From the time she was a young girl growing up near Richmond, Va.,Ginnie Parrish gravitated toward art, spending countless hours drawing.
“Nobody else in my family was ever really into it, so I’m not sure why I was, but my parents always encouraged me,” said the 51-year-old Cary resident.
Parrish went on to receive a studio art degree from Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., continued to paint, and even learned technical drawing as a side job.
“I learned a lot about engineering, like how to plan out a storm sewer,” she said with a laugh.
A few years after moving to the Triangle in 1989 with her husband, Charlie, an environmental engineer, Parrish discovered the medium that would capture her imagination.
“I took different classes through the town of Cary, like pottery and fused glass, and then one time they offered a polymer clay class,” she said. “Around the same time, my mother gave me ‘The New Clay,’ one of the first big books out on polymer, because she thought I might like it.”
Mom was right. What initially sold Parrish, who by then was a parent herself, was convenience.
The “clay” is a PVC-based sculpting material that stays pliable until cured at relatively low temperatures (around 275 degrees Fahrenheit), so no kiln is needed. Also, it can be left out and isn’t too messy.
“I could work on projects piecemeal, which is a great thing when you have two young children.”
The clay, available under several brand names, including Fimo and Sculpey, comes in a rainbow of colors, which Parrish took full advantage of.
“I love bright, colorful and bold,” she said. “Sometimes I try to tone it down and force myself to go with more subtle colors so I don’t always use the same colors.”
Over the years, Parrish’s inventory of art has grown to include hand-built jewelry, boxes and vases as well as decorated objects, such as clocks, bottle stoppers and salt and pepper shakers.
“Basically anything that can be baked in the oven can be covered. I once did a shoe, and also a cup and saucer, with the spoon.”
Parrish employs the cane-making, or millefiori, technique, which is most associated with Venetian glassware. She layers the colored clay to create designs or images that run lengthwise through a tube of clay. When sliced, each segment is a duplicate of the design. The slices are then used in various ways to create the finished piece.
“The design is in every slice, kind of like sushi,” she said. “That’s one of the most interesting things about the technique, the magic of creating the designs. It’s very time-consuming to make them, but then you have multiple slices.”
Some of hers are abstract and others include familiar objects, such as butterflies and faces.
“For the face canes, for instance, I draw a picture and figure out how to make the different components. With the kaleidoscope designs, I don’t know what I’m going to get until they’re done.”
She also varies the surfaces from flat, which are smooth like a jigsaw puzzle, to collage, more similar to a chunky mosaic.
“One of the neatest things about polymer clay is how versatile it is,” she said. “I’ve been using it 18 years and I haven’t run out of things to do with it. The only disadvantage is it’s not recommended for holding food.”
It perturbs Parrish that polymer clay is sometimes looked down on as more hobby than art.
“It’s been stereotyped as not a real medium, but anything you’re putting your artistic design on is art,” she said. “I’ve taken classes from some of the premier polymer artists, and it is amazing what they do. I think the craft continues to move forward.”
Parrish’s latest source of inspiration is the social media site Pinterest, where users post photos of whatever interests them.
“I follow a lot of polymer people. It’s a great way to explore other techniques from all over the place.”
One of her newest lines, a detour from her usual whimsical, color-blasted work, is jewelry using polymer beads that mimic natural stones.
“I’m making a lot of little pebbles, mixing clay and using flecks of things to make them look like stones. They’ve been very popular.”
Parrish sells her work at shops and art festivals. She hasn’t missed a Lazy Daze show in Cary since 1995 and is looking forward to the return of CenterFest to downtown Durham this month.
She is forever explaining the technique to people who have never seen polymer clay.
“All the time people walk into my booth and think I’ve painted all these intricate little designs. I point them to the poster that shows my step-by-step process, and then they get it.”
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