Painting In Space

Polymer Clay works
by James Lehman


Published Sunday, January 6, 2002, in the Akron Beacon Journal.

Akron artist makes bowls by `Painting in Space'
James Lehman seeks to elevate polymer clay to serious medium

By Holly Pupino
Special to the Beacon Journal

Polymer clay is a favorite of people who like to craft things like beads, earrings and light switch plates.

But James Lehman has loftier goals for polymer clay. He wants to help it gain more acceptance as a medium of serious artists.

These past few months, Lehman has been making a series of decorative bowls with a process he calls "Painting in Space."

"It is painting but in a three-dimensional form," he said. "The clay is the pigment and the structure. The art form, as I see it, is the distribution of pigment in space with structure."

Lehman's bowls are bursting with color and pattern. Stripes, checks, flowers and geometric designs come together in a vibrant palette of 50 colors, although Lehman can make any color he wishes by combining two or more shades of clay. He has noticed that some of the colors are fluorescent.

The bowls begin flat as Lehman rolls the clay through a pasta machine to get a smooth, consistently thick slab. The patterns and color combinations are created with various cutting and chopping techniques using a razor blade, cheese grater or Lehman's own hands.

After getting his desired pattern in a sheet, he molds it over a form, such as a glass lampshade or garden gazing globe. Lehman's bowls have jagged, scalloped, saw-toothed and free form sides. Most rest upon three legs.

The bowls must completely dry at room temperature before baking in the oven at a low temperature.

"The process of polymerization is what makes it so strong. Individual molecule chains find each other and form polymer chains. The final result is a material that is strong and durable but flexible," he said.

Lehman believes his art has progressed greatly as a result of his patience and willingness to let the unique properties of polymer clay be his guide.

"I learned to think like the clay and let the clay talk to me," he said. "Yes, it is clay and you can force it do what you want. But if you let the character of the clay guide your efforts, you end up with a more naturally achievable form."

An example of this is the wonderful feather pattern Lehman created by watching the clay stick to the razor blade. Instead of scraping it off, he carried one color through another and then another, a subtle blend emerging in the process.

Lehman, who lives in Highland Square with his partner, Terry Zimmerman, grew up with a love of pop art: Peter Max posters, Beatles album covers and Andy Warhol paintings.

"I like thinking that someone put some thought into something and said, `Eureka!' " he said. "I also like to see math in art -- repetition, patterns and mathematic forms."

Lehman, a software engineer, is currently a partner with Zimmerman in Extra Stimulus Inc., which offers a full line of computer services, including web site design.

Lehman, 37, attended the University of Akron in the '80s but didn't study art. Art -- including jewelry making -- was just always something he did.

He first began experimenting with polymer clay in 1993. He is a musician and used the polymer clay to design cover art for a CD of his original songs.

"I've always been artistic but never saw myself as someone who could make a living as an artist," he said.

But that has changed. After receiving positive response to his bowls, which are priced beginning at $450, Lehman now hopes to see his work in an art gallery.

"Polymer clay is not always accepted as a medium of fine art. It is, after all, plastic," he said. "It has long been viewed as a craft medium. But that is changing."

Lehman said many polymer clay artists are using the material to imitate ceramic clay, glass or faux finishes such as wood or abalone. Not Lehman. He doesn't want to hide from the label "polymer clay." He proudly proclaims it.

Lehman, who also builds custom-designed speakers and sound systems, has several goals for his budding art career.

He would like to make much larger bowls and other pieces of art, but to do so, he needs a larger oven. He wants to do commercial installations. And he would like to experiment more with the fluorescent quality of the clay, perhaps combining it with LED (light emitting diodes) lights to make decorative lamps, lighting fixtures and light sculptures.

"The thing that fascinates me about that is that you have one high-tech material combined with another," he said. "You can really create some interesting types of illumination."

You can see Lehman's artwork by logging on the and then clicking on "Painting in Space." He can also be reached at 330-762-7137.