Remembering Polymer Artist and Advocate Elise Winters

Elise Winters, an artist and arts educator from New Jersey, has died at the age of 71, having survived and thrived during 16 years of cancer treatment. The Rochester, New York, native was born in 1947. Winters’ early career was as an artist and teacher working in the media of ceramics and photography in New Jersey. However, it was her participation in the polymer clay medium, where she worked as an artist, educator, and advocate beginning in the mid-1990s, for which she is known nationally and internationally.

Winters began experimenting with this oven-curing clay-like material in the 1990s. She became one of a number of individuals, with professional art training, who explored the possibilities that polymer clay held for creating decorative arts objects and handmade jewelry. Winters’ unique wearable pieces were part of a national movement among artists to explore the use of unexpected and nonprecious materials, in unusual forms and scale, for the creation of personal adornment.

By the late 1990s, Winters began to be included in numerous articles and books on polymer clay, and images of her works were frequently cited by other authors. At this time, she also began to write a large number of articles detailing her research on a variety of technical approaches to the medium and her development of innovative techniques. Her works were also selected for juried and invitational exhibitions across the country. In the first decade of this century, Winters’ jewelry was included in some of the most prestigious contemporary craft exhibitions in the US, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, the Smithsonian Craft Show, SOFA (Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art, and Design) Chicago and SOFA New York, and the American Craft Shows in Baltimore and San Francisco.

Red Ruffle Cascade Neckpiece, 2009 Polymer and acrylic paint 9 1/4 x 5 1/2 x 3 5/8 inches Racine Art Museum, Gift of Elise Winters and Sherwood Rudin Photo credit: Penina Meisels

Red Ruffle Cascade Neckpiece, 2009
Polymer and acrylic paint
9 1/4 x 5 1/2 x 3 5/8 inches
Racine Art Museum, Gift of Elise Winters and Sherwood Rudin
Photo credit: Penina Meisels

As an indicator of her career recognition, Winters’ artwork now resides in the permanent art jewelry and decorative arts collections of six major US museums, including the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA, Boston); the Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey; the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Philadelphia; the Racine Art Museum (RAM), Racine, Wisconsin; and the Mingei International Museum, San Diego.

In an article published by Ornament magazine in 2009, Winters was quoted as saying, “I have never been this happy about what I’m doing . . . the work I’m doing now feels like I found my voice and it’s flowing off my fingers.” The article describes Winters’ one-of-a-kind art jewelry as having “a certain quality of light that seems to illuminate from within. This shimmering characteristic calls to mind the radiant sunlight of early dawn.”

In 2007, Winters created the Polymer Art Archive website, which has become an active repository of documentation on the development of the medium and its history for artists, collectors, museum curators, and researchers. Continuing to function today under the editorship of art historian and polymer artist, Rachel Carren, this site documents polymer art in exhibitions, notes which museums have made acquisitions of this material, and maintains a selected bibliography of books and articles on the field.

In 2007-08, Winters also began what came to be called the Polymer Collection Project. She formed a consortium of polymer art collectors who were seeking homes in art museums for works in their collections. Winters toured the country meeting with museum curators to select the proper homes for some of these accumulated works and to advocate with curators on behalf of her medium. After a group of institutions indicated their serious interest, a team of dedicated volunteers helped Winters assemble groupings of artworks that served the collecting interests of each participating museum while accurately representing the breadth of the field.

Woodland Ruffle Cuff, 2008 Polymer and acrylic paint 3 x 4 x 4 1/8 inches Racine Art Museum, Gift of Elise Winters and Sherwood Rudin Photo credit: Penina Meisels

Woodland Ruffle Cuff, 2008
Polymer and acrylic paint
3 x 4 x 4 1/8 inches
Racine Art Museum, Gift of Elise Winters and Sherwood Rudin
Photo credit: Penina Meisels

In the end, nearly 300 works were donated to six different institutions. The Mingei, Newark, MAD, MFA Boston, and PMA each accepted from six to 52 artworks. The bulk of the collection—a concise 180-piece archive documenting many of the studios that advanced the medium up to that point in time—was donated to RAM. The gift to RAM was debuted with a larger look at the field in a 2011 exhibition and book, both titled Terra Nova: Polymer Art at the Crossroads.

In a review of the Terra Nova book in Vol. 32 No. 3 of METALSMITH magazine, artist and writer Donald Friedlich stated that the interview with Winters about the donation project, “. . . should be required reading for anyone who wishes to advocate for a particular art medium. It is a brilliant case study of someone who has been an artist, teacher, collector, curator, fundraiser, and visionary.”

Her efforts on behalf of the polymer field were also noted in an article on Winters’ work and the Polymer Collection Project in American Craft magazine’s October/November 2011 issue in which editor Monica Moses stated, “This is the story of how one woman, with grit and determination, got the museum world to pay attention to artists making groundbreaking work in polymer—a material often misunderstood, if not maligned.”

Winters is survived by her husband, Sherwood Rudin of Haworth and two brothers: Aaron Winters of Rochester, New York, and Dr. Dan Winters of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Those wishing to make donations in Winters’ honor should consider a contribution to the Oncology Department of the Englewood Hospital, or to the Racine Art Museum, in Racine, Wisconsin.

For additional information, please feel free to contact:

Bruce W. Pepich
Executive Director and Curator of Collections
Racine Art Museum, Racine, Wisconsin
[email protected]

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