For more than fifteen years, Elise Winters has been on a personal quest to elevate the image of polymer in the art and fine-craft community. The specific goals have been threefold: to oversee the creation of a center for the study of polymer art in one of the nation’s premier craft museums; to see that museum mount a major exhibition of polymer art objects; and to participate in the writing of a museum catalog which would document the historical development of this art form and pay honor to the key professionals in the field.
In 2011, all three of those goals were realized. On October 2, 2011, the Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Wisconsin unveiled its exhibition, Terra Nova: Polymer at the Crossroads, which introduced the museum’s 180+ new polymer acquisitions alongside major works from the nation’s most accomplished polymer jewelers and sculptors. With this show, RAM established the nation’s first major permanent museum collection of polymer art. To accompany the show, RAM published a fully-illustrated 140-page book featuring the major artist in the field along with historical and curatorial essays about the medium. Although the exhibition closed on February, 2012, RAM continues to build its collection and is committed to preserving historic documentation of the development of polymer art.
In order to achieve these goals, Elise created what has come to be known as the “Polymer Collection Project.” She collaborated with several other major collectors of polymer art who all agreed to donate their extensive collections of the museum-quality pieces to the museum deemed most worthy of their bequest. Elise made a personal tour around the country, from New York to Racine, Wisconsin; from Houston, to San Diego to explain the project to museum curators and directors. That tour resulted in reciprocal visitations from those same directors and curators to Elise’s home in New Jersey for the purpose of seeing the collection first-hand. Almost immediately, half a dozen of the nation’s most prestigious museums were vying for selections from the collection of polymer master-works that Elise had assembled.
Once the directors and curators made their formal bids for specific pieces of jewelry and sculpture, Elise was left with the delicate task of choosing which museums would end up as beneficiaries, and deciding which specific works would accommodate each museum’s needs. Elise choose the Racine Art Museum in Racine, Wisconsin as the primary beneficiary of the “Polymer Collection Project.” Significant parts of the collection were also allotted to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, New Jersey’s Newark Museum, the Museum of Art and Design in Manhattan, San Diego’s Mingei International Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Pennsylvania.
Most of the works acquired by these museum officials as additions to their permanent collections can be viewed on the website, www.polymerartarchive.com. This site was established by Elise in December of 2007 for the specific purpose of documenting the history of her artistic medium. This is the first and only website devoted to this purpose.
While these two events have taken place in the last two years, other efforts to “put polymer on the map,” as Elise likes to say, began in the late 90’s. In 1997, she organized the Masters’ Invitational Polymer Clay Exhibit (MIPCES) with the express goal of introducing the medium to serious craft collectors and curators in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
Following MIPCES, in the spring of 1998 and 1999, she organized a studio exhibition called “8×10 in Polymer Clay.” Ten accomplished polymer artists from across the country were invited to send 8 pieces of work for exhibition. Elise invited curators, gallery owners and select collectors for private tours of the exhibition.
Late in 1999 she was invited to do an educational slide presentation at the American Craft Museum to educate their curatorial staff about the artistic merit of work being done in the medium.
And in 2001 she curated a historical exhibition in conjunction with the annual conference of the National Polymer Clay Guild. It was a first step toward organizing and preserving the mounting data about polymer’s artistic history. Since the very beginning, Elise has been collecting and preserving slides and other memorabilia that she thought might one day be valued by art historians. She knew that eventually polymer would warrant attention from serious art academics and hoped her collection of artifacts and data might become source material for an archive. Thus was born the concept for the Polymer Art Archive and the Polymer Collection Project.