Sometimes it is quite hard to describe an artist’s style. This doesn’t apply to the art of Melanie West, a renowned American artist, whose artwork marries her interest in biology and passion for great design. Her signature bangles and other jewellery display Melanie’s excellent sense of form, pattern and colour, but her work is more than that. “It’s fun, big, crazy, sensual, slightly – and sometimes more than slightly – weird, and… um… fun,” she says.
It doesn’t come as surprising that Melanie identifies the earth, nature and science as her main sources of inspiration. Having grown up in Maine, in the area of New England, she spent a lot of time exploring ocean life, which clearly translates into her pieces. Other things that inform her complex veneers and organic forms are microscopes and satellites. Sometimes all these directions merge in a surprising way and concoct something truly innovative. Melanie has a great way of describing the process. “I have a huge stew pot in the back of my head where I put everything that inspires me,” she says, “whether a single cell organism or slime mold, and when it rises to the top of the stew pot, it comes out in my work.”
When Melanie first encountered polymer clay, it was not love at first sight – she actually didn’t like it at all. Many years later she started working with Precious Metal Clay (PMC), but the medium was expensive, and there was a limited way to incorporate colour into her jewellery. Her teacher at the time suggested that she inlays PMC components with polymer clay. She followed her teacher’s advice and, the second time around, she completely fell for the medium. “It was polymer’s color and cost that drew me in, but it was its ability to do so much, and its ‘forgiving’ qualities that hooked me.”
In her polymer beginnings, Melanie attended several workshops taught by some of the best polymer clay artists and teachers including Kathleen Dustin and Seth Lee Savarick. Melanie herself is really keen on teaching, she assists her students in their process of discovering the properties of the material and exploring their own creativity. “I try to teach my students to watch the clay, see what it’s doing as you work with it,” she explains, “sometimes the best discoveries happen that way.”
Beating the concept of a lonesome artist, Melanie doesn’t suffer from being isolated. She has lots of support from her family and many friends working with the same medium. “I have a lot of friends, all around the world, who work with polymer,” she asserts, “I love the polymer community!”
As a professional artist, she works with clay every day. Her days invariably start with coffee, then she moves on to dealing with some online tasks such as managing her social networks, blog and e-mail communication. After that she is ready to start working with clay in her studio. Her creative process involves mixing her own shades of clay by adding pigments into translucent clay. Unlike many other artists, Melanie doesn’t sketch her designs before she makes them in clay. She says she can’t do it, because she is unable to recreate her drawings into actual objects. “If I draw out my ideas, they leave my head, and it’s done,” she says, “I have just a rough image in my head and manifest it in polymer.”
In her opinion, mastering the medium and becoming technically confident is essential for several reasons. Firstly, developing your skills gives you artistic freedom. Melanie recalls that she couldn’t find her own creative voice until she gained confidence in using the medium. Secondly, as your skills improve, it’s more and more difficult for people to depreciate the medium itself, as it often happens. Melanie’s own example proves it. “When I was beginning, and my skill level was beginner/intermediate, of course folks would see polymer as plastic,” she describes her experience, “But as one raises one’s personal bar, and the quality of work improves, it becomes harder and harder to see it just as plastic. The art shines through.”
We were curious about Melanie’s current projects. She explores fiber arts and combines polymer clay with fiber to create stunning pieces involving wool, silk and cotton. Melanie is also interested in using modern technology in her work and she’s not the only one. “3D printing has really taken off here in the USA, and polymer artists are finding all sorts of ways to incorporate digital technologies,” she notices and admits that she currently doesn’t have enough time to fully explore the topic. When asked about the future of the medium, she says that she suspects the properties of the material have probably been explored to their fullest potential. However, she expects changes to be made to the material that will result in new and different polymer artwork.