Feats of clay

Turning her passion into her livelihood some 20 years ago has taken Loretta Lam quite far, literally.

While not working in her home-based studio in Carmel, which the award-winning art jewelry designer has been known to call “the boonies,” she is often on the road for her work.

And that travel might range from a teaching gig in Georgia to exhibiting at the prestigious American Craft Council’s American Craft Show in Baltimore. Over the years, the Hudson Valley polymer clay artist has also exhibited at an international jewelry show in Milan, Italy, lectured in Bordeaux, France, and currently has her designs offered by Artful Home, a national company whose catalog pages showcase “art & apparel for your extraordinary life.”

Not bad for someone who says her decade in corporate America was “just phone calls and papers and computers,” as she managed a production plant for a company involved in international business.

It was two decades ago when Lam decided she needed a change.

“I’ve always been a jeweler,” she says, fondly recalling an early memory of creating jewelry out of the elements in her mother’s button box.

As a self-proclaimed “kid of the ’70s,” Lam says, “I learned all of the crafts.”

She was, she says, a quick learner. “I can do just about anything. I can figure it out with my hands,” she says of her affinity for craft that eventually led to formal study. The Old Chatham, New York, native would go on to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree from SUNY New Paltz in gold and silversmithing.

Higher education that allowed her to turn her crafting into art was part of a bigger process, realizing that, “You needed to focus on composition, having something to say, a point of view. It’s about making things with an intentional outcome.”

Lam would continue her metalwork in the midst of her corporate career — “I kept making things and making art because I have to” — but it was in discovering polymer clay that her artistry found its real home and the thoughts of changing careers took off. She was showing her clay work three months after she began, at small local craft shows, and in time would develop her look — and progress to what’s become an international platform that includes creating, selling her work at fine galleries and art fairs and teaching and writing.

Lam has been recognized, most often by the noted NICHE Awards for professional craft artists as both multiple finalist and winner, and has been spotlighted in jewelry and craft books and magazines.

Her work is also collected, with Lam often making custom creations for some of those collectors.

“You have to have your fingers in a lot of pies in America today to earn a living as an artist.”

IN THE STUDIO

Lam takes us on an informal tour of her studio, a space carved out of the home she shares with her husband and son, that despite its basement location, is a light-filled wonder thanks to both yellow paint and a wealth of clay pieces strewn across several surfaces.

“It’s little logs and loaves of pattern,” she says. “I sit here with all my raw materials around me. They have to be out and within reach.”

She allows her creativity to take her where it will.

“You choose the patterns and the textures that work well together,” she says of the materials in front of her, showing how one grouping is devoted to the popular red, white and black combinations, while another features shades of green. “If I have them all in front of me, I mix and match to my heart’s content.”

A pasta machine, a convection oven — and plenty of clay — form the heart of her operation.

“It’s very time consuming, but I love process.”

Winter, she says, often proves her most inspired working season.

“I think whenever there’s no color in the world, my patterns come to me. Color is feeling and mood and sense of place and time.”

She creates sheets out of the raw clay, combines them and then shapes those little logs to be fashioned around bead forms. Then, she cures it and cuts it away from the form.

The beads, featured in necklaces, brooches and earrings, designs that range from $100 to $1,000, are surprisingly lightweight. Each is unique yet shares Lam’s trademark of fine detail, rich color and often, a bit of whimsy.

“My color theory is that color is an emotional experience,” she says, adding each piece should combine dark and light, dull and bright — and an unexpected element.

“That surprise,” she says, is “what brings the life to the whole thing.”

Her jewelry features polymer with accent beads of coconut, metal or shell. Sterling, copper and steel are used for attaching the parts.

“I’m glad to be part of the alternative-materials trend,” Lam adds in a quick email after our visit. “It’s exciting to see forward-thinking gallerists and savvy collectors realize the inherent value of art jewelry is in the artistry and not the raw materials.”

STEP BY NATURAL STEP

The impact of nature is evident by the quickest glance at Lam’s work, which she says “moves along very organically.”

She loves spending time in her backyard, which reminds her of growing up in her “tiny town,” a life filled with leaves and trees.

“If I’m in the woods, I’m looking at acorns and mushrooms and fox grapes. That’s my inspiration.”

Lam will soon share her expertise in a unique way, a book that explores various artistic mediums as a way to approach jewelry design.

“Mastering Contemporary Jewelry Design: Inspiration, Process, and Finding Your Voice” is due out this April from Schiffer Publishing and, she says, will reach beyond the polymer community to include 100 artists from around the world.

It complements, she says, the goal of her teaching and lecturing, which has become a larger part of her business.

“They learned ‘how to’ but not ‘why to,’” she says of her students, who are rarely beginners. “That’s the gap I’m trying to close in teaching design.”

She says her ability to connect the how with the why is particularly rewarding.

“I know what I can give back to my community,” she says. “I have the words.”

At the end of the day, Lam realizes her art does much more than just adorn.

“In America, sometimes we don’t equate art with beauty,” she says. “In this society, we need a place where we can just take a deep breath and sigh — and that is beauty.”

Taking us to that place is her goal.

“I strive to make things beautiful because I think beauty is sublime. It takes you to another place, spiritually and emotionally.”

For more, visit lorettalam.com. Lam will be exhibiting Dec. 13-15 at Holiday CraftMorristown in Morristown, New Jersey. For more, visit artrider.com. “Mastering Contemporary Jewelry Design: Inspiration, Process, and Finding Your Voice” is due out this April from Schiffer Publishing and can be pre-ordered at schifferbooks.com.

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