Episode 78: I met Kathleen Dixon Donnelly on Facebook. She’s a writer who lives in Birmingham, UK with her Irish husband. She is originally from Pittsburgh.
Our research cross paths & her blog, Such Friends covers a lot of the same people in the Irish Literary Revival that I am writing about. I wanted to have her on the podcast so we could chat about the subject of my upcoming book.
Julie Eakes and the other ladies lead me up the stairs to the room where they are working on the Into the Forest installation. I really have no idea what to expect. I’ve known Julie for years through trivia. We’ve been friendly competitors, even teammates, on occasion. This is my first time meeting Emily Squires Levine and Laura Tabakman.
One minute I’m in Julie’s kitchen, the next I’m walking into a veritable forest. Julie’s studio has been transformed into a staging area for the installation before they head to Pittsburgh with trees, flowers, leaves, and animals all made with Polymer clay.
While these ladies are spearheading the installation, artists all over the world are contributing their Polymer flora and fauna to the project for a truly an international forest! They have, at last count, 15 countries represented.
I had never heard of Polymer clay. I was interested in why they chose it.
Emily says, “It’s a PVC based clay. So it’s a plastic clay that comes pigmented, in colors so it’s not earth…. It’s a sculpting clay, FIMO clay, the stuff kids play with.”
There’s an interesting story about Polymer clay. It was originally made to replace Bakelite, a more flammable plastic. In 1939, Polymer was given to the daughter of a German dollmaker named Fifi to play with as modeling clay. One brand has since been known as “FIMO” (Fifi’s Modeling compound).
“…And you can use a regular toaster oven. That’s what I bake my pieces in.”
I had seen the beautiful portraits Julie makes with her Polymer clay, so I was envisioning a more 2-dimensional forest. But Polymer is so versatile, there is a wide range of things you can make. There were all sorts of shapes and forms in this forest.
I was interested in how well it worked compared to other clay. Emily says “It’s very approachable. That’s why kids play with it. But then you learn and you can get more and more refined, it’s quite easy to start and you can get as involved as you want.”
Julie tells about all of the fun tools that more advanced Polymer artists have to work with. One of the early tools many advanced sculptors bought were pasta machines to form their clay. They soon realized they needed a stronger motor for the clay. This introduced the Dream Machine, which is actually made for Polymer. It left pasta machines for dinner use.
“It’s a workhorse and it’s not cheap. You can use cheaper ones, but they break easily, so it will cost you,” they advise.
“There’s also different brands of clay and some are easier to work with than others. And people use them for specific projects, for jewelry…for sculpting…” Laura says.
Emily tells how when she does shows, people will comment, I used to do this with my kids, but you take it to a whole new level. “It’s a big compliment, cause people will make little beads or figurines…my own children did that. And then they’re amazed at what can be done with it.”
Yeah, it’s just amazing, because you wouldn’t think that the stuff you played with in nursery school does this kind of stuff…”
“And that’s one of the things we’re hoping to do with Into the Forest is take it up to the next level…It’s been in galleries, it’s been in museums. We have a museum in Wazee Wisconsin that has a permanent Polymer clay exhibit and we’re all excited that we’re not just that kid’s product.”
And I was curious, this installation is all made of Polymer?
“Well, the feature is Polymer,” Laura tells me, “but we are using other materials to support the Polymer.”
But these are all Polymer artists?…How common is this?
“Well most people make jewelry out of it,” Laura tells me, “So this is taking everyone out of their comfort zone. So we are pushing people to think out of the box.”
“We have about 150 artists already, who sell this stuff.”
So how did this start?
There are Polymer guilds; at least 2 in North Carolina. They got together and made some things to donate.
“People have contributed things like leaves, pods, mushrooms, We generally just ask for organic things like mushrooms, things you might find in the forest. These are my things…you can see how flexible they are when they are baked.”
Julie shows me some very flexible leaves, flowers, and trees.
“So these are the types of things…But most of the things have been shipped to Laura [in Pittsburgh] So, Laura, tell her how many boxes you have waiting for you.
“I have 20 boxes waiting for me when I get home. I open every box, wrap everything…photograph everything, so everyone can see it online.”
And tag everyone…
“Yes, tag everybody. I want everybody to get credit who participates…”
This is a huge administrative task, which involves extensive documentation. Spreadsheets of objects/artists.
Since it’s an international project, they have to deal with different languages. they had to translate FAQs into different languages.
Julie came in late. It actually started with Laura and Emily.
Laura says, “The three of us met each other at a forum in Wisconsin several years ago. I’ve always been an admirer of their work. When I found out that the three of us were going to a this retreat in Colorado, at 5000 feet over the Rocky Mountains, I reached out to Laura and said, ‘Would you like to do a collaboration?’ And I was thrilled when she said yes, because I’m a huge admirer of her work.”
“So we were just talking about it today and how I came into the workroom…and this location is in the mountains, surrounded by aspen groves and late in August everything is going to dry and the aspens just do this butterfly effect with the shadows and the sounds. It was just amazing.
So I went to the room and I said to Laura, ‘What do you think about this?’ And it was just a little sprig of the aspen leaves.
“And [Laura] said, yes I thought, this is going to work out…I can see that we are of the same mind…”
“And this was for a little collaboration there at the retreat.”
So when you guys came up with the idea to have a collaboration, did you have any idea what you wanted the collaboration to be?
Laura tells me, “Well, she thought that was going to be the end of it. At the end of the week, we would have this little tree that would have this little leaf, very wonky. The day before we left, I told her, “What do you think about doing an installation…”
Let’s go big.
“She kind of panicked for a second…”
Emily tells me said yes, but then she panicked at the thought of the enormity of the project.
“I was scared because [Laura] knows how to do these things but I have never done them/”
“And she confessed to me today that she thought it was never going to happen…”
“So that’s how it started. We left Colorado, saying we are both in Pennsylvania. Let’s look for a gallery in Philadelphia and in Pittsburgh.”
“This is 2015…She said so 2017 we’ll do it. I said OK… thinking we have all the years to work it out….”
“And then [Emily] found a gallery in Philly that wanted it in May 2016…”
“And we said OK…and then we both realized that because of how busy our schedules were, we weren’t going to be able to have the time to install it. So it was pushed back to Sept. 1st, we install this Into the Forest early growth.”
“…In a beautiful room that’s 15 by 15 in a mid-century historically certified apartment building complex next to the Philadelphia Art museum.”
“The owners are trying to integrate it into the arts. It’s all being curated with art and we were the featured exhibit.”
They serendipitously found this space through a friend. The timing was to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. So they recruited Julie and a few other artists to help.
…And then Laura wanted to go bigger. [Emily and Julie start to fear whenever she says, I’ve been thinking…]
Laura found a gallery in Pittsburgh, The Spinning Plate Gallery. It used to be a car dealership.It was a huge space…much bigger than they had planned. That was when they got the idea to open it up to other contributors.
“And we, of course, thought of Julie, who had helped us with the leaves for the forest.”
Julie was eager to help. “I answering yes before the ‘do you want…’ was out.”
“We’ve been communicating through Google Hangouts, phone calls and texts.”
“We have weekly hangouts. We’ve been through illnesses and injuries…”
But you can still do it…
“And it’s a really special time…We are feeling the love from people who are sending us these things, and the amount of work they are putting into what they are sending us. It’s really moving,” Laura tells me.
How are you recruiting people to send stuff?
“In 2016, we had an international Polymer Clay conference in Bordeaux France, where people from all over the world came. [Laura] was doing a presentation there and so I presented this idea. People, after I finished, came back to me, very excited. So we open a Facebook group. People kept telling each other about it. Now we have close to 1500 people.
Julie says she was going to just reach out to Polymer people, but then decided to reach out to everyone, to tell them about it.
“That was when I decided to reach out to you.” she said to me.
I’m really glad you did! I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time!
So what do you want the end result to be, besides just a fantastic installation?
“The show will be up for a month. We are also organizing classes around it, working with The Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburgh. They are also going to be offering classes…
One of our goals is to introduce to the general public what Polymer clay is, how great it is. Also, there is the nature part of it, bringing the world’s forest into one entity so people can experience that…
Right, and from all over the world…
We have people from Indonesia and France, New Zealand, India, Argentina…
“People are also sending their thoughts and inspirations. So we’re going to have some of those quotes on the wall on how it affected them.”
“An installation of this kind has never been done in Polymer, so it really is a first. It will really be a big statement.”
“We really have our work cut out for us.”
Well that was something I wanted to ask. You said you had a design for the forest, but at the time, you really didn’t know what you had to work with. So how did that work?
“We had an original cut-off date of April 2nd. We knew all along we were going to extend it and we said, ok, now we have a cut-off date of May 2nd. So we knew we couldn’t really decide what to do until we saw what we got….and you know, [Julie] is the one who has this fear, we’re going to have 6 leaves and a 60×60 foot house. But that wasn’t the case, we got a lot.
“We didn’t really start planning til this weekend.”
“We got a little layout of the used car dealership that we have to fill…and it’s still a work in progress.”
“We’re going to get together in July next and have everything out and start thinking more seriously about how things work together. We’ve been thinking of ways of making trees but there’s nothing set in stone here. We’ve been throwing ideas back and forth to see what sticks.”
And the natural forests aren’t really designed…
Right, right. I’m gonna go with that…
How do your families’ feel about this?
They have to deal with all of the boxes coming in all the time. But I think they are really excited.
“I think they’re all really proud of us.”
“The good thing is that it is so new, that we don’t really care about rules.” They can be pioneers.
They will be doing the keynote presentation to the Polymer Clay Association in Pittsburgh along with a mini forest .
Polymer donated a substantial amount of clay to the project.
This exhibit is basically his brainchild. He & Ai Wei Wei both collaborated on it. This is a pair that I wouldn’t have thought to put together, but the exhibit is a meeting of two artists that have more similarities and connections than meets the eye.