Julia Rai

Julia, what brought you to metal clay in 2004?

I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and I thought it would be fun to learn to work with silver and make my own jewellery. So I booked a weekend away and took a two day introduction to silver work class. In that class, the tutor was talking about this new material called metal clay and I was intrigued by it. I subsequently took a metal clay class and was totally hooked.

Looking at your artist biography, it seems you are very active in both teaching and creating. What drives you?

I love teaching and have taught a wide variety of subjects throughout my career in the corporate world. Often the topics were dry business type subjects so finding fun and creative ways to teach these was a constant challenge. Students keep me on my toes and constantly present me with new challenges, even now when I’ve taught hundreds of people over the years. I like to keep connected with my students and seeing what they go on to make is really satisfying.

Putting together the first ever fully accredited course to include metal clay in the curriculum was a great pleasure and I see this as a high point in my development as a teacher. To satisfy the external examiner I had to meet quite stringent criteria for the subject matter and the teaching. I have students who’ve passed these qualifications applying to go to college and this is particularly rewarding.

I get less time to create things for my own amusement which can be frustrating. Most of the creating I do is linked to class or course development or new materials which I can write about or incorporate into classes. I’d like to have more time to create some of the things which are in my sketch book but I’m so busy, it’s difficult.

As an artist, are you always pushing your own boundaries technically, or spending more time on perfecting the techniques you have already mastered?

Definitely pushing the boundaries. I love to experiment and find this particularly useful when teaching. I’m often asked questions about other materials, how they work with metal clay and people also know me for using lots of colour and texture in my work. This prompts questions and it’s very useful to be able to talk about my experiments. When I have students in the studio, I can show them the results of things I’ve been testing. Often I learn as much from something that didn’t work as I do from things that do work.

The skill level of European artists has risen dramatically over the last ten years or so. What do you think is the main reason that metal clay seems to have really blossomed here?

I think there are several factors. One is the quality of the European metal clay tutors and the availability of short courses which has grown hugely in the last 10 years. There are some very talented artists in Europe who are also good tutors. I’m always surprised when I have students travel from all over Europe to take classes with me in London or Cornwall and I’ve seen this grow considerably in the last five years.

Another factor is the internet. There is so much information and advice freely available on the internet and the explosion of tutorials on YouTube has also had a significant impact. Now anyone with an internet connection can find a class or tutorial and learn to work with metal clay without leaving their home. I recently ran a live online class through the US website Craftcast and had students online from all over the world. Live Craftcast classes are recorded and made available for anyone to buy and download for a very reasonable price so this means students anywhere can learn from top tutors at their own pace and at a time that suits them.

One of the reasons I founded the Metal Clay Academy was to bring together good quality resources for people who can’t attend courses. I always vet the tutorials and videos I put on the MCA website to ensure they are giving good and safe information. This is really important to me as I’ve found some very poor resources in my travels around the web.

I also think that Facebook has had a significant impact on the skill levels of artists in Europe. Work in progress is shared freely on Facebook and people encourage each other and offer advice or tips. The Metal Clay Europe Facebook Group runs regular competitions and is an active and supportive group, really encouraging people to raise the standard of their work. It’s wonderful to see people sharing their tips and giving constructive feedback to others. In the time I’ve been involved with the metal clay community, I’ve been constantly impressed with the respect and support people show each other. It’s a lovely community to be part of.

You are very well published, writing for a variety of publications on metal clay topics, with a host of project tutorials as well. For those artists out there that want to get their work published, do you have any tips and/or suggestions for marketing themselves?

Publications are always looking for new article writers so if you like to write and feel you have something people would be interested in reading, I’d suggest you write a brief synopsis and submit it to the editor of the relevant publication.

Tutorials for the established magazines are normally by invitation but if you feel you could do this, the first thing to do is approach the editor. You can find the editor’s name at the front of the magazine. You’ll need to be prepared to show the editor images of your work so they can see that you have the technical skill and design flair required to give their readers something of good quality. Also make sure your approach is well written, with correct spelling and good grammar so they know you can write well.

You need to have reasonable photography skills to write tutorials as you normally have to photograph your own steps. You also need the ability to put something together to a theme and often with quite short deadlines. If you agree to submit a tutorial, make sure you do it by the deadline. Letting down a magazine at the last minute is a definite no-no!

I would encourage people to enter competitions and submit work to reader galleries or social media as well. This will give people an idea about your work and get your name known so you are more likely to have publishers come to you if they are looking for images to illustrate books.

It’s very useful to be active in the metal clay community and take time to get to know the people who are the movers and shakers. Like any industry, it’s often not what you know but who you know that makes the difference if someone is looking for work to be included in publications. Whether you like it or not, Facebook is a great place to keep up with all the latest developments in the metal clay world and to get to know the people who are active. Pinterest and Instagram are also good places to showcase your work.

Good quality photographs are absolutely crucial so unless you are a really good photographer, it’s worth spending money on professional photos of your key pieces. Build a bank of high resolution photos so you can quickly submit something if you are asked or if you hear about an opportunity. I’ve often been asked for an image at very short notice and having something ready to send makes the difference between being in a publication and missing the boat.

Finally, don’t be discouraged if you are not accepted for something. It’s hard not to feel hurt if someone rejects your work but remember they are often looking for something specific and it’s not the quality of your work that has been rejected, it’s just that it doesn’t fit with what they have in mind. Thank them for considering your work and express the hope that you can work together in the future. Make sure they remember you as reliable, pleasant and professional and hopefully they’ll come to you again when they have another opportunity.

Which facet of being an artist attracts you the most? Creating, teaching or writing?

That is very difficult to answer as I wouldn’t like to choose just one. I also think they are inextricably linked. Putting together new classes often starts with the creation of a piece using a specific technique or material. Before I teach something new, I like to make multiple samples and really test the process. This exposes problems and forces you to find solutions which it’s important to know before you teach students. Knowing how to resolve problems or how to adapt the process to avoid pitfalls is crucial to a good student experience and this is always uppermost in my mind.

When I receive the brief for a magazine tutorial, my first step is to design the piece and making it is part of the writing process. Each step is photographed so I have to make the piece and think through the issues people may find when making it at home. I then have to distil each step down to around 70 words so this does focus the mind somewhat.

I don’t think I could write articles or tutorials well if I didn’t teach and I couldn’t teach if I didn’t create. So they are all equally important to me.

You have said that science fiction and history inspires your work. Are you regularly writing or sketching out ideas in your daily life, or is it more of a spontaneous process for you?

I have a number of sketchbooks and also sketch things on odd bits of paper if I’m out and about without my sketchbook. It is very common for me to pause a film or TV programme to sketch a design based on something I’ve seen. I also like to take photographs and find inspiration from these for shapes, textures or forms.

When I’ve got a commission or tutorial brief, I refer to my sketches and develop the design first on paper, drawing and redrawing the design until I’m happy with it. More complex forms are normally made in polymer clay so I can get a better idea of how they work. This is especially important in designing jewellery as how something hangs or how it feels on the body is vital to the success of the design. Then I make the piece in silver clay all the way to the dry stage. Sometimes I’m not happy with it and the design evolves more spontaneously at this stage.

There are some things I’ve made – particularly the early pieces for the Masters Registry programme – which were made without any designing on paper, they just evolved from an idea in my head directly in the clay. I’ve learned over the years that pieces are more successful and quicker to make if I design them on paper first and mock them up in polymer if necessary. I try to pass this learned wisdom on to my students with mixed success!

Metal clay is such an accessible material, it can be hard not to just sit down and play with it, especially when I teach students how to rehydrate it. This frees them to work with the clay much more spontaneously and it’s one of the things that I love about the material.