze bottles from Amazon. I used to store them with straight pins in the tip. I don’t recommend it. The tips clog and the pins rust. Instead, remove and clean the tips when you are finished and store the bottles with the sealing caps that come with the set. I can’t believe how much easier this makes them to use.

I used some donuts I cut with my Silhouette Portrait 3 in this bowl. Dots and lines followed.

I used a Mayco Designer Liner for the black outline in the above bowl. I will cover these bowls with clear glaze after they come out of the bisque fire. It’s low fire pottery, so they will be fired at Cone 04. Now I just have to come up with ideas for the rest of the bowls!

Flag Day in Philadelphia

I volunteered for another Color Wheels last weekend and the theme was Flag Day. We parked the Color Wheels van outside the Museum of the American Revolution, and set up tables with art supplies and blank flags to decorate.

Now you might wonder what Flag Day is and why we celebrate it in the United States. Even though we didn’t have an official flag when the Revolutionary War, started, the Continental Congress soon got around to designing one in 1775. Legend has it that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, right here in Philadelphia. Some say that this story originated with some tall tales perpetrated by her relatives in the 1870’s. There is a paper trail showing that she was contracted to sew flags for the US government in 1777. More information here. The Betsy Ross house, where Ross purportedly lived when she sewed the flag, is only a few blocks from the Museum of the American Revolution.

Most of the people who dropped by to make flags were from out of town. And interestingly, I didn’t see many kids try to reproduce the American Flag. A couple of flags I recognized were the flag of Suriname, and the flag of Israel.

Do you see a flag in the pictures that you recognize?

To learn more about Fleisher Art Memorial, who sends the Color Wheels van all over Philadelphia, press here.

Women in Art: Emma Amos

I am going to start this post about Emma Amos in the middle. Last October, I saw the retrospective exhibit, Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We are all familiar with Paul Gauguin’s topless portraits of Tahitian women. Growing up, I was given to understand that those women walked around that way all the time. Only it wasn’t true. By the time Gauguin got to Tahiti in 1891, “[i]t had been thoroughly Christianized and colonized. The women were not walking around half-naked. … They tended to be wearing … Christian missionary gowns.”

That made Amos’ painting, Tightrope, pictured below, really resonate with me. It’s is Amos’s depiction of the difficult balance she had to maintain as a Black woman, artist, wife, and mother. The t-shirt she holds is a reference to Gaughan’s painting of his 13-year-old Tahitian wife. For more information on Tightrope, and her other paintings, I recommend Arianna Richetti’s excellent article, Emma Amos: The Story of the Postmodernist African-American Artist.

Tightrope

The vulnerability Amos displays in tightrope brought to mind a passage from a novel by Lorene Carey that I read a few years ago. The protagonist of The Price of a Child is not an artist, but other aspects of her life are uncomfortably similar.

"Mercer pulled her arm tighter over Mattie's shoulders. She thought      of Pryor's long fingers and how she hated him to touch her breasts. Why her breasts? They had always been hard, just getting past that part. Especially when she was pregnant or, worse yet, nursing. She could wall off from the waist down and not make herself mind so much. Maybe her breasts were too close to her head. She couldn't wall off from the neck down which is what she tried to do." Lorene Carey, The Price of a Child: A Novel, 1995.
My Work Suit

How a Black female artist must present herself to be recognized as a painter working. Note that the suit is a pseudo transformation of Amos into a white man. Beading Yoda, who knew Amos, told me that she was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.

All I know of Wonder

Amos often used fabric to frame her work, as she did in the above painting which contains a bathing scene, a female figure with multi-colored skin tones and a black male bather that evokes classical Greek imagery. Amos said, “Every time I think about color, it’s a political statement.”

X-Flag

Before you pass this off as derivative of Jasper Johns, take a closer look. Amos has depicted an American flag backed by a Confederate flag. There’s also fabric, and photographs of children playing and Malcolm X.

Flying Circus is a triptych that is part of Amos’s Falling Series, that is partly a commentary on Ronald Reagan’s social spending cuts in the 1980’s. Amos saw falling through space as both frightening and liberating.

There are some enlightening and instructive videos on the Color Odyssey exhibit from the Georgia Museum of Art. To view them, press here and here.