Artist Profile: Julia Rai

Cornwall based metal clay artist and tutor Julia Rai is well known in the international metal clay community. She founded the Metal Clay Academy and has been writing tutorials and articles for print and online publications for many years. But getting her to sit still long enough to give us an interview has taken nine years!

Julia was born and raised in North London in the UK. “I’m the oldest of three sisters,” she told me. “I always enjoyed doing practical stuff and wasn’t particularly academic. When I got into a grammar school having passed the 11+ exam as it was in those days, I had to study Latin and that was a bit of a stretch! My best subject was English language but not so much the literature side. I preferred to read science fiction and horror books. I did an art CSE and had a very enlightened teacher who allowed me to explore sculpture rather than traditional drawing and painting. For the final exam I made a full sized sofa which I distressed and covered with coloured plaster of Paris so it looked like it was melting. I can’t remember what happened to it!”

Julia left school at 16. “I’d done babysitting to earn money while I was at school so I applied to do an NNEB nursery nursing course. It was on-the-job training with a week in a day nursery and a week at college. During the college holidays, I worked at the day nursery full time so I was earning money while studying. I was placed in a nursery on the infamous Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, North London, much to the dismay of the nursery Matron. She had specifically asked for a mature student and she got a 16-year-old! It was a bit of a shock to me as many of the children in the nursery were from troubled families. I grew up fast.”

“I worked with children for 10 years in total, first in nurseries and then when my son was born in 1978, I registered as a childminder and looked after a number of children at home. I went back to education in 1984 and did a one year, full time course in electronic engineering, then got a job with Reuters in the City of London. I was there in total for 10 years in a variety of roles, then moved on to Mercury Communications for a while, moved to their parent company Cable and Wireless to do two years in Bermuda as a project manager delivering a customer service call centre, then came back to the UK and was a project manager with a small consultancy for a couple of years. My main specialism was customer service and call centre management. I retired after completing six years as a project management consultant with the National Policing Improvement Agency. I’ve had a very varied and interesting business life.”

Julia was one of the first people to join the Masters Registry programme and I asked her why she did that. “I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and as soon as I heard about the Registry I wanted to be part of it. It’s been a bumpy ride and knocked my confidence on many occasions but I’m not a quitter so I’ve stuck with it. Looking back on it now, I’m very grateful for the early knocks as they have encouraged me to push the boundaries of my work and explore things I never would have before. I’m at Level IV right now but I’m determined to complete the programme – when I get time!”[Image, “Tin Man” 10cm high. The tin man got full marks from the evaluators of the Master’s Registry Programme]

Julia has been pretty brave and published all the scores she received and the comments of the Masters Registry evaluators on her website. I asked her why she did that. “When the programme first launched, no-one had any idea what the evaluators were looking for or how it would work. When my first evaluations came back, I learned a lot about what they wanted as well as gaining an understanding of my own shortcomings as an artist! At that time, I felt that it would be useful for others to know what I had discovered so I decided to put my ego aside and let everyone see the brutal reality of the evaluations. In the early days, the feedback was not very helpful and I had some email exchanges with Tim McCreight to discuss some of the things I felt were dispiriting. There were also projects that I had interpreted in a way that Tim and the other evaluators hadn’t anticipated. Over time, the wording of some of the projects has been refined to make it clearer. After I published my level one feedback and scores, I had many emails from people thanking me for doing it. Some people said that they had been thinking of doing the programme but after seeing my feedback they realised that they couldn’t take the criticism. As I said, looking back now, I know I’m a better artist because of the Registry programme and the directions it has taken me.”

I asked Julia when she first discovered metal clay. “I was doing a weekend beginners silver work course around 2003, just to see if I liked it. The tutor talked about this new thing called PMC and I was intrigued. I took a class and fell in love. Over the years since then I’ve done lots more silver clay and traditional jewellery making and metal working classes with some wonderful teachers including Tim McCreight, Michael David Sturlin, Terry Kovalcik and Celie Fago. I use a full range of techniques in my work but my main medium is silver clay – I just love it.”

Julia is well known as a metal clay teacher so I asked her about her teaching experience. “In my corporate jobs, I’ve taught people many different subjects including project management, customer service and telephone skills and management skills. I have a qualification is further education teaching which I did while at the NPIA as I was delivering training as part of my job. I’m also a certified teacher of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) which I gained doing weekend classes or taking courses in my holidays from work. So teaching metal clay was not a big step for me as I already knew how to put together lesson plans and schemes of work. I love to teach all levels but there is something magical about teaching beginners and seeing their faces when they make something they never thought they’d be able to do.”

“I’ve taught metal clay at other venues including the London Jewellery School for my friend Jessica Rose. I’ve also run my own school, the Cornwall School of Art, Craft and Jewellery (CSACJ), with my business partner Marion Wilson. We had a wonderful studio on a farm in Cornwall and taught for Cornwall Council Adult Education for a couple of years as well as running our own classes and hosting master classes with international tutors like Terry Kovalcik, Michael David Sturlin and Barbara Becker Simon. We had lots of fun and ran some innovative fully accredited qualification classes. We closed the school in 2015 when the Council cut funding for art based classes, something that is happening more and more. I still use the CSACJ website to list classes I’m running and I sell Dockyard and Drake carving tools from the site too.”

“Now I mainly teach scheduled beginners and taster classes from my home studio and the Art Clay Diploma. I teach quite a lot of private classes and I’ve found that the need for this type of class has increased over the past couple of years. People can get the basics online easily now so they tend to ask for specific techniques or a combination of things that they want to cover in a one-on-one class. It’s a very cost-effective way for people to learn the things they want to cover quickly.”

Julia’s work is quite diverse and I asked her what she thinks her style is. “That’s a tricky one as I’ve had to do so many things that may not be to my taste particularly but work for tutorials, classes or the Masters Registry. If I’m making something for myself, it tends to be organic, hand moulded and highly textured. I don’t like mirror polishing! A good example of this was a Craftcast course I did on hand moulded pods (link to https://www.craftcast.com/recordings/hand-molded-metal-clay-pods). I love these pod forms and they are such fun to make and really forgiving for beginners. [Image, “Blue Pearl Earrings” – pod earrings with enamel and pearls, 3 cm high.]

She went on, “I also love carving – carving directly into the clay in the dry stage is very satisfying. But I’ve also done several courses in lino printing and traditional etching and really love the freedom of carving into lino, silicon or simple erasers. I had a period of carving fantasy city-scapes in lino and also did some etched panels featuring city-scapes. Once printed, these can then be scanned into the computer and turned into a texture plate to use with metal clay. [Image, lino print, “city etching” – hard ground etched cityscape]

I used one of the etched cityscapes to create a brooch which has a riveted panel of copper – also etched – between two silver panels. This will be submitted to the Masters Registry when I get all the other level five pieces completed. [Image, “City” brooch]

I asked Julia about her influences. “I love science fiction and fantasy movies and books so I’m always looking for interesting forms in movies. I’ve been known to stop a DVD and sketch a particularly interesting shape. I’m also really fascinated by the penannular form of brooch which has a long history. I’ve made several of these and they work really well on winter coats and thick woolly jumpers. My favourite artist is Roger Dean (www.rogerdean.com) who is best known for doing album cover art for various rock bands over the years. His work is full of amazing imagery and one of the pieces I did for the Masters Registry was influenced by his work. [Image, “brooch with resin inlay”, 8cm across and high.]

Julia doesn’t sell her work on a regular basis and I asked her why this is. “I have sold work at craft fairs and markets in the past but I get bored easily, especially if I have to make the same thing multiple times, so I’ve never submitted anything to a gallery or shop for fear it actually sells and I have to make more! I tend to sell things on a more ad hoc basis. I’ve been commissioned via Facebook following specific pieces I’ve posted pictures of and I’ve also sold pieces to students on courses although I don’t put them out specifically for this. I’m happy making pieces that I like just for pleasure and also making things for magazine tutorials or classes.”

Julia has some online classes with Craftcast and also did an introduction to silver clay for Jewellery School Online. “It’s fun to produce a video lesson that people can buy and watch over and over. I’ve also done some free video tutorials including one about the tear away technique. This texturing method can be problematic as there are so many elements that need to be just right. My tutorial goes through those and has been well received.” (http://www.csacj.co.uk/tutorials-and-videos-by-Julia-Rai)

I asked Julia what she’s working on at the moment. “I am a bit obsessed with pieces which include tiny people interacting with nature. I really love the tableaus at the base of a statue called ‘The Meeting Place’ by Paul Day at St Pancras Station in London. They have real depth and use perspective to give a sort of surreal effect.” [Image, “St Pancras example”]

“I wanted to produce a piece that was wearable but also told a story and had some depth. ‘Winter Forest Gathering’ is the result of quite a bit of experimentation and thought. It is fine silver, 8cm x 5cm x 1.2cm and weighs 120g. I had great fun making it and I’ve added enamel after firing it to give it some colour.” [Image, “Winter Forest Gathering”]

“Now that this piece is completed, I’m looking for my next challenge. I don’t know what that will be yet but creating pieces for tutorials and making pieces for the Masters Registry is keeping me busy.”

I asked Julia about her creative space. “I have a home studio with is part of my large kitchen,” she explained. “I teach here and have space for four students at beginner level or three who are doing a certification class with me. When I’m working on my own, I have lots of space to spread out. It’s especially useful when I’m writing a magazine tutorial as I can have one desk set up with the light box for photographing the tutorial steps, another desk for making the pieces on and another for my computer. It works well.”

Julia has run the Metal Clay Academy website since its inception in 2008 and I asked her about it. “At that time, metal clay was a little partisan – there was the Art Clay camp and the PMC camp and some artists had aligned themselves with one or the other. There was very little brand neutral information around so in consultation with a group of metal clay artists at the time, I set up the Metal Clay Academy website to collect links to as many good quality resources as I could in one place. I approached all the artists I admired and asked them if I could use images of their work on the site. They all said yes which made the site more visually stimulating. Over the years it has grown to be quite a headache to keep up to date! I rely on people letting me know when things change or when links go nowhere because the site is just too large for me to keep on top of. People also let me know when they find new resources and I try to add new things several times a month. It is completely free to users and for people who want me to list their online store or teaching studio. It’s sponsored by Metal Clays.com (link to http://www.metalclays.com/) whose generous support allows me to pay the hosting costs. It’s always been a labour of love but I know many people rely on it to find things.”

I asked Julia where she sees her work going. “Well I really want to complete the Masters Registry and keep doing magazine and video tutorials as long as people ask me to,” she explained. “Now the sculptural piece is out of my head, I’m waiting for the next thing to present itself – that tends to be the way I work. We’ll see where the future takes me!”

To see more of Julia’s work and find out about her Master’s Registry journey, visit her website –www.juliarai.co.uk

She is also online at –www.metalclayacademy.com
www.csacj.co.uk