It's been two decades since Pier Clyne took classes from established clay artist Maureen Carlson in Minnesota, a move that would introduce her to the medium that continues to bring her joy and income.
Since then, Clyne's day job has been teaching at various schools while following her husband during his military career. The Bologna, Italy, native -- adopted at a young age by a military family from Columbus -- perfected her craft over that 20-year span.
Today, the Cataula, Ga., resident, 68, specializes in making clay and papier-mâché figures -- Santas in particular -- and selling them both through commercial outlets and to individuals. She's part of a large and growing arts community in the area, some in it for a hobby, looking to learn from those who share their passion, and others aiming to earn serious money. The Columbus Artists' Guild -- open to artists and those who simply love art -- counts more than 170 members.
Clyne, currently a substitute teacher in Harris County, sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer recently to discuss her part-time vocation, why she loves creating things, its challenges and its rewards. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into art 20 years or so ago?
We were in Minnesota at the time. My mother-in-law had Alzheimer's disease and I wasn't working full-time, so I needed to find something to occupy my time when I was with her. I was substituting (teaching) a little bit. There's a gal called Maureen Carlson, who's a national artist and she has books out and she's online as well. She has her own personal figurines that she sells out of the clay, and she's really well known in that area. I took some classes from her and that's where it began.
Is your art form easy or difficult?
The clay is really difficult to use because it's a really hard clay. So you really have to process it and work it several days until it pulls like taffy before you can actually do anything with it. Then you can mix it with a little bit of Super Sculpey to soften it a little bit. Still, you have to continue to mix it really good. If you don't, your clay becomes splotchy.
How did you come to make the life-size Santas?
The idea of making a life-size Santa came when I was taking a pastel painting class from a wonderful artist (Chico Douglas) who lives in Dadeville, Ala. The first thing that attracted me as I entered her house was the beautiful life-size Santa in her entryway. I was mesmerized by the structure and I asked her if I could etch the figure and take notes ... I studied the structure and saw that underneath the beautiful dress and coat there were only beams holding the sculpture, nothing else.
How long does it take to make a life-size Santa figurine?
On average, the life-size ones take me six months, because they're made of fabric mache -- the feet, the shoes -- and it has to dry and cure, and then you have to overlap more fabric ... You do that until it gets so hard it's almost like wood.
And after that?
I bake the hands and the faces in my oven ... It takes a couple of hours for it to set beautifully. I usually put several in the oven. They're connected with really thick wire ... Then you just turn the oven off until it cools and you bring them out, and they're set.
How about the face and making it realistic?
They are the hardest because the eyes and mouths are the facial features which bring the figures to life and I feel that they are the most important part of the face ... I may do one face or several faces at a time.
Fimo is the name of the clay you use?
The name of the clay is Fimo. It's a German clay and it comes in 80 different colors. They come in bars. I buy the big bars. You have to specially order them from the clay factory.
Using clay means each piece is different?
I began making the smaller Santas and then graduated to making larger pieces. This is a little reindeer and the elves (points to them). Again, the color is the same color as the clay ... But anything that you make with your hands, you will never get the same faces. They'll never be the same no matter how hard you try ... I also do my own patterns (for clothing). I do my own sewing.
You like that aspect of it?
I really do. I love that aspect of it. You could make a dozen of these and none would be the same.
How long did it take you to get to a level of selling consistently?
That level began when a friend of mine at school, we were shopping and we saw a Santa at Nieman Marcus, and both of us said, 'Oh my, that's nice.' And then we saw the price and I said, 'That's not so good.' (chuckles). So we looked at each other and I said I'll make you one for half the price of this one. I said you're under no obligation to buy. So I made five that first Christmas. I took them to school and sold every one of them. I sold them for $150 apiece. They were about 24 inches. So I told myself, there may be a market for this.
What's the biggest challenge you face?
To me, the hardest part, because I have to hire somebody to do this, is the wood (legs) and screwing them on to the base so that it's secure. And probably the faces are little bit harder than making the clothes, because I've been sewing since high school.
Are supplies easy to find?
I buy them online, I buy them at Michaels and Hobby Lobby, just wherever. It doesn't necessarily have to be here. I get a better deal on the clay by getting it from the clay factory in Atlanta. There's also a clay factory in California. When I buy the clay, I buy it in bulk because you get a better deal opposed to going to (stores).
What's the most rewarding thing about your work with art, simply the creativity?
It's the entire journey, the process, the creativity, because no two pieces are ever alike, none. I have two more (large Santas) at home and they're totally different. They're pretty much the same size, but totally different. When you're dressing them, you try this and try that and try different things.
It's a little therapy for you?
Oh, it's a lot of therapy.
Have you ever tried doing angels, which I would guess are popular?
I've done angels. Angels are very popular, probably more than Santa. But it depends on the area. Minnesota is a mecca for the arts, so people like to see people do things (creatively), primarily because it's always snowing and cold and rainy. (laughs) It just really depends on the area. I have not tapped Atlanta. I did tap the Mall of America when we were there; I would sell my Santas in a store there. And I've sold in jewelry and gift stores.
Is it difficult being an artist and dealing with rejection or something not selling?
Everybody has always been really kind because (my Santas) are different than most. It's not the typical ho-ho-ho Coca-Cola Santa. I've not had any problems. I sold one of these not too long ago. A woman came to me and asked (the price) I was selling them for. At that time, they were $500 and I had six or seven of them. I had names for them. She picked 'Snow Drift' and I said, OK, what accessories do you want. They come with accessories, but if you want something different, I can do that. They can be embellished.
There are different sizes and price tags?
This size (three feet) ranges from $375 to $500. The two-foot Santas range from $250 to $300. A problem that I face whenever I go into a jewelry store to sell is they want a percentage. In Helen, Ga., a store there wanted 100 percent. So you have to bring your prices down. And if somebody buys it from me, it's always cheaper. I decided not to do that in Helen.
You don't have an online page. Why?
I just keep it small, word of mouth. And it's enough for me to continue making them and enjoy what I'm doing, opposed to opening a factory, which I don't want to do that.
You give art classes. What skills do you think are needed to be a good artist?
Everyone can learn the process of creating. It just takes time, like learning to play the piano. One will never learn to play the piano if they just touch and look at it. It takes a lot of practice to create beautiful music. The same thing goes in the art of creating. Anyone can learn to sculpture if this is what they want to do. It may take a short time for some people and longer for others. But anyone can do it if they set their mind to do it.
BIO Name: Pier Clyne
Age: 68 Hometown: Bologna, Italy
Current residence: Cataula area of Columbus
Education: 1965 graduate of Jordan High School; earned bachelor’s of science degree in education from Columbus College in 1973 and master’s in education from there in 1975; earned teaching certificate (T6) from Georgia State University in 1984
Previous jobs: Worked as a secretary early in her life; has taught at Rigdon Road Elementary School in Columbus, at schools in Alexander City, Ala., and at Fort Benning and other Department of Defense schools
Family: Husband, Bruce, and two cats, Deuce and Ali Cat
Leisure time: Enjoys traveling, recently returning from Europe; likes to try new mediums, most recently working with air clay; collects Hummel figurines (has nearly 100 of them) and Swarovski crystal pieces Of note: She’s a member of the Italian-American Club in Montgomery, Ala.; and she says her Jordan High graduating class (which turns 50 next year) was the largest in school history, with 600 seniors
SANTAS AND MORE
Cataula, Ga., resident Pier Clyne specializes in making Santa figures in various sizes from clay. She has done old world styles, new world styles (so-called Coca-Cola Santas), redneck Santas (funny looking with missing teeth), and university Santas, including Alabama and Auburn. She also has crafted other items -- angels, Native Americans, gnomes, elves, animals, snow babies, furniture for doll houses, Halloween witches and jewelry. Contact her via email at email@example.com.