Donna Sneed bought a kiln before she even knew how to use it. When she discovered the art of metal clay — a process she calls “magic” — the Elizabeth City artist couldn’t help herself.
“Metal clay begins as a gray lump composed of silver — in tiny, tiny particles — water, and an organic binder,” Sneed says. “It’s an art that was invented by the Japanese in the 1970s, and it has a very broad appeal, and yet many people have not heard of it or seen it. When the piece is designed and finished, it’s fired, and then it goes through a refining process so that when you’re done, you have an object that is 100 percent silver.”
The result: stunning, intricately detailed silver sunbursts and whale tails and mermaids and birdhouses on pendants, earrings, and bracelets. While the jewelry Sneed makes is beautiful, her joy has always been in the magic of creating. “It’s the feeling you get when you’re doing something that is so wonderful that you don’t want to break away from it,” Sneed says. “You know, the laundry, dinner — everything disappears, and you’re doing something that is just pure love.”
And Sneed’s impulse kiln purchase? It didn’t take her too long to learn how to fire it up: Today, she owns Silabar Fine Silver, sells her custom creations on Etsy, and shares her skills with students across eastern North Carolina. We sat down with Sneed to learn more about this intriguing art form and her beautiful jewelry.
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DS: You go from a clay substance to a fine silver substance, and I was just kind of intrigued by the idea that you could start with one thing and wind up with something that was completely different. I started researching it, and I was so excited by it that I bought a kiln. I went to some metal clay classes, and then I started exploring it on my own. I became so involved in doing it that I decided it might be a fun thing to teach. Now, I’m a certified instructor and teach through small arts councils across eastern North Carolina.
OS: What sets metal clay apart from other mediums?
DS: You can do a lot of things with metal clay that you can’t do with silver. The big difference is that this is a soft medium, so the way you make the object is more sculptural. The clay is generally flattened out and shaped, and you can impress designs in it. I work with the clay in the manner of a sculptor, and I create my metal pieces by hand, using fine motor skills and small tools.
OS: What do you like about teaching?
DS: Most people come into a classroom and you hand them a piece of grey clay that looks exactly like the modeling clay that they played with in school years and years ago. You tell them, “When you fire this, it’s not going to be this squishy stuff that dries and is very fragile. It’s going to come out as a piece of metal that you can bang on with a hammer.” And somehow, it’s very hard for them to believe that. It was hard for me to believe it initially, too. The women who take my classes are shocked when I give them their pieces back. They’re utterly amazed. Invariably, they’ll say things like, “I can’t believe I did this.” You know that they feel the magic.
OS: What do you love most about working with metal clay?
DS: It’s empowering. You know, this is a lump of clay. How does it become hard? How does it turn into bright, shiny metal from this yucky, dusty gray? The only answer I can give you is that fire is magic. When you put the clay into the kiln, and when the piece comes out, it’s usually a little smaller than what you started out with. But when you brush it and you put it in a tumbler and shine it up, it looks like something that comes off the shelf of a fine jeweler — it’s just beautiful stuff. And it’s amazing to think that you made that, and you didn’t have to pound anything, you didn’t have to saw anything, you didn’t have to use big, fancy tools — you could sit at your kitchen table and do it. It’s just an absolutely fantastic method of enjoying a craft and having something that is brilliant and beautiful when you’re done.
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