Painting In Space

Polymer Clay works
by James Lehman

Akron Life & Leisure Magazine

Lehman's World
by Kurt Kleidon photos courtesy of James Lehman
Akron Life & Leisure Magazine, April 2003

"There is a definite randomness to it. It's kind of like tie-dye T-shirts. You have some idea of what you'll get, but you could never make the same shirt twice," James Lehman said of his colorful polymer clay art. None of his pieces could be duplicated for this reason, but if you look at the amazing detail and texture in his sculptures, trying to replicate his patterns would be harder than copying the border of a dollar bill by hand.

Lehman's art has instant appeal. Adults and children alike are drawn into his work's bright colors, which have the same effect on the eyes as a lemon does to the taste buds. It looks like candy or like the result of a rock flying through a stained-glass window. Some pieces look made to function as a salad bowl. Other pieces look like the spilled innards of an alien.

With this variety from Lehman's imagination, the first reaction by viewers is an attempt to understand what they're looking at. Then, they realize most of his art isn't anything meant to be recognized in the same way a landscape or human figure is identifiable. It simply reflects craftsmanship and aesthetics. Without having to understand the artist's direction or philosophy, an audience can enjoy the collection for its energy and creativity.

Part of the interest in his work is due to curiosity of the medium. Its colors suggest it is made of ceramic or metal. Its smooth surface suggests the presence of a material like glass.

Instead, Lehman's medium is a material called polymer clay. Polymer clay is made of microscopic bits of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). In general terms, he works with brightly colored plastic putty that can be molded with hands or tools. None of his works are painted. Every color present in his sculptures comes from the colors of the polymer clay. This includes clays that are translucent, opaque, metallic or glow-in-the-dark.

The origin of the material is debatable. Lehman claims polymer clay is the result of an engineer in the sixties trying to develop a substance that would allow wire coils in motors to shed heat. Another source found that polymer clay was developed in the thirties in Germany.

His introduction to the material was somewhat an accident. After finishing the music for an album of his own material, he needed a visual for the insert in a CD case. With polymer clay he created abstract, rectangular designs. From that start, he bought more packages of polymer clay and tried mixing different techniques and colors.

His works started as flat pieces that developed into a piece with waves, which turned into wrinkled or pleated bowls. Then came semispherical bowls made on large glass globes, solid spheres, tube structures, large hollow spheres and -his most recent work- oblong objects with tube-like features. Now, the inspiration behind the shapes of most his design comes from the shapes of living things. One of Lehman's often-repeated shapes is the sphere. Sometimes his spheres stand by themselves, sometimes they are paired with other spheres and sometimes they are part of another structure. His smaller spheres have a solid, hardwood core and his larger ones are thin, hollow polymer bubbles.

Just about all of the textures of his spheres share a tie to patterns of nature in the abstract, as if looking at a planet from thousands of miles away. Many of their textures resemble that of marble. They resemble what it must be like to mix oil paints in outer space.

As he got more involved with the art, Lehman did some research to learn about exactly what he was molding. After meeting with a professor about polymer science, he got a book from the sixties that taught him the history of the subject and what the ancients thought matter was made of. He found that "the word polymer is a compound of two Greek words meaning 'many parts.' …It doesn't describe any one particular substance. It describes a molecular phenomenon that is observed in a near infinite number of substances."

He learned that polymers are "repeated molecular units linked together to form the giant molecules of strong materials like silk, cotton, leather, wood and rubber. The DNA inside of every cell in every living thing is yet another example of a complex polymer molecule." Against the popular belief that polymers are strictly man-made substances, "polymers are the very foundation of all life on Earth." With this understanding about polymers, Lehman makes his artistic ties to nature in form, pattern and repetition.

One of the techniques he uses to attain the detailed and repetitive texture of his works is called caning. Using cross sections of a tree as an example gives an idea of how caning works. Multiple cross sections of the same tree would have obvious similarities through characteristics like number and size of rings. But each would also be different enough to be individual. By rolling and stacking different colors of clay together, Lehman creates small canes, which can then be sliced into a series of cross sections and worked together to form patterned surfaces.

Part of Lehman's goal while working with polymer clay is to change the medium's image to the public. Although polymer clay can have instant appeal, it can also find criticism somewhat regularly because it is plastic, and many artists, galleries and museums are skeptical of plastic's presence as a true art medium. Polymer clay is mainly found in craft stores, so working with this substance has been called a craft instead of an art to diminish its validity.

Lehman believes that what he is doing is truly art because, "polymer clay is about using plastic in an entirely different way than what we are used to. Plastics are generally associated with mass produced, machine made items. Polymer clay is plastic formed by human hands, just as a painter might aim for the same goal with his or her paint."

Production time for each piece is about two to four weeks for Lehman. This includes the several phases a piece requires before it is finished. After the polymer is mixed and molded into the finished shape, it needs to be hardened in the oven and then sanded many times over, starting with coarse grit and finishing with a super fine polishing paper. To get the colors to "really explode" and to add a glassy shine, Lehman applies many coats of a polymer hardwood floor finish.

One of the benefits of polymer clay is its accessibility. Different colors of polymer clay are available at many local arts and craft stores. No tools other than an ordinary oven are necessary, although Lehman uses objects like knives, dental tools and a pasta machine to help shape and mold his polymer clay.

The fact that he works in polymer clay and lives in the polymer capital of the world is a coincidence, but this coincidence happened to work for his favor recently. In the summer of 2002, Mayor Plusquellic was looking to commission a local artist to produce small pieces of art that he could give to national and international dignitaries He invited Lehman to present some polymer clay ideas. From that project came the Akron Polymer Bowl, (shown to the left). Mayor Plusquellic liked the finished product, but it was bigger than what he was looking for.

Instead, Lehman said, "[Plusquellic] reached across the table and picked up an element of one of my pieces of art, a three-inch diameter, bluish sphere. He said, 'I like this… It reminds me of the Earth.'" Because the original goal was meant to promote Akron as the polymer science research capital of the world, a model of the world made of polymer was an excellent match. Lehman developed a prototype for this project (seen below) and showed it to the Mayor in a second meeting. Plusquellic "seemed to like it very well."

Lehman is currently working on a way to produce these "Polymer Earths" in high quantities and cost efficiently. "This one was made by hand. A three-inch hardwood sphere was covered with a thin layer of blue and silver marbled polymer and hardened. The continents were cut away with a tiny bur grinder. The voids were filled with land colors and the sphere was hardened again, polished and finished." This process would take too long to make the many Earths for the city. As a faster alternative, he is looking into creating a computer-controlled laser that would do the continent cutting for him. He has already contacted NASA's National Geological Survey Group and received high-resolution satellite photos for the project.

Beyond the polymer Earths, Lehman is interested in producing pieces for an audience. He would like to work on sculptures that appear as installations in public places. He is also interested in commissioning his work for organizations or businesses. After all, "Art can make everything better," Lehman said.

Lehman's works are currently on exhibit in downtown Akron in the Ohio Building on the 4th Floor and in the Municipal Building lobby. Among other displays and shows, Lehman's works have been on display at Summit Art Space and Don Drumm Studio and Gallery. An extensive look at his collection can be seen at