I’ve got a treat for you today. Wendy Jorre de St Jorre is an Australian polymer clay artist who started a year-long caning project and has now entranced and enthralled us with her weekly tree canes. Relatively new to the world of polymer clay, Wendy has amazed us all with her phenomenal designs and excellent workmanship. Pour yourself a cup of your favorite drink and sit down to get a view of Wendy’s world. She talks about her farm, her art, her tree cane project, and she even gives us a peek into what she’s planning next. You can see Wendy’s work on Flickr, where you can see all 39 (so far) weekly tree canes, her polymer clay horses, and some of the jewelry and boxes that she’s made with the tree canes. Before we get to Wendy’s interview, however, here’s a sampler of her journey with the tree canes:
Where do you live now? Tell us about your farm and the life there.
I live in Bullsbrook which is about 1 hour from Perth in Western Australia on a small 40 acre property. Our farm is mostly just for fun and because we love the lifestyle. We do run a small herd of beef cattle and a small flock of sheep. You need something to eat all the grass or you would be mowing forever! The rest of the animals here are pets, this includes Flame, the horse, Molly, Meg, Cezanne and Bailey the dogs and a multitude of hens, geese and guineafowl. I also have around 30 tanks full of tropical fish….another hobby tee-hee.
What are your other hobbies and what do you do when you’re not claying?
I potter around the garden which covers about 2 acres. I have around 200 rose bushes and lots of other plants, then there’s the olive grove and orchard. There are always plenty of things to do around here. The fish also keep me busy, cleaning tanks and sorting babies are my jobs for the weekends. I raise fish for several aquarium shops in Perth. I have Angelfish, Bristle Nose catfish, a few Tanganyikan cichlids and some Aussie Rainbow fish.
Where were you raised?
Right here in Perth! In the suburbs though, we didn’t move to the farm until about 2004 which is when the house was built there. Prior to that we lived in a regular suburb for 25 years where we raised our children. We have two, Aaron our son and Trina our daughter. Both in their 30’s now and living in their own abodes.
Do you have any art training?
I did a Diploma of Fine Art back in the 80’s. It was a 4 year course (I think or possibly 5). Subjects covered were Art History, Drawing, Painting, Design, Ceramics and Chemistry (of the ceramic kind). My main interest was pottery and I spent most of my time doing that. I had a studio in the back yard and my own kiln and when the children were little we spent hours there, them playing with clay and me making pots to my heart’s content.
What is your art/craft history?
After I completed the art course I continued with my pottery until around the end of the 80’s which is when the children started school and I went back to work. My kiln, a small electric one, had worn out at about this time too, so pottery came to an abrupt end. I amused myself, sewing and knitting when the kids were young. My mum is a seamstress, so I had her to teach me sewing and knitting is something I learned from mum and my grandmother too.
There was a time when Trina was about 9 or 10, so would have been around 1993 we dabbled with an Aussie brand of polymer clay. We made badges for a local Guinea Pig club that we were members of, to sell to raise funds. We had no real tools, no pasta machine just rolled the clay with a bottle and used our fingers mostly to press them into shape. I didn’t use the internet then so had no idea how much you can do with it. I used Araldite to put backs on them and spray painted them with a spray varnish that we had at the time for painting “little metal men” as we liked to call them.
I guess I should explain the little metal men as they are really quite an art too. There is a game called Warhammer 40,000 that my son liked to play, with several school mates of his. It is a futuristic board game that requires a large table with models of buildings, hills, trees and walls, these are placed over the table to create a battlefield. Players have their own armies of little metal men, these armies can be painted and the painting is as much part of the game as actually playing it, for some players. Back then Aaron had a budding interest in painting them, but was mostly interested in playing the game. I of course liked to paint, so I painted his army and even started one of my own. Not that I ever played the game, the army I chose was a colourful one and you no doubt can appreciate the colour aspect. Aaron’s army was predominately red and I found that a tad boring. Anyhow we spent many hours painting these little metal men. Oh and also making the buildings, hills, backdrops and a lot of trees….hmmmm that might explain my current cane project. I will always think back fondly on this time, it was so good to just spend time “doing stuff” with my son at those tender teenage years. As a side note Aaron still paints them now and his stuff is really cool, he has developed into quite a wonderful painter and I like to think I played quite a part in fostering this.
These are examples from my army. The Eldar.
Another army, I can’t even remember the name of it, but I did like to paint those horses! If you look closely the men riding even have pupils, quite a feat when you consider the whole figure is only 2” tall.
Any pics of previous work in other Media?
How did you get started with polymer clay?
I always intended getting another kiln and picking up the pottery again, but somehow I just never got back to it. The cost of a kiln is huge especially if I got one of the size I would really like to have so it kept getting put off. A bit before Christmas in 2012 I was feeling annoyed with myself as I had not made anything in years, knitting and sewing bored me, I still didn’t have a kiln, it was time to do something! I re-discovered our box of Aussie polymer clay in one of Trina’s cupboards (she had moved back home temporarily). Pretty much on a whim one day I decided to have a go at making some Christmas decorations with this old stuff which even after almost 20 years was still usable! Although it was a bit hard. Some of the packages still had labels on them so I googled the manufacturer to see where I might get some fresh stuff. Alas they were long gone so I googled some more to see what else I could find. Of course while googling I discovered online tutorials and got really excited at what you could do….and that caning stuff had me totally enthralled. It took a while for me to find a supply of decent clay, during which time I watched a lot of tutorials and dabbled around with some Fimo soft which is available locally. I had looked into clay types etc. and decided Kato sounded like the best bet and I could at least get it in Australia albeit 4000 kilometres or so away. My first order of it arrived in January 2013 and I have been a crazy caning lady ever since….lol.
What is the philosophy that drives your work? What do you strive to accomplish in your work? What values drive you to create what you do?
I have been described many times in my life as being a bit of a perfectionist and a tad obsessive. I have always tried to do my best at everything I decide to do and have a general attitude that if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing well….well at least to the best of my ability anyway. I don’t think I do this as a way of impressing people, this does not really concern me, but I am not happy if I know I have done a sloppy job of something. It’s not only art I’m talking about here, but everything, if I’m going to cook then it’s got to taste good! It’s also got to look good too. I don’t like things I do to look amateur. Now that’s not to say that things I do don’t ever look that way, because anything new you’re doing will always look that way. But I recognise it as such and then try to make it better I guess. This is where the obsessive side of me comes in, I do tend to settle on a “thing” for a while and when I do I throw my whole self into it….for hours on end if needed.
What I’m trying to accomplish is a tricky thing, I’m not really sure, I think I just like to make things and in doing so I want to make them well. Design, colour, originality are things I don’t dwell on a lot, but in a way those things are always in your mind and as you’re making things you’re constantly deciding if the colours fit or the balance is there. Art school no doubt filled my head with these things and it just becomes part of the process.
Everyone loves your tree cane project…what made you decide to undertake such a huge project?
Taking classes in Australia is not something easy to do as there just aren’t many options available, especially for something specific like complex canes. I had seen examples of work by Adam Thomas Rees, Jon Stuart Anderson, Dede Leopold, Carol Simmons to name a few and very much wanted to do something along these lines. Thinking back to when I did the Art Course, in our final year we did what was called a Studio year. Basically at the end of the main course we had to pick a theme and make ceramics that focused on that theme and work on it for a year. It had been a good experience in my mind and I felt it was a good way to stretch myself and could also be a good way to teach myself some caning.
I had made a tree cane just before Christmas in 2013. In early January 2014 when I was thinking about picking a theme, that cane came to mind. Trees seemed like a good subject, coming up with 52 if I was going to challenge myself to a weekly cane, seemed doable. I decided to go with the idea and see where it led me. I posted that first cane to Flickr in the first week of January and called it Tree cane #1.
At the time I really did not expect it to become anything that would interest anyone but myself. I was simply giving myself an objective to come up with a design on a specific subject, then make a cane, every week for the rest of the year. I aimed to try different ways of putting the canes together as a way of learning more. The Flickr upload was so that I could track my progress and perhaps I might see an improvement over the course of the year. Honestly that’s all there was to it. The last thing I expected was for people to follow my journey! The amazing thing though is that the encouragement from everyone has really pushed me to a point where I want to try and come up with something good or maybe better each week. I wonder, without the encouragement, would I have achieved so much?
The downside perhaps is that in trying to do better each week the canes have become more complicated or difficult, which often results in taking a lot of time. Which of course leaves little time left each week to do a lot of anything else. There is still some time, but not for anything major or in any way time consuming. Next year, when I have 52 trees finished, I plan to do other “stuff” and to use all those canes, I wonder where that will lead me.
I like trees and there are lots of different types to experiment with, it seemed an easy subject.
How long does it take to make each cane?
That has varied a lot. In the beginning they all took several days. I have however improved a lot and can go much faster now, especially on the Gum Tree ones as I have done a few that same way. The “Salmon Gums in The Mist” series took 3 days to do the 3 canes. Delft was a one day cane. But then I came up with the Tiffany idea and that is quite different in its construction and took me about 3 days for the one cane! I think with practise I would get better at that too and that style of cane has some possibilities I would like to explore more, so I had better improve!
How much time do you spend working on clay in a typical day?
That depends on the day of the week, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays I generally have the whole day to myself so I typically start around 7am and finish at 6pm. Wednesdays I can usually fit in 2 to 3 hours. Thursdays my mum is here so it just depends on what else is happening. Saturday mornings I can often work from about 7am until midday when my husband gets home. Then the rest of the weekend is spent doing farm stuff.
What brand of clay do you use?
For detailed caning most definitely Kato. I have tried Fimo Soft, Sculpey III, Premo and Pardo. The first two are not suited to complex caning at all. Premo and Pardo are OK for caning but too sticky for my liking. I like it when you can put 2 pieces of clay together, change your mind and peel them apart. Kato does this, Premo and Pardo often stick like glue as soon as they touch and this is a problem to me. For simpler canes they are OK but I don’t see the point in having blocks of both here when Kato does the job well. I also find Kato buffs up better than any of the others.
However when doing your Rustic Beads I did like Premo better as it’s softer and easier to impress and as they don’t get buffed at the end all was well. I also like Premo better for making baked sheets to carve Celie Fago style, which is something I plan to do more of in the future. I still haven’t managed to find time to do your Sea Glass Tutorial and I expect that Pardo will be the better option there, I have it all sitting waiting……see what I mean about not enough time left at the end of the week to do much!
What will you do with all your huge canes?
Boxes and vessels are plan number one….then I will just see where I end up. As of January stay tuned!
How do you store your canes?
Pictures are the best description here! The boxes are from Howards Storage World, recycle no 5 so they don’t react with the clay (read all about that here). I also wrap each cane in glad wrap, that’s just for keeping them clean and to stop them sticking to one another.
Do you currently sell your work or plan to do so in the future?
I have sold some, mostly through friends and family. I need to do something as I’m constantly getting asked by people via the internet. I think an etsy site is likely the best option. My biggest problem with that is the thought of having to drive to the post office all the time, it may just drive me crazy.
I have been asked recently by Galerie Friesleben to put some of my work there, which I will do soon. It will probably just be jewellery at first as I don’t have much of anything else made with trees on it, which is what they would like. Next year hopefully I can add to that.
Are there any advice or tips that you can offer that have helped you get good results?
Spending a year focusing on caning has definitely taught me a lot and I think that without it I would most likely flit from one thing to another and probably achieve less. This has really worked for me, it may well for others too. Perhaps I will pick another technique and do this again in a year or two, especially if I feel like I’m going nowhere at any time. But first I think I will need at least next year to just do what I can with all these canes.
Can you tell us a story of a time when you had an epic failure? If you resolved it, how?
I have had the occasional burning incident! Which is about the worst you can do as that is hard to redeem. Mostly polyclay is very forgiving, even if you break a piece it’s often just a matter of adding some polypaste and re-baking, or adding another layer. It’s just so versatile I think it’s nearly impossible to wreck completely. After working with pottery all those years ago this is like a dream to use. For the most part pottery goes in the kiln and what comes out is often not what you want it to be, but that’s it, re-firing is just not an option most of the time.
Of course I have had canes go wrong, especially the early ones before I reduced with any great skill. There is about 500 grams of very wonky Dachshund cane in a box, but it took me 2 weeks to make it so I will find a way to use it! My Guinea Fowl cane was meant to be the whole bird, but it got so big I stopped with just a head. But these are not fails, these are just part of the learning curve. Dachshund led me to learning a better way to reduce. Guinea Fowl taught me to find a way to contain the size. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but most errors are essentially lessons, so how could they be fails?
Now I have and still do from time to time make something that’s just plain ugly! These are my secrets…..and are already either residing at the local tip or have been transformed into something totally different…..so I can’t provide pictures! A recent ugly was the “Circus Train” character that we made at the Clay Carnival in Leslie’s class. I took one look at it when I got home and wanted to just chuck it out. But I had enjoyed the class, it was fun and I had REALLY enjoyed it even though my character was plain ugly. Part of me didn’t want to just chuck it out so I did what I usually do in these situations, I hid it from myself for a while, it got tossed in a box. A few weeks later I looked at it with new eyes, the head was still hideous but the rest I didn’t mind, even liked. The neck was wrong. So I fixed it with a hacksaw…chopped off the head and the not quite right neck and chucked them in the bin. Made a new head and neck, added some ruffles and some shiny paint….hey presto, I like it now. Ain’t polyclay grand! You can fix anything! Here it is now that I like it….lol.
What direction do you see your work going in the future?
Vessels is the current plan, decorated with tree cane slices. I also want to do more with my horse sculptures and perhaps some other animals as well. I don’t want to decorate them with canes as this has been done and extremely well done by others, but I do want to do some more with them, just what yet is not clear to me.
Who inspires you?
Top of the list, Donna Kato. I saw a YouTube video of Donna making canes when I first started exploring with polymer. That video is really what got me started into polymer clay and also caning as a whole. Then when Donna came to Geraldton (only 500 kilometres from here) I met her while doing her 4 day workshop. It was awe inspiring. Donna is a great teacher and her calm method of working really struck me at the time. I think this allowed me to really discover this medium and ultimately made it possible for me to make the canes I do.
What artists do you admire and who are some key influences?
The list is long, most definitely all the caners I mentioned earlier.
Ginger Davis Allman, your Blue Bottle Tree page is a source of constant inspiration, the posts always give me ideas, sometimes I just read them and wonder, other times they lead me on a whole new journey. Either way I am inspired.
Polymer Clay Daily, another source of constant inspiration.
Kathleen Dustin, I love her work and I once emailed her with a question, her gracious answer taught me a lot.
Lynda Moseley, her tutorials have taught me heaps.
Sarah Shriver, I always admired her fantastic cane work, then I got to meet her at the Carnival and I learned so much more.
Julie Eakes, I have done some of her tutorials which taught me a lot about reduction. I also got to meet her at the Carnival too.
There are definitely a lot more but I think to sum it up is this. One of the things that draws me towards polymer clay are all these people and more, that are always willing to teach, help, inspire. That is something I never experienced in all my time working in ceramics. People then were more interested in keeping their techniques and secrets to themselves. Now whether that was a sign of the time, or of the artist, I do not know. Perhaps it’s the internet that has changed things, I don’t know but I find the willingness to share that comes along with polymer clay enthusiasts, is one of the biggest attractions of this craft.
Thank you so much for allowing us a peek into your world, Wendy. Your work inspires us and you have revitalized an interest in the art of polymer clay canes. I know I’m not alone in saying that I look forward to seeing how your art evolves.- Ginger