Paper Clay Illuminated: Journey to an Exhibition

“Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become.” —John O’Donohue

Lorie Nelson's signature artist stamp.Experimenting with materials has always been an important part of my studio art-making practice. I often hunt for interesting materials in various stores, looking for electronic parts, unusual packaging material, and in general, anything that may be tucked away in a corner, just waiting for me to discover. Eleven years ago, when I was wandering down a dimly lit aisle at Rocky Mountain Clay in Denver, I noticed a plain-looking, hazy plastic bag of clay that had obviously been relabeled with a Magic Marker. The label simply read “paper clay.” I decided to bring it home and experiment with it.

At the time, I was taking a poetry workshop. My assignment was to write five simple poems and create a collage for each on the adjoining page. As I reviewed my poems, I wondered, “What if this page became animated, lifted out of the book, and transformed itself into a sculpture representing the poem? What would that look like?”

I hauled the paper clay out of my closet and went to work. I rolled out a slab the same size as the page in my book. Then, I asked the clay to become the poem and began working. I had no idea how this material would behave. I was grabbing different objects on my worktable to use as supports. The clay was really floppy, but it dried quickly and was very strong once dry. I was amazed when I knocked over one of the sculptures and it didn’t break. I managed to break off the head and arms of a figure I was being particularly brutal with but discovered that I could easily put it back together with a little water. In the end, I had several paper clay poem-sculptures.  I was impressed by how flexible this material was and wanted to find out more about it.

I turned to books, articles, and websites. I bought a book by Rosette Gault about paper clay and continued to experiment. A year later, I attended a few workshops. During one of them, I heard about a paper clay–sculpture symposium scheduled to take place at the International Ceramic Studio (ICS), in Kecskemét, Hungary.

The more I read about the symposium, the more felt I had to be there. I applied and started making plans to attend. As I sat at my desk looking out a fogged-up window in my home in Portland, Oregon, I wondered how this was going to happen, given that I had just started a new job. I wanted to be there more than anything. After some negotiations at work, I was granted a short leave of absence, and I ran for it!

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