Polymer Art Recognized as Museum-Quality

Dever Radii Polymer Art
Jeffrey Lloyd Dever Blossoming Radii, 2006. Polymer, nickel-plated steel wire, and plastic-coated wire, 5 3/8 x 2 9/16 x 1 ¼ inches. Racine Art Museum. Gift of the Artist. Photography: Penina Meisels.

Elise Winters was trained as a photographer, worked in ceramics, and spent much of her career as a high school art teacher before finding a passion for creating art jewelry with polymer. Thanks to Winters’ drive over the last decade to get recognition for great works of polymer art, a medium thought to be just for kids has been raised to the stature of fine craft along with wood, glass, ceramics, fiber, and metal.

Monica Moses, editor-in-chief of American Craft Magazine, writes:

This is the story of how one woman, with grit and determination, got the museum world to pay attention to artists making groundbreaking work in polymer — a material often misunderstood, if not maligned. The story culminates in a genuine milestone: the establishment of a permanent collection at the Racine Art Museum in Wisconsin, with an exhibition, ‘Terra Nova,’ opening in October; a symposium at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread; and publication of a lush 130-page hardcover book.

Bonnie Bishoff and J.M. Syron Meander Credenza Polymer Art
Bonnie Bishoff and J.M. Syron Meander Credenza, 2006. Polymer, ash, and Japanese tamo wood, 32 x 65 x 24 inches. Racine Art Museum. Gift of the Artists. Photography: Dean Powell Photography.

Most people aren’t aware of how sophisticated polymer art has become: “They aren’t likely to know the painterly polymer-veneer furniture of Bonnie Bishoff and J.M. Syron, or Tory Hughes’ amazing facsimiles of jade, coral, turquoise, and ivory,” Moses writes. Or Winters’ bold jewelry fabricated with elaborate swirls of color.

Moses writes, “As a material, polymer is as humble and accessible as glue sticks and glitter. You can buy it at Michaels, mold it with your fingers, bake it in your oven.” Winters told Moses that people often think of dinosaurs, snakes, and little beads sold online for pennies.

Polymer’s composition is a synthetic modeling compound. Sometimes it is mistakenly referred to as polymer clay, but polymer artists made the distinction to Moses that “clay is mud, from the ground.”

Polymer has been available in the U.S. since the mid-1970s, so it’s a relative newbie to the art world. Other craft mediums that are considered professional have centuries of documented achievement.

To help polymer gain legitimacy in the art world, Winters did two things: she set up PolymerArtArchive.com to document stories and seminal events of the 1980s and 1990s before they were forgotten, and she called “on friends in the field to amass a collection of the most fabulous polymer pieces to be presented to curators.”

Few curators had any interest. But Bruce Pepich, executive director and curator of collections for the Racine Art Museum, accepted 191 pieces of art that Winters had collected from the polymer community for the permanent collection. He also took dozens of pieces to be studied for historical significance, and helped Winters place other pieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Newark Museum in New Jersey; and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York contacted Winters to request pieces.

“What’s next for Winters and her fellow advocates?,” Moses asks. Rachel Carren, an art historian devoted to recording polymer history and an artist making distinctive polymer jewelry, answers:

Carren wants polymer manufacturers, whose marketing she calls ‘appallingly dorky,’ to embrace their fine art users. (Cobalt blue was retired by one recently in favor of a color called ‘denim.’) A bigger prize would be a slot in the curriculum at a university or two.

Source: “How Polymer Hit the Big Time,” American Craft Magazine, Oct./Nov. 2011
Images provided by Racine Art Museum; used with permission.

Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.