CANING MAGIC • Claire Wallis

Whether working on her pictorial canes or her faux work, the British artist Claire Wallis always strives to be as detailed and realistic as possible. She says there is no single label to fit her artwork. She loves to explore the possibilities of the medium and vary the pieces she creates. “I don’t like to make hundreds of the same thing,” she says. We asked Claire to share her rich experience with polymer with our readers. We talked about her unique style, colour palette, juggling art and family, the polymer clay community and many other things.

Claire was born in the UK and has lived in England all her life. Her first encounter with polymer happened in the 1980s when she was still a child. She fell for the medium even back then and some years later her affection for the medium was revived. “I recall making a wonky-eyed cat and some marbled beads,” she recalls, “and then I didn’t think about it for years until I saw some bangles online.” Her love affair with polymer clay is a long-lasting one and Claire has her reasons for it. “I am easily distracted and get bored really quickly but there are just so many techniques that you can use with polymer clay that I have remained fascinated by it for ten years,” she explains.

Speaking about techniques, not surprisingly she remarks that caning is her absolutely favourite one. “I love the ability to capture detail in a large scale and then miniaturize it, like magic,” says Claire. As she admires artists who can create photo realistic images, she tries to bring a degree of realism to her canes. In her own words, it is quite challenging at times due to the malleability of the material. “It is like trying to paint on a canvas that moves and distorts at will,” she gives us a rough idea of how difficult the process of building her amazing canes sometimes is.

We were curious about Claire’s creative process. She reveals that her creative process is intuitive rather than premeditated. She hardly ever goes into the studio with a specific idea or project in mind. She generally doesn’t sketch, she just scribbles down a description or a quick sketch. When working on complex canes, she sometimes makes a simple line drawing to use as a template but that’s all. “I just follow my muse,” she says.

As a self-taught artist, Claire mostly had to figure out how to work with polymer by trial and error and she greatly appreciates the process. In her opinion, studying art can both help and hinder your artistic development. Having to find your own way of working with the material is quite liberating. “You haven’t been taught that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to use a particular medium, you have no preconceptions of what your art ‘should’ look like,” she explains. On the other hand, if you lack the theoretical background, some aspects of the creative process can be more complicated. Claire provides us with her own example, “I wish my knowledge of colour theory and composition was less based on intuition and these are certainly areas that I feel would have benefited from a formal education.”

She did attend a few polymer clay workshops and what she stresses above all is the social aspect of learning. “The people I met through the polymer clay community have had a lot of influence both on me and on my work,” she says. When asked about her favourite polymer clay even, she mentions Polymania [which is an even organised in Bristol by Cara Jane Hayman – Ed.], because the event is always well organised and Bristol is one of Claire’s favourite cities due to its thriving and vibrant street art scene and historic architecture.

Learning and teaching often go hand in hand and Claire is no exception. She admits that she loves teaching, she even lists being a teacher among the greatest achievements in her artistic career so far. “To achieve the level of knowledge and experience that you can help someone else, that makes me feel proud of myself.” Claire notes that the exchange of ideas is what makes teaching so worthy for her, “You never know what the students will come up with or where they might take your technique, it is always surprising.”

And it is not only the support of the community that has made it possible for Claire to be so dedicated to her art, her family has also played a major role. “Thankfully my family have always been supportive of my clay work,” she explains, “they were some of the first people to buy my creations and were very vocal in their encouragement.” As a mother of two young children, it is sometimes difficult for her to find balance between her role as a mother and artist. Claire tries hard to find some time to clay and the help of her family allows her to spend time in her studio and travel to teach. “I couldn’t have achieved what I have without them,” she points out. Claire is hoping that one day, her daughter will become her clay mate in the future, because she loves to play with clay.

She currently can’t find enough time to make working with polymer clay her main job, but she would certainly love to be a professional artist in the future. At the moment, she manages to dedicate only a few hours each week to claying. She lost her studio when her son was born, that’s why she clays on a desk in the corner of her daughter’s bedroom. “This setup is not the most productive,” says Claire, “I can’t leave anything out as my daughter loves to play with my ‘scraps’ regardless of whether I have finished with them or not.”

Then we start talking about her signature style and Claire makes it sound as if there was nothing like that. She says, “I’m often accused of having a certain or recognisable style, but I’m still not sure what that might be. Highly detailed? Fiddly construction process? Bird themed?” She adds that she never intentionally set out to create a certain style and that she doesn’t think of her work as having any particular style. Despite this, she admits that there are some elements typical for her pieces.

“My work reflects things that interest me,” she says, “as a child I was utterly obsessed with dinosaurs and that fascination with fossils and stones and history has stuck with me, which is one of the reasons that faux rocks are a theme that repeatedly occurs in my work.” Another frequent theme in her art is bird motifs. She has created many amazing bird-themed pieces, just think of her kingfisher, eagle or penguin canes.

Apart from the subjects in her work, Claire’s approach to colours is also worth mentioning. She claims that she doesn’t actually have any specific palette but her abstract canes or pieces tend to be made in the shades of blue and purple in combination with black and white. While working, she separates her mixed colours and scraps into bags, for example, dark blues, pinks, etc. In this way, most of her colours get recycled through a cane or even multiple canes. That’s why it is often difficult, if not impossible, for her to replicate the exact same colours. “I dread anyone asking me how I got a particular colour in my pieces because I have no idea what went into most of them,” she admits.

Until recently, she rarely combined other mediums with polymer clay, perhaps due to the versatility of the material. “You can paint with it, you can cane with it, you can sculpt and cover everything and anything with it,” she hints at the variety of different techniques that can be employed with the medium. “I didn’t judge other artists who did mixed media, I just felt uncomfortable doing it myself,” she recalls. However, her attitude changed and she has been making more effort to experiment with paints, inks and surface techniques. She says that she wants to keep exploring this direction in her work.

Not only is she unafraid to experiment with various materials, she also boldly ventures into the field of modern technology. Despite the fact that technologies such as digital sculpting and 3D printing are costly and require a lot of space as well as time to learn new skills, she is planning to employ those in her work in the future. For now, she keeps using polymer clay, which can still surprise us. According to Claire, there are still many techniques from other crafts that can be applied to polymer clay, which means that artists are still able to com up with new techniques and ideas.

Given the relative newness of the medium, it is incredible how much it has developed. “I’m amazed how far polymer clay has come even in the last few years alone,” she says and we hope that the future development of the medium will be equally satisfying.