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Which is Real?
Artist Interview - May 23, 2009
A. I was born in Cleveland, but grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. I have four brothers and three sisters. I graduated from Youngstown State University in 1975 with a Bachelor of Engineering Degree in Civil Engineering. I worked as a structural design engineer for 10 years before joining my current employer, IBM, in 1985. While I was growing up, I was always interested in art and enjoyed drawing, painting, and sculpture, but always kept it as a hobby. I started making marbles in 2006, and unlike my other artistic endeavors, there actually seems to be a market for my marbles. So, to be able to make the marbles, and have people interested in collecting them as well, is a real plus. I got married in 2000 to my wife Francesca and we moved to Temecula, California in November 2008.
A. I collected antique and vintage marbles for years. As my collection grew, I began getting interested in the rarest, most colorful, and unfortunately, the most expensive marbles. An antique, hard to find, multi-color shooter in mint condition could easily cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. I went to a local antique show in February, 2006 looking for marbles and instead, I found a woman selling some beaded necklaces that looked like some of the rarest old colorful marbles. I asked her where she got them and she told me that she made them from polymer clay. So, the next day, I drove out to the local craft store to pick up a few packs of the brightly colored clay and hurried home to make my first marble. I can remember grabbing a few small pieces of the red, yellow and blue clay and kneading them together, and after just a few short minutes, there it was, a big lump of clay that looked absolutely nothing like a marble, let alone the vintage Superman I was trying to mimic. But, I kept at it for weeks. After a while, I figured out how to get the clay rounder. Then I figured out how to get them to look glossy like glass. Then I started to be able to more closely copy the colors and patterns of the marbles that I sought for my own collection. Every now and then, one would come out really nice, which at that time was still mostly due to trial and error or just dumb luck. But, into my collection it went as a placeholder until I could find or afford a real glass one. I showed some of my placeholders to my marble collecting friends and they were amazed at how they looked. They asked me to make some placeholders for their collections, too. So I did, and that was the beginning of my marble-making career.
A. Yes, I also make my own contemporary designs. There is large group of people who collect new works from contemporary marble artists. I create marbles for both groups of collectors. It was at the New Philadelphia Marble Show in February of 2007 when demand for my own designs first appeared. I had only one of my own designs there. It looked like an American Flag and it sold very well. The contemporary collectors encouraged me to do more of my own designs. I even had requests for marbles with specific colors, patterns, and sizes. Listening to the collectors and other contemporary marble artists opened up a lot of new opportunities. My marbles are new and different and are well accepted by both the vintage and contemporary collectors. I enjoy making the vintage placeholder, but the contemporary marble collectors are fast becoming my largest customer base.
Q. How are your marbles different than regular glass marbles?
A. The biggest difference is the weight. Once you hold one of mine, you can immediately tell its not glass. Its lighter, softer, and warmer to the touch than glass. Mine are more durable though. They wont crack, break, or chip. You can even bounce them off of a carpeted floor with no damage at all.
A. Everyone asks that. Actually, there is no paint used in the process. Polymer clay is available in many different colors. I further hand blend these colors together and then artistically form the clay to create the designs and patterns on the marble. It took a lot of work to figure out how to get the dull clay to look like glass.
A. Beside artistic skills, there's actually a lot of math and science involved in the process, especially if you want to be able to produce a consistent, high quality, repeatable product. My engineering background helped out a lot with all the measuring, weighing, and other technical stuff needed to make the marbles. I designed and built a few simple machines to help in the manufacturing process to get uniformly consistent sizes, colors, and patterns. Plus, I document everything I do. So, if I need to reproduce a certain marble, I can review my notes and recreate the marble. For example, if I'm making a set of marbles, I know that volume of clay in each marble has to be the same. The weight has to be the same, too. I can simply weigh out equal amounts of clay for each marble to ensure that they all come out the same size.
Q. How did you learn how to make these marbles?
A. I learned mostly by trial and error. There were no books on the subject. I did look at some of the polymer clay "How To" books on making things from polymer clay. I also studied some basic glass making techniques and tried to apply them to clay. But, most of what I use was learned by just doing it. There were a lot of mistakes along the way and lots of bad marbles during the process. And, I have jars full of uninteresting globs of clay to prove it.
A. Collectors have been requesting larger sizes, so, I've been working on marbles over 2" in diameter. I'm still working on new patterns and designs, too. One of my best customers purchased my Broccoli Quiche design and said that it looked delicious. Itís never ending. Some nights, I have to get out of bed and write down some ideas just so I wonít forget them. Every time I see something new, I wonder what it would look like as a marble. One of my best selling marbles on eBay is a vintage looking marble that I call a Christensen. Itís patterned after the marbles from two popular vintage marble manufacturers and has a lot of bright electric colors, with swirls or flame patterns running throughout.
Q. How long does it take to make a marble?
A. Thatís a tough question to answer. Once I figure out how to make a specific pattern, it may only take 15 minutes to make one marble. However, it could take days, even weeks, to figure out how to perfect the pattern. With vintage marble replicas, it takes hours to come up with design and I have to reverse engineer it in order to recreate it. Some of my marbles are formed from a cane which is a long cylinder of clay. I can usually get 5 or 6 marbles from a cane. But, while it may only take 5 minutes to make each marble once the cane is produced, it may take an hour to make the cane. Every marble is different and I can never tell how long it will take me to create any of them. Coming up with new marble designs and making prototypes can be very time consuming.
A. So far, the response has been great. I sell my marbles at marble shows, on my website, on the Land of Marbles website, and on eBay through Marblealan and under my own User ID, palsauctions. I try to list about four lots a week on eBay. The most ever paid for one of my marbles on eBay was $305. Boxes of 25 regularly go for over $500. Individual 3/4" marbles range from $20 to $50. The eBay feedback has been very positive also. Some people have left feedback like, Awesome, Beautiful, Incredible and lots of other encouraging feedback. The best feedback is when a customer buys again. Then I know they really like them. I have a few repeat customers, and hope for more once the word gets out. I plan on making marbles for a long time, so hopefully some of my early ones will go up in value just like the first examples of any artists work. I offer a Certificate of Authenticity with each marble I make which includes a photograph of the marble, the size, the month and year it was made, and my signature. And eBay is really nice because it affords me the opportunity to market them worldwide.
Q. How much time do you spend each week making marbles?
A. Not as much time as I'd like. I usually make them on the weekends, if I have nothing else scheduled. I'll work for a few hours at a sitting and make about 30 marbles.
Q. When you're not making marbles, what do you do?
A. I work for IBM and just celebrated my 24th year anniversary. I sell IBM storage systems that support businesses in the areas of disaster recovery and business continuance, and I work with some of the largest companies in the world. Itís a fascinating job and its very challenging. We use the latest computer technologies to come up with innovative solutions to our customersí problems. I think some of that innovative thinking rolled over into my marble making.
A. Anything environmentally friendly, or energy efficient, is called Green. An example of green energy would be producing electricity from wind power. My marbles are made from polymer clay. The clay hardens just by baking it in my kitchen oven at a low temperature for a short time. Plus, I can bake dozens at a time. Therefore, they dont take much energy to produce. Melting glass, on the other hand, requires very high temperatures for relatively long periods of time. So, If youre concerned about global warming, my green marbles are definitely for you.
Q. Some people call you "The Marbler". How did you get that name?
A. My wife and I had a favorite restaurant that we frequented every week when we lived in Cleveland. There was an article in the Antique Week about my marbles. One of the owners of the restaurant recognized me from the photos in the article. They called me the Marbler, and itís stuck even since. The staff at the restaurant often made suggestions for new designs, and I took some of my newest ones each time we'd go there. They enjoyed looking at them, and some of the staff helped me to name them. I like the name and am thinking of getting it as my license plate.
Q. Where do you see your marble business headed in the future?
A. Based on current demand, there is a good market for them. Right now, I think I am the only person in the world making marbles out of polymer clay at this level. I have pioneered some new methods to make them look really glass-like. Producing marbles from polymer clay that look like glass wasnt even thought possible a few years ago. Now that people see it can be done, I am sure others will want to try their hand at it. I plan on continuing to improve the quality of my marbles and I have enough new design ideas to keep me busy for a very long time.
Q. Are you planning on sharing your methods with others?
A. I show the process to everyone I can drag into my studio. I share most of what I do, but there are a few trade secrets that I dont want let out just yet. I have kept extensive documentation and am planning on writing a book on how to make polymer clay marbles using my methods.
A. I was ecstatic to have even been invited to participate, but to win something was even better. I was really honored just to be mentioned along with all the other well known and established marble artists that competed in the contest. I do use a glass core to make a lot of my marbles, so it qualified as glass. The 2006 contest was my very first contest. I got to choose the letter F and worked on several prototypes which took weeks of experimentation. It was, by far, the largest marble I ever made at 2 3/8Ē. I used a millefiori pattern which was made from hundreds of tiny cells of colored clay. The millefiori cane was sliced and placed on a glass core and then baked and glazed. When I found out I tied for 13th and tied for Best Use of Color, I couldn't believe it. I was very happy with the outcome and again entered the contest in 2008 and won 4th Place with my letter "P" for "P"olymer clay marble.
Q. Have you ever thought of mass producing these?
A. I was recently commissioned to make 40 marbles for someones 90th birthday party. They were handed to each guest that attended the party, and they served as a commemorative for the event. The guest of honor, the 90-year-old, played marbles as a child, and she won awards for her marble shooting ability. The marbles were a hit and everybody loved them. I would like to do some more volume work like this for weddings, anniversaries and other important events. Marbles make a great gift and can signify an important milestone in ones life. I also sell collector boxes with a variety of 25 different marbles in them.
Q. So, if someone wants to contact you, how do they do that?
A. The best way to contact me is by email at email@example.com.
A. Not that I know of. All my marketing materials, eBay listings, and marble show signs clearly state that they are made of clay. Most of vintage collectors that have purchased my marbles use them as placeholders. If anything, I think they are more amazed that they are made of clay. Most of my buyers are repeat customers, too. Honesty is the best policy.
Q. Like most glass artists, do you have any plans to make other forms such as vessels or sculpture?
A. Maybe, someday in the distant future. But, at this point, and for years to come, I have enough ideas on paper that I still want to get into the simple spherical form. I used to make kiln fired clay in the shape of a lit cigar. I hand painted them and designed custom cigar bands. They looked just like the real thing too and could easily get you kicked out of a restaurant.
Q. Do you think that your business will suffer if you publish a book on how to make polymer clay marbles?
A. Again, a book may be a long way off. And, there are plenty of books on how to make a contemporary glass marble which don't seem to hurt the top contemporary glass artists. Everyone seems to have there own style. Regardless, even knowing how to do something and actually doing it are two different things. I definitely do intend on sharing my methods at some point. I am sure others will pick it up on their own also, once they see that it is possible to make glass-looking marbles from clay.
Q. Have you ever considered trying glass just for fun?
A. No. But, if anyone wants to invite me over, call me!
Q. Do you think that your methods lend themselves better to vintage marbles than contemporary?
A. There is one quality of the clay that does limit the type of marbles that can be made. But, itís not a question of vintage versus contemporary. The clay itself does not come in clear. So, I am limited to opaque-looking glass. There are some translucent clays available, but most produce unpredictable or poor quality results. Any real depth to the colors in my marbles is more attributable to complex color mixing and the thick clear glaze that fools the eye. Fortunately, some of the most desirable vintage marbles are rare brightly colored opaques in specific recognizable patterns. My original intent was to make placeholders for these in my own collection. I started making contemporary designs after the New Philadelphia Marble show in February 2007 after encouragement to do so by some collectors and dealers at the show. I still like trying to figure out how to mimic the vintage designs, but I am producing more and more of my own contemporary designs. And if the day ever comes when they start selling clear clay, look out!
Q. What do you enjoy most when you sell at marble shows?
A. The look on peoples faces when they see these marbles for the first time, and the words that come out of their mouth like, Wow, These are clay?, and Now thats scary.
A. Vintage Peltier NLRs are my favorite marbles to collect, so I guess making marbles that look like them are some of my favorites to make.
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