Featured Artist Interview

Caitlin McNamara

What kind of art do you make?

I make silver, gold and bronze jewelry inspired by shapes and textures of the natural world. Much of my jewelry is tiny sculptural representations of plants and animals. My jewelry often features intricate textures lifted from shells, leaves, grass and flowers. I make necklaces, earrings, rings and cufflinks.


Can you explain a little bit about what precious metal clay is and how it works?

Precious metal clay is available as several different kinds of metals. Silver clay, which I primarily use, is composed of microscopic particles of silver suspended in an organic binder, which is soft and malleable and feels every bit like clay. It can be shaped with molds, stamps, fingers, found objects... the possibilities are endless. Once the clay is dried and fired, the organic material has burned off and the pure silver remains.


What are the benefits (or downfalls) of using this specific medium for your work?

Silver clay requires relatively few tools and relatively little space. It picks up texture wonderfully. When firing pieces by kiln, results are quite reliable. It can be shaped, dried, fired and polished in a fairly short amount of time... in theory, in half a day. And projects are on a small scale, so it lends itself to experimentation. 

On the other hand, it's a precious metal, so high cost of material is a consideration. It dries quickly, which means taking care to constantly keep it hydrated and wrapped. I spend time saving and reclaiming tiny amounts of clay. Also, reflective silver may be one of the more challenging materials to photograph. 


Can you walk us through your process of making a piece of jewelry?

If I'm making a piece that I intend to replicate, I will first sculpt the design in a polymer clay, which is a product that can be hardened in an oven. I use that version to make a silicone mold. That mold will then be filled with clay and set to dry. How soon I will take the piece from the mold depends on how much work I need to do on the front of the piece (does something need to be carved or hollowed?), how fragile the design is (some pieces should not be de-molded until fully dry) and so on. Refining the edges and backs of pieces is important because anything slightly jagged can feel not nice or even sharp after firing. I prefer foam backed sanding pads to smooth everything. 

I fire work in a kiln at 1650 F, just under the melting point of silver, then polish using one or all of these methods: barrel tumbler with steel shot, Dremel with silicone polishing wheels, agate burnisher. Some pieces are tarnished, then buffed to create contrast in the details. 


How do you create your molds?​

I use two part silicone molds. While the process of mixing up the mold material is simple – take equal parts and blend thoroughly –  it took me a long time to develop a best practice for making them. Among other challenges, the mold starts to set up in about two minutes. But they transfer detail beautifully, and I have molds I made eight years ago that are going strong.


When did you begin making jewelry, and how has your jewelry making developed over the years?

I began making jewelry the day I first had my hands on silver clay. It was a serendipitous discovery, in that it was the answer to a long term question. I spent my childhood making little animal figures from Sculpey. Animals have always been my favorite subjects. Although I later dabbled in other mediums, my heart was in tiny sculptural work. But Sculpey wasn't quite the answer to my adult cravings for creative production. I'm so grateful for stumbling on PMC, and to someone who gifted me a day of playing with her PMC set up so that I could be absolutely sure this was for me before investing. I bought a kiln that same weekend. 

Like most artists, I think, it's interesting to look at my early work and think, I had so far to go. In the beginning I didn't really have a developed style or cohesion to my work, or the finishing skills I do now. Now my experiments are more focused. I rarely break work when it's in the fragile pre-fire stage. But my inspirations have been the same since the beginning. 


Can you tell us a little bit about the process of creating your own jewelry company?

When I saw the potential for a self-sustaining business in PMC, I jumped in immediately. That meant learning so much on the fly. I researched all of my how-to-establish-a-business questions online. To minimize costs, I made up my record keeping systems. Those have evolved, but I'm still using them today. I found the support of a great accountant. I began by selling through Etsy, which has served me well over the years (though it is not the same place it was ten years ago). Very shortly after launching there, I was contacted by the gift shop at the Brooklyn Museum, and working with them gave me a sense of legitimacy that might've taken much longer to build. That was an early boost.


What is it about your artistic practice that is so appealing to you? (Why do you love what you do?)

It is a great stroke of fortune when one's work is also what fills one up, and that is the case for me. My desk is my re-centering place because I always feel better after making things. The small, repetitive gestures required to make tiny, precise work puts me in a semi meditative state. This helps me to be more present and calm in the rest of my life, which I especially value as the mother of young kids. 

I'm also still completely excited by the fact that I can shape silver clay any way I can imagine, run it through the kiln and out comes heirloom quality fine silver. The list of projects I want to make is two years long. 

What kinds of things or places do you draw inspiration from in your jewelry making process?

I'm inspired by the tiniest elements of the natural world. Incredible structures and transfixing details abound around us. I find the sea and its smallest invertebrates deeply appealing. I collect shells, sand dollars, star fish, exoskeletons, seed pods, feathers, cicada wings... and now my kids bring me interesting little finds, too. I love making animals and relish any opportunity to research and create new ones. I've made foxes, bats, horseshoe crabs, dragons, hummingbirds, whales, dinosaurs, butterflies, a tardigrade…

Some of my work is guided by current events and my attempts to cope and process them. I've made heartfelt work to fundraise for Planned Parenthood, RAICES, Human Rights Campaign, for elephant rescue, for an incarcerated friend's legal team. After the last presidential election, I made a series of necklaces inspired by poems of perseverance and hope. 


How do you make decisions about what you make? (How do sales influence the imagery you use in your jewelry making?)

Because I started into PMC as art and business at the same time, I've always been led by the intention to make work that will sell. I'm mindful of themes and pieces that make sense as gifts or to mark milestones. I look at trends, but rely on my work to have a more timeless appeal. 

The internet has been an amazing tool in support of experimentation, in that I can follow one of those “I have to make this” ideas without knowing if there will be interest, offer it for sale, and gauge the response. If I only make one of something, then I've made it for myself and the one patron who is out there wearing it! I've also made quite a bit of work due to thoughtful and creative client requests. One of my best sellers, my elephant and baby necklace, came about as a custom order. It's always an honor to be asked to bring something to life, and once it's made, if it's not too personalized, I may add it to my offerings.

I've also had the fortune of working for many years with an amazing shop in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island. The proprietor has a great sense of what people like, and she commissions designs to carry in her store based on in-person interaction with customers, which is something I do not often have the opportunity to do. 


What role does research play in your artistic career?

I've learned most of my techniques through trial and error, reading online and video tutorials. Thank goodness for the friendly, communal side of the internet. 

What kinds of tools are needed in your studio to work with PMC?

I enjoyed putting together a toolkit for the Intro PMC class I taught through the Clay Studio in the fall because it meant refining down to the essentials. You don't need too much, and some tools can be purchased or found around the house. 

The absolute essentials are: A non-stick work surface. Tools for shaping, such as stamps or molds. Something round and small like a file or a drill bit to make holes. A method for firing, such as a torch, and a heat-resistant surface on which to fire. A brass brush or burnisher for polishing. 

Also very helpful: Sanding pads. A small rolling pin and playing cards for rolling an even slab. Blades for cutting. A small electric drying plate to expedite removing moisture from the clay. Pliers. Silver polishing clothes.

Tools essential to my work flow: A tumbler and a small electric kiln. 


Is there a specific aspect of your artistic career that you are most proud of? (A moment in time? A finished product?)

That's a good question. I think I'm most proud of the quality of jewelry I produce, and the volume of jewelry I've produced over the years, and about maintaining that while raising our kids. 

Are there any other artistic practices or jewelry making techniques that you enjoy?

I enjoy paper crafts, photography, baking and small sewing projects. Soon I would like to take a ceramics class, and one day I'd like to crochet again.

What type of art do you have at home?

Most of the art on our walls was made by friends and family. I love to look at a piece and think of the person who made it. Fortunately, we have talented friends and family! And half of my studio is now for my kids, so a good amount of their work is on the walls in there.

How has the quarantine affected your art making?

It was a sudden shift, as it has been for so many of us. With my two and four year old home, daylight hours in the studio are mostly spent working with them on their projects. I work at night on my own, but I'm tired. I sit down and read sad things and my motivation is depleted. I'm sticking to the system I know best – do a little work today, tomorrow, the next day, and suddenly I've made a few things.

In these uncertain times, fewer people are buying jewelry. I assume all non-essential purchases are carefully considered right now, so every time an order comes through – and this is the case always, but especially right now – I'm grateful that that person chose to spend their resources on my work. I've had a larger than usual proportion of orders to international addresses in the last weeks, and each time I wonder about the circumstances in that location. 


I'm developing a piece to help fundraise, which feels like the little way I can help. I'm hoping to spend some time soon on a project I began in January of casting larger sea creatures in bronze. Getting familiar with the working properties of bronze PMC means new experimentation and research, which I don't usually have time for when I'm filling orders. That's a creative silver lining. But everything is happening slowly, and I'm letting that be ok. I'm grateful for the ability to be home, and grateful to those who cannot be and are working so hard. I'm looking forward to seeing the art that comes out of this difficult and disorienting time.


--Caitlin McNamara, Owner, Blue Dot Jewelry