The Work of Steven Ford and David Forlano

Colors gallop, parabolas swoop over and under boulders, textures invite caresses. Flowers deconstruct into Japanese textiles. Silver boundaries barely contain fractured color planes. Aggregates of tiny “rocks” jostle for space, adhering to each other like sea foam bubbles at the shoreline. They appear barely to touch, as if they might float apart with the next wave. The same shapes in different colors morph into grandmother’s button collection.

Pebble Galaxy - Steven Ford and David Forlano
Pebble Galaxy (wall piece with removable pin), 2002
Bronze, sterling silver, polymner clay, glass, coral, shell, magnets
diameter 13″
Photo: Karen Mauch

A swirling abstract reminiscent of a child’s “scribble drawing” is in fact a take on Madonna and Child via Picasso; look again and a halo appears. Shifting patterns of light suggest an intimate threedimensional version of one of Michael James’s flickering and moody quilts. Somewhere between jigsaw puzzles and mosaics-to-wear, they could be art for the blind, but who would want to miss all that color?

CityZenCane: Steven Ford and David Forlano

Visitors to craft shows may know Steven Ford and David Forlano by their company name, CityZenCane, the polymer clay guys, but that doesn’t cover all they do. True, they emerged from the world of polymer clay with a highly developed aesthetic, and have only recently considered the conceptual side of jewelry. But their spirit, their constantly evolving designs, and their refusal to coast on a well-earned reputation warrants attention.

Rock 59 - Steven Ford and David Forlano
Rock 59, 2002
Polymer clay, sterling silver glass
2 1/2 x 2 x 1/4″
All Photos: Robert Diarmante

Steven Ford and David Forlano have been making jewelry together since 1988. As sophisticated interpreters of the new idiom of polymer clay, they moved through a vocabulary of glass (canes, millefiore), and fiber (ikat and shibori) techniques. About three years ago, they began to include metal in their jewelry, and have gradually developed a more “metalist,” formal approach to their work. That they continue to use polymer clay is now of less interest than their collaboration and what they are exploring, but the medium is at least in part the messenger.

In the beginning, Steven Ford and David Forlano’s designs stuck to the established vocabulary of polymer clay, but were a lot more interesting. The two painters employed their design philosophy to create work that was juicy, colorful, lightweight, and, not coincidentally, beautifully crafted. For the most part, surfaces were flat and pattern reigned; elements were simply cut off the cane and assembled. But the composite parts had valence all by themselves. Richly patterned, they were much like Ford’s contemporary paintings.

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Gradually the artists became more involved with textures, using “toothbrushes, sugars, and salts, and things we could push in and rinse out, layering opaque and translucent…. trying to give each section its character.” [1] Their willingness to degrade what is usually a smooth finish puts them at odds with conventional handling of polymer clay. Like Susan Kasson Sloan, who mixes epoxy resin with pigments and other mysterious substances, Steven Ford and David Forlano now build jewelry with and without a metal frame, using the material as needed. They bring a broad range of creative sensibilities to the body, unencumbered by a narrow view of what jewelry is supposed to be.

Big Bead Necklace - Steven Ford and David Forlano
Big Bead Necklace, 1998
Polymer clay 1 1/4 x 21″

Steven Ford and David Forlano produce several lines of limited-edition jewelry, on which they practice an almost infinite rotation of forms, surfaces, patterns, and palettes. There are “Hydro-top pins,” mixed-metal circles partially formed on the hydraulic press and completed with clay, Mother and Child brooches, and several varieties of flowers. A simple four-petaled blossom like an animated propeller is reproduced in seemingly endless partnerings of color and texture; a circular bloom suggests a cubist peony with nearly overlapping petals. Because polymer clay is pigmented, color and surface are integrated, and three-dimensional dots, “bacilli,” circles, and random spots grow within their bezels. Flat areas of patterned color may be abraded or satinbuffed. Scumbled or degraded surfaces reflect the artists’ gritty North Philadelphia surroundings, but also a need for beauty. Neighbor and metalsmith Jan Yager found tiny flowers surviving in cracked concrete and abandoned lots. Steven Ford and David Forlano defy the urban fortress with irrepressible color, as if harnessing the sunlight that bakes the courtyard behind their warehouse studio.

Steven Ford and David Forlano were trained as painters, and in some ways they still are. The large “flowers” and “Mother and Child” series are proof that cubism still has currency. Using the silver frame as line, much as cloisonne wire defines color fields in enameling, Steven Ford and David Forlano create what critic John Berger has called the metaphorical model of cubism, that is, “the diagram… a visible symbolic representation of invisible processes, Forces, structures.” [2] Through the fractured surface and seemingly transparent planes, the “figure or landscape becomes the construction.” [3] Here, Frame really does equal structure. Because they can actually remove material to create negative space instead of merely suggesting it as one might do in a painting or enamel, “the space between objects is part of the same structure as the objects themselves.” [4] And by combining the properties of metal and clay, color becomes both the form and the surface.

Rock 62, 2002
Polymer clay, sterling silverm 24k gold, seed beads, glass grinding beads
3 x 2 1/2 x 1/4 “

What we call polymer clay originated in Germany in the 1930s, where it was used primarily by dollmakers for its pliability and translucency. Marketed as Fimo by Eberhard Faber (of eraser fame), it was subsequently manufactured in the United States as Sculpey. In polymer clay, fine particles of polyvinyl chloride are suspended in a plasticiser and colored with pigments. It is not clay, yet in many ways it behaves like clay, in that it can be rolled, molded, formed, kneaded, and best of all, fired at a low temperature (212-300 Degree F, depending on the manufacturer), making it ideal for the home crafter. It retains its vivid color after firing, allows the transfer of appropriated images and text, and has a low “degree of difficulty.”

Mother and Child 3, 2001
Graphite, ink on paper
6 3/4 x 7 1/4″
Mother and Child - Steven Ford and David Forlano
Mother and Child 3, 2001
Polymer clay, sterling silver, glass
3 7/8 x 3 1/8 x 1/2″

Although a few pioneers employed polymer clay as a fine-art medium in Europe , most of the credit for its popularity in the United States must go to Pier Voulkos for her bold and witty use of this new material. When Voulkos began in the 1970s, she quickly established a presence with her large and colorful jewelry, using the garish colors to great advantage. Polymer clay eventually became a craft chameleon, used to create the look of turquoise, ivory, and other “natural” materials. Use spread rapidly, as traditional glass caning and mosaic techniques were easily learned. Despite its enormous distribution as a craft material, by and large its design techniques have not evolved, and it remains mainly a medium for hobbyists. Almost anyone can do it, and sometimes it seems as if everyone does.

Steven Ford and David Forlano appear to have achieved a perfect balance of friendship and business, synergy and solitude. Their personal lives are separate, but in the studio, they are partners, appreciative of each other’s gifts. Steven Ford grew up in Indiana and attended Washington University in St. Louis , where he was nearly a glass major, but settled on painting. In Rome, on a junior year abroad with Tyler School of Art, Ford met David Forlano, a Tyler student from Pennsylvania, and subsequently transferred to Tyler for his senior year. Working in neighboring studios, the two discovered they were having nearly opposite problems in their figure drawings, and an instructor suggested that they just correct each other’s work. Showing a level of trust that prefigured their current relationship, they did; that charcoal drawing was their first collaboration. Forlano recalls his shock at seeing Ford’s work. A self-described painter of “large, expressionistic color shape paintings,” he had never seen anything like the sticks Ford had mounted on the wall. He had never “met anybody with that sensibility of thinking that far into a painting to the point of the object itself It fascinated me that you could think beyond just making the image … [to] deconstruct the object, even the approach, even the reason for painting.” To this day Ford’s drawings for jewelry remain very much deconstructed objects.

Flower 3, 2001
Polymer clay sterling silver, mixed media
4 3/4 x 4 1/2″

The artists were introduced to polymer clay in 1997 by the work of Martha Breen, an early practitioner whose mother had been an artistic mentor of the young Ford. He recognized the cane technique from his glass training, and he and Forlano started making simple checkerboards and canes. In fairy-tale fashion, they put their work into a cardboard ox, took it to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk , Virginia , and sold every last piece. Then they traveled to Washington, D.C., and sold some other pieces to the Phillips Collection and the Smithsonian Institution, without knowing anything about fashion, jewelry, or, for that matter, the world of fine craft. To educate themselves on emerging color trends, they bought Vogue magazine.

Rocks 13, 2001
Polymer clay, sterling silver, mixed media
3 3/4 x 3 x 1/4″

While their work has changed dramatically since then, their working method has not. Ford, the one with the curly hair, draws the original design and provides the structure, although he does not actually fabricate the metal frames. Forlano, with shaved head, is the surface guy. He fills in with the polymer clay, provides the color, and plays with texture. This suits them both. Ford makes a number of drawings on a theme, but he doesn’t actually know which ones Forlano will select, and by extension, which ones will be realized. Forlano, for his part, loves the challenge of interpreting the form he’s been given. He likes being given a structure to respond to; Ford likes controlling the opening design. Ford does most of the beaded work, Forlano does more of the pins. Their metal fabricator, Maryanne Pettus, tells them what can and cannot be done in metal, leaving them free to concentrate on design. Ford likes “to separate things out, so that each element has its own nature” within a single idea. The colorful “Mother and Child” pins are more typical of Forlano. What Forlano calls a blank slate, Ford sees as a predetermined structure. They are true collaborators-work actually passes back and forth between them.

Steven Ford and David Forlano have established an extraordinary level of trust. “We’ve had every argument there is to have so many times…. [we] can have any kind of fight and survive it,” says Ford. And though they generally know what to expect from each other, they love to be surprised, and, like many long-term relationships, continue to surprise each other. A certain shape may inspire Forlano to make unanticipated color choices; a calligraphic sketch may lead Ford to a new structure. Forlano is also a musician and performance artist, often collaborating with Japanese dancer Roko Kawai. It’s hard to say what takes priority in his creative life: whether “putting a too on a building, improvising with a group of musicians, or making jewelry,” he says, ‘I find a tasty bite in all of them.” A natural collaborator, Forlano recorded an experimental performance called “Ring Steppers” in which each of four musicians recombined and added to a previous composition, much like the childhood game of “Telephone” or “Whispering Down the Lane.” For his part, Ford has found a way to bring his paintings to the body. There is a direct correspondence between his oversized canvases of the 1990s and the pair’s recent breeches. Now that he has passed beyond fascination with material tricks and teaching technique, Ford is no longer actively involved in the polymer clay community; lately he has been experimenting with flocking.

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Flower 20, 2002
Polymer clay, sterling silver
3 x 2 7/8 x 1/8″

The pair have few predecessors, and their influences and heroes are largely from the worlds of music (Brian Eno, David Bowie, Bjork) painting (Terry Winters), and sculpture (Martin Puryear). They certainly don’t follow any known “school,” except in that very American sensibility of accepting everything, high and low, as long as it’s good design. As they came into the jewelry world somewhat accidentally, they have not pIaced themselves in the evolutionary line of jewelers, althought they have done several spectacular riffs on Bob Ebendorf’s famous stryrofoam and paper bead necklace. The jewelers they know are from craft shows or from teaching. Does this mean their work will remain fresh, or, to paraphrase Santayana, not owing jewelry’s past, will they at it? The past two or three have brought substantial changes to their work. Adding the metal frame has given those designs gravitas and credibility. Struggling with typical jewelers’ concerns such as finding pin backs that are beautiful and functional, clasps that don’t prick the back of die neck or pull your hair, or the nexus of size and weight, has meant they have had to think about what they’re doing in a new way.

The artists make a point of referring to each piece as “one-of-a-kind,” even in a collection that would be considered “limited edition,” i.e., similar ideas repeatedly expressed with slight variation in color and texture. It’s an interesting difference in nomenclature from a traditional jeweler’s approach. From a painting perspective, each one is unique; prints are multiples.

Conversely, in polymer clay, caning techniques make it too easy to replicate a single idea. Particularly for Forlano, every live performance is unique, especially with improvisation. But in craft, the multiple has legitimacy, even boner; making more than one means having the skills to reproduce it.

Flower 14, 2001
Polymer clay, sterling silver, brass
diameter 4″
Steven Ford,
Untitled, 1991
Oil on canvas
78 x 74″

Steven Ford and David Forlano have clearly left the world of polymer clay behind, and not only because of their increased use of metal. Ford paid his professional dues through teaching and serving as president of the National Polymer Clay Guild. But in a world where projects such as “Bug Buddies” and “Silly Snakes” are offered in books, there is little loom for the aesthetic choices they have made. They have used polymer clay for its best qualities-almost limitless texture, form, and color-to create wearable and exciting jewelry. Unconcerned with hiding or disguising the fact that they use polymer clay, they want their audience to respond to the design and not the material, so that after a moment the buyer returns to say, “By the way, what is that?” Like resin artist Peter Chang, whom they admire for his continued ability to confound and delight, they too have transcended their medium.

The pair’s award-winning appearances at the elite craft shows introduce some intriguing questions for which there may not be ready answers. They have yet to embrace the world of jewelry in all its history and traditions, and this may ultimately make them the more interesting jewelers. Whereas craft students learn the history of painting, painters don’t study craft. On one level, work is ultimately judged on design. Maybe we need new categories. What are reasonable expectations for inclusion into the field? Will Ford arid Forlano begin to approach the body the way a jeweler does, to consider philosophically whether something goes on skin or clothing, neck or breast? Does participation imply some kind of reference to the history of jewelry? Or is it sufficient to be open to influences wherever they present themselves, in music, in textile, in the garden?

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Circle Pin, 2000
Polymer clay, sterling silver
diameter 3″

Despite at least one disgruntled former fan, who laments that they have taken a darker and more serious turn, Steven Ford and David Forlano have been highly successful in the marketplace. But the marketplace is not where they will experience a creative challenge. As long as they continue to make jewelry with the same level of care and probing intelligence, who cares what medium they use? The idea that value does not come from the material is not new in jewelry or in painting. If we want Steven Ford and David Forlano to Continue to enrich the field, let us embrace and educate them, nurture and engage them. And they will do the same for us.

Footnotes:

[1] This and all other unattributed quotes taken from conversation and written communication with the artists, July 2002.
[2] John Berger, “The Moment of Cubism,” in Selected Essays (New York : Pantheon Books, 2001), P. 84.
[3] Ibid., p. 85.
[4] Ibid., p.86.

By Marjorie Simon [Metalsmith Magazine - Winter 2003]
Marjorie Simon is a metalsmith and writer based in New Jersey
In association with SNAG's
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