Finding My Way to Clay / by Layl McDill

I will never forget the first polymer clay bead I ever saw.  It was about 5/8 inch tall and had a tiny giraffe in it. I was amazed- how did they put a tiny giraffe in the colors of the clay?  I figured it must be tiny little strands of clay put together.  Eventually I came across polymer clay at the craft store.  I'm not even sure how I knew this was the right material to use but I had grown up trying lots of crafts in 4-H so I was willing to just dive in and see what happened.

So it was during a Christmas break from art school when I was home with my little sisters that I made my first millefiori attempt.  This meant making long skinny noodles of clay and stacking them together to try to build a clown face.  Needless to say it didn't work at all --but hey this colored clay was still pretty fun.  

 The page in the  Klutz Clay book that changed my life.

The page in the  Klutz Clay book that changed my life.

A year and half later I picked up the Klutz book that came with polymer clay and gave basic instructions on all kinds of polymer clay techniques.  I flipped through and saw the photo of a big ghost and a small ghost!  A huge light bulb popped up above my head!  That's so obvious- make it big and then make it small!  I couldn't wait to try it out.  I had accumulated lots of clay but hadn't done much more than twist it together to make simple designs.  So I went to the studio and took all the clay I had to make my first design. Did I start with something simple, like a flower or a star?  No! I made a ballerina gorilla - of course!  It took all the clay I had and was probably about 3 inches in diameter.  

As you can imagine it did not turn out at all. Once I made it small it nearly disappeared and the colors squished in a lot of ways that I did not expect, but I was still amazed with the concept and confident that I could eventually figure it out.  At the time I was doing lots of mixed media sculptures so if my attempts with clay didn't work I could swirl the colors together and add it my sculptures some how.

 Early simple canes created in 1995.

Early simple canes created in 1995.

Gradually, over the next five years, I began to figure out the technique.  I made smaller, simpler canes that helped me figure things out.  I still loved to attempt huge canes. It's not that I planned to make them huge; they just ended up that way.  I still remember one of my first big fish that I made right before my first daughter was born.  It started with big eyes and then it ended up about the size of dinner plate, with a height of 4 inches.

 First Fish made in May 1997

First Fish made in May 1997

I was starting to get so obsessed with clay that I even thought I might bring some clay with me to hospital when my baby was born.  Luckily I stopped myself from that but I did eventually figure out that playing with clay and taking care of my kids was a very good fit.  I packed up clay to go with me wherever we went- to the park, to the children's museum, to dentist appointments, to soccer games, etc.  

My way of learning millefiore was through lots of trial and error.  Mostly error.  Luckily each time something didn't work out I would see some parts that did and be determined to make it work the next time.  I still remember how disappointed I was many times but I was so fascinated with the technique that I kept going.  I often think I would not have been able to live with all these mistakes if it had not been for my mixed media sculptures.  I was able to use up my not-so-perfect slices in these pieces.  One of these series was "Crazy Legged Angels" which had fabric bodies and polymer clay feet.  I sold hundreds of these and even did a large wholesale catalog order which gave me the "excuse" to make lots of canes.  

 Crazy Legged Angels

Crazy Legged Angels

I also made a lot of "picture holders" which were shapes of polymer clay with wire sticking out.  These just had random slices of clay all over them so it was fine that the pictures didn't really look like something.  But of course my goal was to get them to look like something, eventually. Eventually they did.  Over the past 20-plus-years of playing with clay, I have continued to learn how the clay works and the best ways to make elongated shapes in clay that actually look like something.  So far I've made hundreds of designs and animals in clay- even a giraffe, my version of that first giraffe I never have forgotten. 

 The Giraffe cane I made about 10 years ago, which now hangs on my "Archive Wall".

The Giraffe cane I made about 10 years ago, which now hangs on my "Archive Wall".

To see more of my canes in progress, visit my Silly Milly Facebook page.