“My name is Laura Tabakman and I am an artist. It took me a long time to own that statement.”
IPCA EuroSynergy 2 Conference, 2016.
During her talk in 2016, Laura Tabakman went on to say that she used polymer clay when it served her purpose but that she did not think of herself as a polymer clay artist. Those statements resonated deeply for me.
The previous year, I had retired from the workplace and was planning to focus on becoming an artist: specifically, a polymer clay artist. I had been creating with polymer clay since 2008 and was in love—as I still am—with its apparently limitless possibilities. My journey had included some side trips though when I started taking some art classes in more traditional 2-D media at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. The Desert Museum is a premier destination in Tucson (my home) and its Art Institute offers classes taught by local and nationally known nature artists. Those classes attract students from all over the country.
In addition to one-off classes, they offer a program to obtain a Certification in Nature Art. I do like structured learning; and, with more time on my hands, soon after retirement I signed up for that program. I was still focused on becoming a polymer clay artist and the program didn’t include any 3-D media of any kind. But I felt that being around artists and building skills in other media could only help me be a better artist. Upon enrollment, students met with the program director. I was nervous when I told her that my main interest was in polymer clay. To my surprise, she was very receptive and insisted that I include polymer clay in my portfolio that would be judged after completing the required course work.
I was already working on my certificate classes when I attended EuroSynergy in 2016. Laura’s talk encouraged me to think more broadly about where I might go with my work. Jeffrey Lloyd Dever spoke about being welcomed into basketry exhibits with his mixed media pieces. Melanie Muir pointed out how work in mundane materials such as wood, glass, and paper can command 4- and 5-figure prices and urged us not to limit ourselves by being apologetic about polymer. I was inspired.
My polymer clay and mixed media work has gone on to be exhibited in regional art shows and as far afield as Florida. When I received my Certification in Nature Art in 2019, two of the five pieces in my graduation show included polymer clay. My work is now represented in a local gallery. I approached the Desert Museum Art Institute about teaching a polymer clay class and my proposal was accepted. The class “A Little Relief: Mixed Media with Polymer Clay” was scheduled for April 2020 and sign-ups were going well. Sadly, it has been postponed due to COVID-19.
I share this story in hopes of inspiring you to also think more broadly about where you might go with your work. There seems to be a perception that there is a divide between what we do and what the “art world” does. There is no doubt that this divide was once true. I attended a talk recently by Nancy Jacques, a curator at the Tucson Museum of Art, about the historical under-representation of women in art. She explained that in the past, our concept of fine art was limited to painting, sculpture, printmaking, and architecture. Anything functional (the primary domain of women’s creativity historically) was considered, at best, “applied arts.” This has changed dramatically, if slowly, beginning even in the late 1800’s. Since then, art movements from The Arts and Crafts Movement to Pop Art to Postmodernism and social movements such as Feminism and Civil Rights have greatly blurred the boundaries of labels for creative endeavors.
Consider this from My Modern Met: “…many up-and-coming contemporary artists are stunning the world with their original approach to art. On top of putting their own twists on conventional forms like painting, sculpture, and installation, they’ve also popularized unexpected forms of art, like embroidery, origami, and tattoos, proving the endless possibilities of the all-encompassing genre [of Contemporary Art].”
And this from the Saskatchewan Craft Council: “…we see more and more that fine craft magazines, galleries, and councils accept works which seem to emphasize form over function: this is contrary to traditional models which focused on fine craft as functional, technical, quality work. Contemporary fine craft is still about technique and quality; but an artisan can sometimes be more excited by the prospect of aesthetic form than the probability of someone using their piece for water, for food, to sit upon.”
I would suggest that it is the “average person” who falls back on the use of pigeon-holes, more so than those make, curate, or study art. An artist friend of mine likes to turn the common statement, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like” around to: “I don’t know much about art, but I like what I know.” The only dismissive comments I’ve ever had about polymer clay as an art medium were along the lines of “Oh, I used to play with that with my kids.” I have received nothing but positive interest and encouragement from instructors, curators, and artists working in more traditional art media and venues.
Now, you may have no interest in showing your work in juried art shows or in art galleries. That’s perfectly fine. I do hope you can take away some satisfaction in knowing that what you do is not separate from the art world any more than is the work of someone who paints for their own pleasure. And it doesn’t mean you should not think of yourself as an artist. I strongly encourage you to read this article: “Am I an Artist? (When is it okay to start calling yourself an Artist?).” In seven minutes, the author, Deborah Christensen, will refute pretty much any argument you can think of to the contrary.
So, love your polymer clay and hold your head high!
Obtaining degrees in archaeology and geology took Laura outdoors a great deal and gave her a deep appreciation of the natural world in and of itself and as the context of human life. She loves to travel and, after college, spent nearly 10 years living overseas where she was immersed in other cultures. Always fond of animals, in recent years she has become a birder—developing a deeper awareness of birds’ variety, behaviors, and habitats.
With these varied experiences, it is no surprise that Laura has worked with many creative media. Her professional background includes 8 years drawing maps by hand and 16 years as a website designer. Creativity for fun has included many types of textile arts as well as jewelry design and mosaics.
In 2008, she was introduced to polymer clay and it became a favorite medium. More recently, she has studied traditional 2-D art media while pursuing a Certification in Nature Art, which she received in early 2019, from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. Her recent work most often combines polymer clay with other media, creating low-relief wall pieces.
Laura is a member of the Tucson Polymer Clay Guild, International Polymer Clay Association, and the Southern Arizona Arts Guild. Her work has been exhibited in juried and invitational shows at diverse venues across southern Arizona and as far afield as Florida. In addition, she has had two solo shows in the Tucson area. She is most honored to have a piece in the permanent collection of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.