Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is award-winning artist Loretta Lam. Loretta is also a studio jeweler renowned for her work in polymer clay. She hangs in high-end galleries and art shows around the country. She’s also the author of the recent book, “Mastering Contemporary Jewelry Design.” Today she’ll talk with us about that as well as her own jewelry journey. Loretta, welcome to the program.
Loretta: Hi, Sharon. Thanks so much for having me.
Sharon: I’m delighted. Can you please tell us about your jewelry journey? Did you like jewelry when you were young, or did you come into it later?
Loretta: I always joke that I was born to accessorize. I did it all when I was a kid. I loved to make hats and scarves and embellish my clothing with color. One of my earliest memories is when my mother gave me her button box to play with when I was a little girl, and I would string buttons into long, gorgeous necklaces. I was probably three or four. I can remember stringing the buttons on a shoestring. Obviously, I was too young to use any needle or anything, but I always made jewelry of all kinds through my childhood and youth. When I went to college that was my course of study.
Sharon: I like that, born to accessorize. How did you first encounter polymer clay? Isn’t that pretty much the only medium you use right now?
Loretta: It is. I got my degree and then I went into the working world of business to try and figure out my options, what I was going to do as a grownup. My options, I thought, were very limited at the time. I could either pack up a tent and start going to craft shows, or I could work in someone’s studio on their bench, and that didn’t appeal to me. Neither one really grabbed me at that time, so I went to work like anybody else. Fifteen years later, I saw polymer clay and it immediately attracted me, especially the color. There was something about the process that clicked with the way my brain works. I resisted it for a while. Because I was so attracted to it, I thought I might be going down a dark alley here, but I picked up my first little cakes of polymer clay and three months later, I was doing my first craft show.
Sharon: Wow! But up to then, you were metalsmithing.
Loretta: I was metalsmithing, but once I graduated, I did fine art. I was painting and drawing. That was my outlet while I worked in international business. I put down the jewelry altogether until I found polymer.
Sharon: So you started with it and haven’t dropped it since.
Sharon: It’s what you’re known for.
Loretta: It’s been 20 years, yeah. There are artists that hopscotch from medium to medium, and then there are those who find one thing and they drill down on it and it becomes their thing. That’s what happened to me. It was exactly the right medium for my talents and abilities.
Sharon: What is it that attracts you?
Loretta: I’ve always been a colorist. As I said, I worked in collage and fiber, and in school I worked in enameling. I’ve always been about the color, and polymer is direct color. It’s the same in its raw state as it is in its current state, unlike, say, ceramic glazes and enamels, where you have to imagine what the colors will be like in your head, in your imagination. With polymer it’s pretty much the same, and that allows me to work my palettes with more sophistication and nuance. I can really get what I’m going for. I don’t miss the mark quite as often.
Sharon: I’ve never worked in polymer. Do you buy the color? Does the clay come in different colors?
Loretta: The clay comes in 30, 40 colors, depending on the brand, and then you mix them like you would if it were solid paint. Imagine two tubes of toothpaste. One is white and one is red, and you mix them together; you blend them together and you get pink. Polymer is like that. You have to be more intentional about your color blending, but it blends like that, so you can create a very nuanced pallet. You can work from the brightest brights, to the black and white graphics, to the earthy shades that I love so much. Whatever you want to do with it, it’ll do it with you. It’s also sculptural. It’s three-dimensional. Unlike working in metals or other things where you have to form it over something, this takes the form itself. I can hand roll shapes, and I can carve and sand shapes like you would with wood. It’s a very versatile and remarkable medium.
Sharon: It sounds like it. Were you one of the first working in it?
Loretta: No, it came to the U.S. from Europe. It started out as a German product. It’s 50 years old, I think 51 years old this year, but in the very early 80s artists brought it over. The kids who were traveling abroad in the 70s in Europe brought this clay back, and it was the early 80s when it got its first round of artists working with it. As I started in the 90s, I’m the second generation of artists, but because we’re so new everyone works with this material in very different ways. That makes it exciting, too.
Sharon: Obviously the imagination is there.
Loretta: It is for me. I always tell people I won’t live long enough to do all the ideas, to create all the pieces I have in mind.
Author & Expert on Mexican Silver: I don’t think any of us will live long enough to do that.
Loretta: That’s right.
Sharon: But I hope you live a long life. Switching to your book, “Mastering Contemporary Jewelry Design,” which for those listening is a beautiful book and a roadmap in many ways. Did you see a gap in the market?
Loretta: I feel so lucky to have found my real passion in life. I was in my 40s when it happened. I feel so grateful to be part of the international craft community and the jewelry community, and to be able to make a living with my hands in 21st Century America. I wanted to give back. I’ve been teaching for 15 years, but it wasn’t satisfying that feeling. I looked around and noticed that my students and the other craftspeople I saw at shows had incredible skills. They knew how to make just about anything, no matter their medium, but they didn’t seem to pay much attention to design. It seemed like it challenged them and scared them a little bit, and I felt that I had that knowledge and could fill that gap, fill that need. I was very driven to do this. It was a passion project to give back to the community.
Sharon: When you say they were challenged by design, do you mean they couldn’t pick a color palette? What do you mean by that?
Loretta: There were two parts of my business: the working craft artist and the jewelry teacher. I saw that people wanted to be safe; they wanted to do something that was very acceptable without thinking. They didn’t have the language for design. They didn’t know how to work with balance or rhythm or movement, and they were scared to think about it because it challenged their sense of what they were doing, the value of what they were doing. I thought, “I can teach them this. I can show them that this is a learnable skill,” and that was the major motivation for wanting to do the book.
Sharon: I love how it is a roadmap, a step-by-step guide—how to think about this and do this.
Loretta: Yes, I tried to be very careful about breaking it down into manageable bites because it’s a lot of information. I’m very proud of the way the book came out and the job the publisher did. I agree with you; it’s a gorgeous book.
Sharon: Did you pick the pieces that are showcased?
Loretta: Yes. I curated the entire book. It was a yearlong project. Fortunately, I know so many of these artists personally. I knew their work, and I knew when it came time to talk about a specific thing, say, how to use texture in your design, I had certain people I could immediately call to go look at their work and find a good example. They were thrilled to work with a first-time author. It was very exciting. Very few people hesitated at all, and to find new artists around the world that I hadn’t heard of before or seen on the internet, it was really fun.
Sharon: Sounds great. I looked through the book and I thought, “Oh my God, this must have been a massive project.”
Loretta: It was a challenge. It was a good challenge, though.
Sharon: One of the first things you talk about is the goal of inspiration in jewelry design. What role does that play?
Loretta: I think inspiration is everything. I think you can easily tell when a design has been done by rote, like as an exercise or a job or as part of a collection, but it’s academic. It doesn’t have the soul of the person inside. Inspiration is what is personal and individual to each of us, what makes it an original that can’t be copied. It’s what makes art art—that is your inspiration. If you tune into what’s exciting you, what turns you on, what you’re curious about, if you work that muscle, then the inspiration gets better and better, and you almost never get stuck. You just keep working.
Sharon: If you see a student who’s stuck, who keeps doing the same thing, how do you help him find their spark?
Loretta: As a student, I think you can see from the book that I have a pretty good eye for other people’s work. Somehow I can see where they’re trying to go, and I encourage them to go there. I ask them questions and set up problems so they are gently moved out of their comfort zone. I always say to my students, “You can either be comfortable or you can be growing, but you can’t be both at the same time. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but you’ve got to do it.”
Sharon: That’s great. It’s good to remember for anything.
Loretta: For anything, right?
Sharon: Yes. What else would you like us to know about your work and what you do? What would you advise people starting out in the business to do?
Loretta: I would say that an artist’s life is a self-directed journey. You have to get up, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and go after it. You’ll get discouraged. People will discourage you. People discouraged me. That’s probably why it took me so long to get around to it. You often go from being on a clear path where you know what you’re doing to being lost in the tall grass in the very next minute. It takes faith and courage, but it’s very rewarding. I think if people are called in a creative direction they should follow that call, because you can’t live a life that is not yours. It’ll be difficult, and you might have to do it as a hobby or part-time, but it will make your life so much more rewarding to follow your own calling. I believe very strongly about that, possibly because I was discouraged from being a creator. I’m passing it on by telling my son, encouraging him that he’s a writer, and I encourage everything he does because I want him to fulfill his best self.
Sharon: Wow! It’s great for your son to have that kind of support.
Loretta: I hope so.
Sharon: I always admire the makers I talk to, because it does take a lot to stick with it and say, “I’m going to do this, and I’m going to figure out a way to make a living.”
Loretta: It does. These days, our industry has been hit harder than most. People don’t realize that. The craft shows have all been canceled. My teaching engagements are all canceled. Of course, we’re looking into virtual stuff now, how to use technology to help us make a living, but it’s a difficult time. That’s going to happen.
Sharon: Yeah, it’s a weird time for everybody.
Sharon: Well, Loretta, thank you so much. I give you credit and congratulations on a beautiful book.
Loretta: Thank you.
Sharon: I was really pleased, because I have worked with some of the designers in the book and I could say, “Oh, that’s Anna Johnson’s work.” I can see it.
Loretta; Oh, I love Anna Johnson.
Sharon: I felt like it’s one of those entries that matched the design.
Loretta: You’re right. Anna Johnson is very young and she makes this incredibly soulful work. When you talk about inspiration, you can see it in all of her pieces. I think to myself, “If this young woman in her 20s were not to follow this path, the world would be missing something, and she would be missing something.” So, bravo to the young ones.
Sharon: Yes, I give them a lot of credit. I could not do it. I would not have the fortitude to do it. Thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it. To everybody listening, that’s it for today’s episode of the Jewelry Journey Podcast. We’ll have photos of some of Loretta’s work, which will be posted with the podcast. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts. Please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.