The History of Millefiori by Layl McDill

I am constantly asked "How long does it take you to make things?"  My answer is usually "it's in-calculable" and then I go on to share how I make all the parts and pieces because I think that is REALLY what people are asking.  Of course it's very hard to explain in a nutshell how I build tiny images into chunks of clay because most people have never heard of the ancient process of Millefiori.

First of all, the word "millefiori" means "thousand flowers" in Italian, which is where this technique was mastered in glass, mainly in Murano, the island off of Venice, famous for glass art.  When I went there, I hoped to see someone creating millefiori in glass but I guess it isn't as showy as glass blowing because that's all they were demonstrating.  If you have seen the tiny little flowers in a glass paperweight (or on a vase) you were most likely looking at Murano millefiori.  

But I'm getting ahead of myself because the technique was used long before it got it's name. In fact, it was originally called "mosaic glass."  It actually dates back as far as Egyptian times but I have found very little information on Egyptian millefiore, except what I have seen in person.  In 2014, when I went to the Louvre in Paris, there was this chunk of glass with a cow in it!  It was an amazingly detailed millefiori glass and it's many hundreds of years old.  Egyptians were using the millefiori technique as far back as 1400 BCE. This isn't the best photo, below, since I took it through the glass, but you can also see a cane of glass with a geometric design next to it too.

So just think what it took for the Egyptians to get a cow into that tiny piece of glass (it was about 1 inch in diameter).  I am sure they did it the same way, generally, that they do with glass now, which is somewhat similar to the way I work with polymer clay.  The concept is to place rods of colored glass together to form the shape.  These rods are short, but once heated up they can quickly stretch out the cane to make it any size diameter needed.  I've never seen it done, but hope to some day.  There is a great article on How Stuff Works that takes you through the whole process.  

I love to search for more Egyptian millefiore whenever I go to an art museum but it is rarely found.  I did see some at the Metropolitan Musuem of Art, back in 2000, when I was just getting started in polymer clay.   Once you get to Roman times there is a lot more to be found.  They made a lot of half faces that they sliced and put together to make a whole face.  They are pretty creepy looking, really, but you can see that they are based on Greek and Roman theater masks. 

The Romans seemed to have shared the millefiori technique with Europe in the 7th and 8th Century. Then the technique disappeared until the 18th Century, when the glass artists of Murano started to use millefiori on their trading beads, which were traded primarily in Africa.  The technique of millefiori was widely used for African trading beads because they could produce so many of these detailed beads much quicker than any other glass bead technique.  The glass artists of Murano had many secret glass techniques that the Italian government wanted to keep secret. (Check out this history of glass from Britannica.com).  They didn't even allow the glass workers to leave the island!  But the glass artists of Altare (a second great center of glass-making in Italy) were much more free in sharing their knowledge, so gradually techniques including millefiore started to spread.

One of the most amazing glass millefiore artists from the 19th Century was Giacomo Franchini.  I have an amazing book about him and other millefiore artists of his time titled "Miniature Masterpieces: Mosaic Glass 1838-1924" by Giovanni Sarpellon. The detailed portraits that Franchini created were like none other!  Check out this page from the book that shows one of his most famous canes of Giuseppe Garibaldi.  If you ever come across a vase or paperweight at an antique shop or estate sale with tiny faces like these floating around it in it, snatch it up - it could be worth thousands!   A group of three signed pieces (meaning a cane with his initials GBF) were recently sold at auction for $11,875!

 

Millefiori beads from Murano are still some the of the highest quality you will find in the world but of course other companies are always trying to emulate their beauty.  India, China and Indonesia manufacture their own versions that are similar but it is obvious that they do not have the years of continued craftsmanship to compare with work from Murano.  Here is a good article to help you identify the "non-Murano" bead. 

Artists all over the world have been creating some pretty fantastic glass millefiori in recent years.  I am doing some research on these artists and hope to write an upcoming blog about them.  I do so admire the skills of those creating millefiori in glass because it must be much more difficult than in polymer clay.  For one thing, they are working with materials they can't touch, plus they have to deal with glass that hardens and stretches at different rates.  

I often wonder if polymer clay artists would have been able to come up with millefiori without the long history of craftsmen keeping the technique alive over the centuries.  It seems that the technique did come and go over the years, so maybe it could have been invented on it's own.  The concept really is very basic.  For me, I just needed to begin with the idea of starting short and squat and then, later, working longer.  But I certainly could have learned a lot faster if I had a master to teach me some basic tricks- like height-to-width ratios and reduction methods.  I learned mostly by trial and error. Luckily I came up with ways to use my not-so-beautiful mistakes on work that I could sell and therefor buy more clay to try again.  Now artists that are learning have the internet to go to and tutorials galore.  Which is awesome, because it means that the techniques of millefiori in polymer clay will not disappear anytime soon!

 

This is one of my first canes (made in 1997).  My first five years or so of creating canes I made them way too short, so reducing was very hard.  I would end up with about half that wouldn't work out!  This cane did have a lot that did work and was one of my early favorites that kept me hopeful that I would one day figure it out!

This is one of my first canes (made in 1997).  My first five years or so of creating canes I made them way too short, so reducing was very hard.  I would end up with about half that wouldn't work out!  This cane did have a lot that did work and was one of my early favorites that kept me hopeful that I would one day figure it out!

Here is a bead made from my lobster cane.  

Here is a bead made from my lobster cane.  

Inspiration Interview by Layl McDill

My friend Beth Wegener from the Polymer Clay Guild of Minnesota is going to be interviewing me soon for a talk at the International Polymer Clay Association about inspiration.  She sent me a nice list of questions that really got me thinking. So I thought, to get my juices really going on the subject, I would write a blog on the ever elusive subject of inspiration.

This is one of my favorite questions to answer: "Where do you get your ideas?" I never seem to answer it the same way twice because the simple answer is "everywhere"—but that isn't what people want to hear.  So I often talk about how I get ideas from different types of art, including children's book illustration (Dr. Suess of course!), Asian art, Indonesian art (my Grandmother's house was filled with Indonesian puppets and furniture from Indonesia), graffiti and pop art.  Or sometimes it's easier to talk about specific pieces and tell the story of their conception because every piece has it's own unique story.  

I have lots of different methods for getting inspired; sometimes I think for me it is hard NOT to be inspired.  I often say it is like a spigot in my brain: ideas want to flow in, non-stop. Sometimes I have to just turn it off so I can move through my day but, when it's time to get ideas, I just turn it on again.  It's often on when I am out for a walk, just looking at the world around me, or on long drives across the country.  It is especially turned on when I am traveling in strange places or in museums.  

Let There BEE Windmills

Let There BEE Windmills

One question Beth had for me was about how nature has inspired my art.  I think most artists will answer that nature is a big part of their inspiration process.  I know I have recently been inspired more and more by nature.  Since I grew up in Wyoming, where nature was all the art I ever saw, I think for a long time I really rebelled against the concept.  But, in the last few years I found myself coming back, looking at landscape and nature in a new way. Through the lenses of the art I have been creating, I have seen how I can apply my technique of multi-patterns and repetition to the shapes and forms I encounter in nature.  My piece "Let there BEE Windmills" was inspired by driving for hours across Iowa where there are hundreds of windmills in the distance and wide open spaces.  I wanted to play with pattern and texture on each hill and try to replicate that ongoing expanse of land.  

Another intriguing question that Beth asked is "How do I know when an idea is good?"  To me this is a strong gut feeling that I can't ignore.  I just know I have to make it.  Most of the time I can't quite imagine the whole piece or how it will all come together.  There is a feeling of challenge and of the unknown.  I often have basic ideas in my head for many months before I get to make them.  But sometimes an idea is sparked by something I see or think of and I am compelled to make that piece right away.  Rarely do I start a piece and not feel like finishing it.  Most pieces I have started are worked on until done because I am so compelled to know what is going to happen next—like watching an exciting movie or reading a compelling novel. 

Sometimes I do have to pick and choose which idea I get to work on first.  Most of the time this problem is deadline dependent.  It's not a very romantic concept, but deadlines are essential for artists.  I am very self motivated because I let deadlines push me.  If I have a show at a gallery coming up, I know I need to finish a certain number of pieces of a specific size. This gives me the incentive (or excuse depending on how you look at it) to get art finished.  Or sometimes I have orders for particular pieces, which will push me to make those pieces first.  Art fair season always keeps me motivated because whatever I sell out of the week before is top on the list to make the next week. UNLESS I am totally tired of making that particular type of work; then, no matter how popular it is, if I am no longer excited and inspired by an idea, I move on to something else.

I often think of my brain as a big mixing pot that I keep throwing things into, never knowing how it will all come out in the end.  With some of my pieces I can really pinpoint the exact way that I came up with an idea for it.  For instance, "Are There are Doorways in the Waterfalls?" is one that was inspired by a Japanese print of a waterfall.  I drew my own version of it in colored pencil and then transferred it into a polymer clay wall piece.  I also remember that when I was almost done with it, I went to see the movie "The Grand Budapest Hotel," which inspired me to put a gondola in it.  

Detail of "Are there Doorways in the Waterfall?"

Detail of "Are there Doorways in the Waterfall?"

I've also come up with some easy methods to get the juices flowing.  One of my favorite art series is called "Scribble Scapes" which started with actual scribbles left in my sketchbook by my nephew.  Later, when I doodled on those pages, I let my mind just grab at whatever floated up, filling in the spaces in a sort of meditative way that left me wondering where all these new ideas came from.  I use this same open mindedness when I am creating with my clay.  At times I will just bring out a pile of scraps, basically doodling in 3-D with the clay.  Last fall I had a lot going on in my life; I really needed some meditative, creative time.  So I made multiple mandalas (doodling) that became part of "Color Overload," below.   

Color Overload

Color Overload

Beth's final question to me was "What advice do I have for artists?" or "What words of wisdom do I have to give?"  I think a lot of times people think there is a trick to being creative, that only artists can use, but I really believe that anyone can become more creative.  Frequently it's a case of not trying too hard or trying to force something.  If I ever feel like I have to try really hard to think of something, like a title for a piece, I usually can't do it.  It's better for me to just let it stew in my mind and wait for the idea to percolate to the surface in it's own time.  In the meantime I just let my mind go and play. Something always pops up, eventually.  

Musing on Museums by Layl McDill

“Boarders at Rest” by Annette Messager 

“Boarders at Rest” by Annette Messager 

A few weeks ago my husband and I rediscovered a wonderful place- the public library.  It was amazing how that feeling of endless wonderment came rushing back upon walking through the stacks of books. When I walked by the comics section, with the big books about comic strips of the past, I was transported back to being twelve, when I was first allowed to go to the library on my own and check out whatever I wanted.  Back then, there were books about fairies and books about games and even books about names in the stacks that I carted home.

 

On this trip to the library I leafed through many art books, soaking up inspiration. I ended up checking out just one book: “Art and Artifact, the Museum as Medium” by James Putnam.  It's a fascinating look at the relationship between art and museums, including art that is made about museums, criticizing museums and even using the museum’s pieces as parts to make new pieces of art.  

 

I really connected with the concepts and ideas in this book because my love for museums goes back to early childhood, to one of the most over powering feelings of wonderment that I can still remember.  We were on our trip to Yellowstone and had stopped off at a museum in Cody, Wyoming.  In a large section of the museum there were thousands of beautiful and unique arrowheads laid out, row after row. I still can’t quite explain the rush that I felt, viewing all those arrowheads.

 

There are several pieces in “Art and Artifact, The Museum as Medium” that evoke that same feeling.  One is a cupboard full of taxidermied sparrows, clothed in tiny knitted garments by Annette Messager titled “Boarders at Rest."  Another is a table of 16,000 human and animal teeth, by Ann Hamilton.  This piece, called “Between Taxomony and Communion,” has an eerie effect due to water dripping onto the table, oxidizing it to a dark, red color. 

“Between Taxomony and Communion” by Ann Hamilton

“Between Taxomony and Communion”

by Ann Hamilton

The numerous, fascinating pieces in this book make a person look at the idea of museums in many different ways.  One chapter is about artists using the collection in the museum to make strong statements, just by re-arranging the pieces.  For instance Fred Wilson’s juxtaposition of slave shackles with fine silverware in his installation titled “Mining the Museum”.  There are also interesting stories about how artists have covertly exhibited in museums, like Jeffery Vallance’s reaction to being rejected from many museums; he added his art to the wall sockets in the Los Angeles County Art Museum, without their consent!

 

Close up of "Scribble Museum"

Close up of "Scribble Museum"

This book is a rich collection of fantastic ideas and creative takes on the concept of museums.  I am inspired to create more pieces that evoke that feeling of endless possibilities.  One of my favorite pieces, created last year, is my “Scribble Museum” which was based on a funky grid drawn in my sketchbook by my nephew who was four at the time.  Each section of the grid emulates a “room” in a museum – some more straightforward, like the “bird bones” room, which has drawings of bird skeletons on little shelves.  Other sections are more abstract, like the room that is mostly filled with a stairway of bricks – each brick with a design or picture inside. 

As I head into a new year of creating, I will be thinking of this book and my love of museums.  I don’t have any big trips planned to far away museums next year, but I will certainly visit my local museums to be filled with inspiration.  We will see what pieces emerge.