My Metal Clay Guild Goes to the PMC Conference: One Member's Tips and Tales

Earlier this summer, several talented ladies from my local Louisiana metal clay guild, L'esprit du Metal, took a fun and informative field trip to the annual (albeit final) Precious Metal Clay (PMC) Conference. Here's our guild president Paula McDowell's lively retelling of the trip, including everything from a play-by-play of the conference and samples of their work created during conference workshops to tips and resources for making metal clay jewelry and how to Be An Artist. If you've never tried metal clay, I hope this inspires you to experience it. (You can learn more about metal clay in our free metal clay jewelry-making eBook.) It remains my favorite jewelry-making technique/medium of all, because to me, it still seems like pure magic. Enjoy! —Tammy

The 2012 PMC Conference: "The Things We Make, Make Us"
by Paula McDowell

Almost as soon as the date for the 2012 PMC Conference was announced, I began planning to attend. It seemed like it would never get here, and now it's over and done!! The 2012 PMC Conference was once again sponsored by the PMC Guild and supported by Rio Grande and Mitsubishi, the maker of Precious Metal Clay products.

Simone Palmer's sweet bird whistles from Donna Penoyer's class. The smaller whistle is the smallest bird whistle that Donna had ever seen made in her classes!
Andi Benefied's exquisite split-leaf pendant from Donna Penoyer's class

This was a special year for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I attended the conference with eight other members of L'esprit du Metal, the Louisiana Chapter of the PMC Guild, and we had a blast. Secondly, this was my fifth (of six) PMC Conference. And, finally, this was the last PMC Conference as we know it. The PMC Guild is closing its doors and will no longer organize the biannual event. (Note: There is already a great deal of buzz for trying to get a new metal clay organization off the ground, one that would be brand-neutral and be of interest to all of us who love working with metal clays. Rio Grande has generously taken on the archives and some of the functions of the PMC Guild website.)

Heather Griffin's darling hinged box made in Terry Kolvacik's class.

Several of us headed to Ft. Mitchell, KY, near Cincinnati, OH, early to attend preconference workshops. Upon arrival, the weather was unseasonably hot (and got hotter AFTER we left), but the company was amazing and the creativity started flowing! And, while focused on the task at hand, we had an early opportunity to catch up with former acquaintances and start making new friends!

Simone Palmer was off to take the "Songbird Whistles" class with Donna Penoyer. Andi Benefield was making "Instant Earrings" with Barbara Becker Simon and "Split-Leaf Jewelry" with Donna Penoyer. Heather Griffin got busy on a "Hinged Pendant" with Terry Kolvacik, and I was excited to work again with Hadar Jacobson, this time in her "Mokume Gane Rings" class.

I had first taken a class with Hadar Jacobson in 2011 and have communicated with her many times since. I find her to be a very generous instructor, and I love her design sensibilities that tend toward architectural forms. Her base-metal clay products and research have helped to round out the metal clay toolkit, and she is avid about finding both product formulas and processes that make firing base-metal clay easier and more reliable.

Hadar Jacoson's City of Rings

Paula's mokume gane Nut Ring (above) and Negative Space Ring (below), before firing.
Paula's Negative Space and Nut Rings after firing and finishing.

Mixing Bronze, Copper, and Steel Metal Clay in Mokume Gane Rings

In the "Mokume Gane Rings" class, we worked to duplicate patterns of wood grain much like those first created in seventeenth-century Japan and for thousands of years since in Damascus steel swords. In bronze, copper, and steel, we created micromosaics and pieced them together in different ways to imitate wood grain and flowing water patterns.

Finished sizing is an issue in metal clay jewelry because of shrinkage during firing, and to complicate matters, metal clays shrink at different rates on their own as well as differently in combination with other metal clays. Combining metal clays can also be tricky when they have different firing schedules and tolerances, and it's important to use the right clay in the right place and quantity. Furthermore, Hadar has recently found a process using a propane camp stove to pre-fire metal clay pieces (which greatly reduces phase-one firing) and more reliably burn the binder away. I needed to "see" the process in person and experience it hands-on. (Note: Hadar has a great video of the pre-firing process on YouTube.)

After figuring out sizing considerations, I got busy making two rather large and unique rings (as shown at the right).

While we were quite tired after class each evening, we did do a little exploring, having a Mexican meal complete with margaritas and a delicious dinner at The Greyhound Tavern, a wonderful award-winning establishment just down the road. We also had a chance to drive into Cincinnati one morning, getting a great view of the Cincinnati skyline and riverfront on our way to Trader Joe's!

Another four members of our group arrived just prior to the conference start, and our real purpose for being there began! We poured over our registration materials to see who was attending, who was presenting and demonstrating, when the vendor room would open, and what we would buy. And, those of us with charms to swap wanted to see who else was participating in the charm swap. We also couldn't wait to examine the swag contained in our smart PMC Conference bags.

Jackie Truty, Art Clay World, and Paula trying to remember how long ago it was that they met at an International Gem and Jewelry Show in Southfield, MI. Twelve, thirteen years ago?

After a warm welcome and a few announcements from Tim McCreight, master of ceremonies (and Mr. PMC himself), we were treated to a fun keynote from Ellen Wieske, a studio artist, author, and assistant director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. She treated us to a presentation on "Material Practices," an approach whereby through understanding a material, you gain control over it and have the ability to extract information from it.

Ellen considers herself a Material Practitioner, transforming materials and objects and looking for the connections between them. The presentation included some fun photography of cars in Detroit (where she grew up) and a survey of mailboxes–some practical, some works of art, and some just plain funny. In summary, "the things we make make us"!

We all then went off to experience a variety of presentations and demonstrations. Each topic was offered twice so attendees could customize their experience based on interest. We were offered demonstrations by:

  • Christopher Darway and Terry Kolvacik (aka The Jersey Boys) on a variety of topics including: using polymer clay and two-part molding compound as temporary armatures for unusual hollow forms; embedding titanium in PMC; the dangers of burning super glue (cyanoacrylate = cyanide); and the advantages of having a super glue de-bonder in case your thumbs get glued together! 
  • Barbara Becker Simon and Vickie Hallmark on combining glass with metal clay. Did you know: Small pieces of dichroic glass can be torched fired and cooled in fiber blanket to make cabochons; glass edges can be wrapped in metal clay paper or metal clay paste can be painted or silkscreened onto glass for interesting effects; and enamels can be painted onto or mixed into PMC for interesting colors and effects.
  • Japanese artist Akiko Nishida demonstrated delicate flower forms in metal clay and other sculpting mediums using simple tools and working very quickly.

Other presentations included Elizabeth Agte on cold connections, Lisa Cain on innovative textures, Susan Dilger on social media, Holly Gage on "the Creative Inferno," Hadar Jacobson on base-metal clays, Lora Hart on teaching metal clay classes, Donna Penoyer on alternative ways to support yourself as an artist, Helga van Leipsig on "the process" as a design tool, and Tim McCreight and Ellen Wieske performing "Designing Without a Net." (Many of the conference presentations are available at: 2012 PMC Conference Archives.)

In between sessions, the halls were filled with old friends catching up, new friendships being made and charms being swapped. After dinner, the vendor room opened and was completely swamped! 

Remember the Past on Day Two: The History of Metal Clay with Tim McCreight

Our own L'esprit du Metal member Katherine Wadsworth was there, offering a selection of beautiful lampwork and etched glass beads.

On the second day, we were treated to a history of metal clay by Tim McCreight. In 1995, Tim pulled a group of artists together at Haystack to try to figure out the what, why, and how of PMC. Unbelievably, that was seventeen years ago! Tim chronicled a number of milestones:

  • In 1996, PMC was introduced at the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference and the first of five invitational master's classes was held.
  • In 1999, the PMC Guild was incorporated, the first U.S. certification class was offered, and Mitsubishi introduced PMC+.
  • In 2001, Mitsubishi brought us paper metal clay and PMC3.
  • In 2002, the first PMC Conference was held at The College of Wooster in Wooster, OH, setting the stage for five more biannual conferences.

Tim stirred up many wonderful memories for many of us in the audience: past keynotes, charm swaps, "show & sell" events, metal clay guild chapter displays, presentations, demonstrations, and in many cases, the genuine silliness that happens when old and new friends get together.


Cecille Revels, Kathleen Nowak Tucci, and Paula, moments after Kathleen presented Paula with her very own "Selma" ring.

Selma Ring, Kathleen Nowak Tucci

After several more demonstrations and presentations, cocktails and dinner, the "Show & Sell" event opened. Many metal clay jewelry artists were there providing an opportunity to buy amazing pieces of metal clay artwork, books, and tools as well as to just talk with some amazing artists.

There was also an opportunity for some of us to get some one-to-one mentoring. In fifteen-minute segments, some of us were lucky enough to have an opportunity to sit down with the likes of Allison Lee of CraftCast, Lisa Cain, Susan Silvy, Patrik Kusek, Lora Hart, and Gordon Uyehara to get some good advice, a critique or much needed encouragement. I have to say it was pretty intimidating to walk into that room! But, I got some great advice (and homework) from Patrik Kusek.


Two of Paula's favorite and fabulous artists: Wanaree Tanner and Kathleen Nowak Tucci.

In addition to being worn out, we were all a little starstruck as well. Particular kudos to Simone Palmer. In 2010, she had to work up all of her courage to go talk to one her favorite artists and metal clay idols, Lorena Angulo. This year, she ended up helping Lorena at her Show & Sell table, including contributing her cell phone to be used as a calculator!

I personally have long adored the work of Kathleen Nowak Tucci–and suddenly she was right beside me at the Rio Grande booth in the vendor room.

Day Three: A Party, A Tribute, An Exhibition

But then, it was day three, the very last day of the very last PMC Conference. I didn't want it to end. The PMC Guild's Fusion Award was presented to Dr. Masaki Morikawa, inventor of PMC. The Fusion Award is given to a leader in the crafts community who has devoted themselves to support the field and foster innovation.

Dr. Murikawa presented Fine Gold Cards* to Tim McCreight, Jeanette (Nettie) Landenwitch, and Darnell Burks for their dedication to making the PMC Guild a preeminent organization. Tim McCreight is of course responsible for bringing PMC to the U.S. market. Nettie Landenwitch has been providing leadership as the guild's director for the past seven-and-a-half years, while Darnell Burks has been quietly overseeing the guild's financial matters from the very beginning.

* (Even though the page for Mitsubishi's Fine Gold Cards is in Japanese, you should go take a look. These are 99.99% pure gold cards manufactured by Mitsubishi for special events–a must see!)

"I am quite pleased to say that one of my pieces, titled Inspired, was included in this prestigious collection!" –Paula

The PMC Conference juried exhibition "Look At Us Now!" subtitled "from the hands of science and scientists to the hands of art and artists" featured one-hundred-and-thirty-one images from over fifty artists, providing proof that amazing work is being done in metal clays around the world.

Then, we were off again to fit in as many demonstrations and presentations as we possibly could in the remaining time. There was another opportunity to visit the artists in the Show & Sell event and the vendor hall to make sure we had bought all that we wanted, needed, or could carry out.

The Disco ladies of L'esprit du Metal: Janelle Delicata (honorary member from Maine), Paula, Andi Benefield, Simone Palmer, Kathy Prejean, Heather Griffin, and Dianne Hoyt.


The not-so-mysterious Tall Texan, Loraine (aka Donna Penoyer).

We were then treated to a Gala Celebration Dinner hosted by Rio Grande. In addition to some excellent food and a take-home gift from Rio Grande, the disco-themed party included a palm reader (I have a water hand), a caricature artist (doing very kind portraits), and an opportunity to step in front of a green screen for a fun photo. We even had a visit from a mysterious Tall Texan . . .

There was also a very nice tribute to Tim McCreight, orchestrated by Lisa Cain, with a bit of "This is Your Life" combined with a collection of over eighty charms made by the metal clay community as tribute to Tim.

Congratulations to fellow guild members Cecille Revels and Simone Palmer, who won some special prizes from Rio Grande. I am quite sure they will both be generously sharing with all of us in the L'esprit du Metal guild!

PMC Conference Metal Clay Takeaways: Tips and Advice for Being an Artist

One of the biggest takeaways from the conference for me was about being an artist. You have to work as an artist every day. Working is the only way to find your voice and get your voice to inform your work.

Tim McCreight and Ellen Wieske advised that you have to go into the studio and work, even if it's just pushing things around your bench to see what fits together. It is necessary to have all the ideas, good and bad, in order to move forward. You have to sometimes ask yourself, "What do I not want to do?" Or, switch up your space or how you use your tools in order to look at things in a new way.

Helga van Leipsig provided great advice on setting a schedule of creativity time, and if you let something use up that time, you have to repay it and put it back in somewhere else. She recommended time management strategies in order to make time to play with a critical eye. Sometimes you have to try twenty different methods to find one or two that you like–and then try twenty more things with the things you like to find your true voice. My favorite quote from her presentation, courtesy of Gustave Flaubert, is, "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

Patrik Kusek advised me to experiment with negative space (which I adore) and to sketch with paper shapes and colors. Work in series to understand what you do and don't like as well as what works and what doesn't. I need to get busy on my homework; he will be checking up on me in a few weeks!

As someone who is trying to be a full-time artist, I take these things to heart and am trying to bring them into my daily life. It's hard. There are a lot of things competing for attention–and fear of failure (or success)–that just plain can get in the way. But, I'm trying.

Paula's 2012 PMC Conference Charm Swap Bracelet, featuring work from thirty-five artists in six countries.

As I said, this was a bittersweet conference for me. On one hand, I was there with a great group of friends–those from Louisiana and elsewhere. I learned a lot and took away much inspiration. But I don't know where or when the next opportunity will be to bring this group together again.

Back, L to R: Buffy Cave (honorary member from Massachusetts), Dianne Hoyt, Andi Benefield, Katherine Wadsworth, Simone Palmer, and Heather Griffin. Front, L to R: Cecille Revels, Paula McDowell (eyes closed, as usual), Kathy Prejean and Hedy Beinert (Shreveport, LA honorary member).

After seventeen years, metal clay is still not a household name or well-recognized art medium, but there are those of us dedicated to the material and pushing it to the limit. If we could bottle the enthusiasm from the conference, that problem would be solved in a minute! I hope that the metal clay community will find a way to come together and continue to celebrate the wonderful art that is being created with metal clay. Because "the things we make, make us."


Janelle Delicata and Paula

And for my three wonderful traveling companions, just remember that what happened in the Odyssey, STAYS in the Odyssey!

Thanks to Janelle Delicata and Heather Griffin for additional photos.

Editor's Note: I know you're super excited about working with metal clay by now! Just in time for our new boo, Metal Clay for Jewelry Makers: The Complete Technique Guide, by Sue Heaser. Whether Paula's story has inspired you to begin your own metal clay journey or if you're as experienced as she is at the magical medium, you'll find endless value in owning this complete metal clay resource.

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