Kathleen Dustin is acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the polymer clay movement. She earned an MFA in ceramics before receiving national attention for her groundbreaking work with polymer.
In beautiful pieces based on botanical forms, Dustin works polymer clay using a variety of techniques.
Trained as a mathematician, she is a problem solver by nature. She does not sit down to play with the clay so much as to solve specific design problems, to which she gives much focused thought. We are glad that Kathleen agreed to an interview for the Society, which is full of inspiring reading.
What does your typical day look like? Which part of the day do you really enjoy?
I actually have two times of the day I love. I enjoy the morning at 10:00 when I go into my studio. I anticipate the day ahead of me with excitement at interesting things to work on. I usually start by spending a little time in my sitting area in the sun looking out the window.
But, I also love the late evening when most of my creative juices come out. The world around me is going to bed, there are no interruptions and I have all this quiet time to myself to work until I’m tired out.
Is your studio located in your home?
It is located above our garage and is connected to our home, but is not in our home.
Are you connected with someone from the polymer clay community?
Yes, quite a few people. I’ve met so many people through conferences, exhibits, and workshops, but my closest art friends do not practice in polymer. I find it is better to have artist friends in other media because then we talk about concepts and design and aesthetics. We don’t get bogged down in technique questions like “How did you do this?” or “What tool did you use to do that?”
Talking about people in the clay community, do you have any experience with other artists copying your original designs?
I don’t take copying very seriously because I have found that if my work is truly authentic and my own voice is strong, nobody can make what I make. When an artist’s work is simply based on a technique they’ve discovered or invented, it is very easy to copy their designs. If an artist’s work is based on concepts and underlying ideas, it is not easy to copy.
Also, if an artist’s work is complex, it is not easy to copy. I have seen other artists who I can see have taken some of my ideas as inspiration, and that is good because their work is always different from mine. We don’t live in a vacuum, especially now with social media, so it is difficult NOT to be inspired by other artist’s work.
And what about your students?
When I teach, I will answer any questions people have. I have no secrets because I believe a technique is only a technique and it’s what one does with it that matters. Frankly, if an artist is good enough to do the same work I do, they will want to do their own ideas, not mine.
Do you search for inspiration in different fields of art and design?
One of my favorite books is “Steal Like An Artist”. And Picasso said, “All art is theft”. We should certainly have open eyes to what has gone before us in the art world. My work as well as other artist’s is usually a combination of inspiration from others, inspiration from what we see and feel in general, and all this is filtered through our own lives, experience, skill, and education. I feel my job as an artist is to “pay attention” to everything I see and experience in life, which certainly includes art and design.
Often, we can find unusual shapes in ceramics or furniture or unusual colors in textile design. So, of course paying attention to other fields of art and design is valuable to me.
When you look back, at your beginning of working with polymer clay, how much has your style been changing over those years?
As my expertise with polymer has increased, my style and concepts have changed. I have always, however, used a variety of styles and concepts, sometimes at the same time. As I said before, I try to pay attention to life around me, to the lives of other women, and to the stages of life I am traveling through. Recently, I began a “Gramma Series” in which I refer to the drawings of my grandchildren from ages 4 - 6 and then I make jewelry. I couldn’t have done that 40 years ago. I have a wide variety of techniques that I can use to realize the ideas of my grandchildren. My work has always changed and continues to change.
Speaking about techniques, which of them are your most favourite? Do you still experiment with translucent clays?
I wouldn’t say I have favorite techniques, just techniques I use often to get my ideas across. I continue to enjoy the translucent layering I developed primarily because it shows a rich depth of surface, layers of designs, one over the other. Using this technique in an abstract way enables me to express the layers of life: joy and exuberance, prosperity and health, pain and suffering. Then when all of these are layered together, it makes something beautiful and life is beautiful.
Pain and suffering? Really?
People don’t know that I put pain into all of my abstract pieces symbolized by a red slash. What I’m saying in this abstract work is that none of us can escape pain in our lives and in fact, pain is what makes life beautiful. Having that red slash in the design adds something that makes the abstract design beautiful. It’s only a small part, but it is necessary.
Do you feel like you have explored all techniques and possibilities of this material or is there still something you are interested in to try?
I take workshops from time to time to see if there is a technique I might be able to use with my ideas. Most of the time, I get an idea and then I figure out how to do that idea. It’s mostly problem solving. Then if I’m having difficulty, I ask another polymer person what they use for this problem, or how they do it. I also always am available for others to ask me what I do to solve a problem.
Techniques are only a vocabulary to enable me to speak the language of my ideas. I don’t learn a new technique just to learn a new technique unless it’s something I will use to get my ideas across.
I like how you are open to share your own solutions and ideas. Have you ever thought about writing a book about your way of claying?
I’ve thought about it, but only very briefly. I would like to do a coffee table book that shows all the series of work I have chosen to do with polymer because I’ve done enough different things that I think it would be interesting. I’m not interested in a How-To book, however, just pictures showing how I do something, perhaps. There are enough how-to books out there.
What are the best places you have visited? Is there any place that truly amazed you?
One of my most favorite cities in the whole world is Istanbul. Of course, we lived in Ankara, Turkey for four years in the early 1990s, so I visited it often and know it pretty well. But the first time I went there, I fell in love. It is such an interesting city of historic depth and numerous cultures within a beautiful setting.
As far as places I’ve visited because of polymer clay – either teaching or a conference – I love Prague and Malta (the whole island nation, not just Valletta). Prague is beautiful, not too large, and so very interesting. In Malta, I was stunned by the prehistoric art.
Of course, an amazing city of the past I was terribly fortunate enough to live in for a year is Beirut in the early 1970s. I was a junior-year-abroad student at the American University of Beirut, and such a city on the edges of the turquoise Mediterranean with snow-capped mountains rising up behind it was unparalleled. I would pinch myself every time I walked to my classes to make myself know it wasn’t a dream. The devastation of war and corruption in the Middle East has been a terrible loss to the whole world.
Lot of ladies in our community recently started sharing their knowledge via online classes. What do you think? How do you feel in an online and offline environment?
I taught my first online class with Clayathon this past February and I liked it. I think there are pros and cons about this way of teaching and I think the future will hold a hybrid of in-person and online classes.
What are the pros?
One of the pros is that anyone around the world can take a class. This has made it possible for me to do a new project designing contemporary necklaces for the women of Samunnat, an organization in Nepal empowering women who have lived with violence and stigmatization, to make and sell to support themselves, their children, and their elders. They’ve been selling polymer jewelry for about 12 years so they do it well, but their designs are becoming passe and I want to help them do more contemporary designs for better sales. So, I’ll be teaching a class to them via Zoom next Saturday to make a couple of new designs. I have always wanted to visit them, but had not the chance. Perhaps in the future I’ll visit, but for now I can help online. Go to my Instagram to see the first design.
And what about cons?
The problem with online is that I can’t travel to wonderful places and meet wonderful people. I still want to do that, so in-person classes I hope will still be an option.