Artist Profile – Catherine Witherell by Julia Rai

powdered heart with rabbit & roses 8x15 150dpi 1.5MB

California based mixed media maker Catherine Witherell is a self-confessed experimenter who has been creating all her life. “I call myself a ‘Maker’ because I enjoy making things,” she explained with a smile. “I try to stay open about what I make. I don’t stay in one media exclusively. I like to do what I want, when I want. I feel like I’ve done a lot of experimenting and exploring along the way. I get inspiration from many directions. I’m good with my hands.”

imageCatherine’s parents were Hungarian immigrants who escaped the communist takeover of Hungary in 1956. “My first language was Hungarian and although I’m not fluent, I can think in that language and if I hear it being spoken, I always go over to whoever is speaking it, introduce myself and have a conversation. I was raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada until I was 13 years old. In 1970 our family moved to the United States and I attended junior high and high school in California.”

Her earliest memories of being creative began with her father. “He was a drafting engineer who brought my sister and I some vellum and we drew on it with markers, cut things out and decorated our bedroom windows with the pictures. From a very young age I remember coloring with my sister and filling many coloring books together. One Christmas we got a Spirograph set which we fought over! And we loved Play Doh!” she laughs. “Hungarians are artistic people – my father’s sister was a fabric pattern designer.”

I asked Catherine to tell me a bit about her family life now. “My partner is my best friend and the answer to an artists’ dreams!” she began. “We’ve been married for 29 years and he’s very supportive. At this very moment, our youngest flew the nest and went off to live at his new college to study Computer Science,” she said.  “I have mixed feelings of course because he’s been very dear to me the last couple of years and is also a night owl like I am. Often, late past midnight he would come into my studio where we would have deep and also silly conversations that warmed my heart. He tells his friends stories about me and sometimes I find that they add me as a friend on Facebook. It is one of my highest honors.”

She went on, “I have a daughter who just graduated with a double major in Japanese Language and International Political Economics and is now working as an illustrator in the Pacific Northwest. She’s very talented at drawing on a digital pen tablet and also in ink. Her work blows my mind. My home environment has been loving, we are constantly playfully sparring and we practice ‘the snappy comeback’. We’re all comedians and are very close. My husband and I try to support our kids’ aspirations and of course we miss them now that they are young adults on their own.”

Coronation amulet box 1.9MB insideCoronation amulet box 1.3MB copyI asked Catherine to tell me a bit about how she came to be such a prolific maker in so many media. “I studied history and wanted to become a historian when I was in college,” she explained. “I discovered that I was an artist at 20 after taking a weekend course on choosing a life direction where the result was doing anything that involved color, although I didn’t do much until I was 30. After getting married and having two children and turning 40, I decided I had to do something that thrilled me or I would over control my kids and not have a satisfying creative life for myself. It was then I began my practice of doing some art, almost anything, for a few minutes to whatever I could get away with, every single day. At first I had a little 5×7 notebook that I filled with notes and pictures that I cut out of catalogs and magazines. The internet blossomed and grew during that time as well and I got involved in an art retreat called Artfest that I attended for seven years. I made more little notebooks. I have spent many years in a relentless pursuit to learn about everything I am interested in and to improve my skills and someday make almost any idea I could discover inside my head. Nowadays, I search for and take the class on the next thing I need to learn and I’m amazed at how what I’m looking for eventually shows up somewhere. This is a very amazing time in our history, in which we can actually connect to and learn so much. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area there are many venues for learning outside of a college setting. I’ve been taking classes in various media (ceramics, mixed media, metalsmithing, digital art, paper crafting and painting) for about 24 years.” (Photos: Coronation Amulet box)

my metal name badge 1 MBIn talking about the classes she’s taken and if any of the instructors she’s studied with have particularly influenced her work she had this to say. “I’ve taken so many classes in 20+ years!” she laughed. “I can’t think of a better way to spend time, learning and figuring out how to do things I didn’t know how to do before. The subject area is wide. I’ve taken classes in stained glass, ceramics, metalsmithing, wire work, lapidary, stone setting, enameling, metal etching, soft soldering with a soldering iron, digital art, mixed media, collage, journaling, bookmaking, mail art, painting, and I take them in person and online. I don’t think there is just one instructor that has influenced my work more than another. It’s difficult for me to see it because I’m the one making. Possibly Thomas Mann. It’s because of him I made my jointed birds and I do believe his influence is in this name badge.”

Leaf garland necklace 5.7x7.8 400 2.8MBaCatherine works in metal clay alongside all the other media she enjoys and I asked her how she began working with metal clay. “I discovered metal clay in 2000 when I was mainly throwing ceramic clay, making pots and making small scale sculpture. I was into a little bit of beading too and I would make gifts for my friends’ birthdays and for Christmas. I wasn’t impressed with the charms available at the bead store or jewelry stores. One day while working on some sculpture, I thought: I would like to become a goldsmith and work with metal. It seemed to me that I got my answer immediately when I heard of PMC and I took a two day class at one of my favorite haunts, the Mendocino Art Center on the California coast. I loved metal clay immediately! The pieces I made in class were very primitive charms but I went home, bought a refurbished kiln and experimented for the next five years. I focused on making unusual and personal charms for charm bracelets and my flat little things evolved into the 3D. After a couple of years, I was making custom bracelets for the wives and mothers in my community, I started writing a blog (in 2005), wrote three articles for the then new Belle Armoire Jewelry Magazine (in 2007), and began submitting to ‘calls for art’ from places like Lark Books, Art Jewelry Magazine, art retreats, the PMC Guild Annual, the Saul Bell Competition and online places like Crafthaus and Ganoksin.”

With so much knowledge and skill in so many different media, I was interested to find out Catherine’s creative process. I feel overwhelmed just listening to the huge variety of media and techniques she has at her fingertips! “I make small sketches first with a few phrases or descriptive sentences so I have something to think about,” she explained. “I get an idea for a shape and go off on a search for more shapes that can entail taking photos when I’m out, my favorite places are clothing department stores and flea markets or antique fairs. I take many, many photos of shapes and then I start drawing. I fill pages and pages with notes and item lists. The idea changes and goes in more directions and that’s why I often work in a series. So while I’m working I keep getting more ideas and drawing helps to weed out the ideas that aren’t so good. I make some of my own textures; I make molds of various elements I like to add to my pieces. I don’t think I ever made a model first but I did once sleep with a little stuffed monkey for about two weeks and then I was able to sculpt a little monkey from metal clay that turned out really well.”

Monkey from fb 8x12 150 1.1MB

So she has lots of ideas, research and drawings, but I was curious if she plans her work. “Sure I plan, that’s how I make sure I succeed. In fact, I can get a new idea in my head and I don’t know how to do some of it. So I write down that I want to make such a thing and start the notes on it. I let go of that and keep on working on what I’m working on, a few months later I get to take another step towards that idea and in this way I can actually have three or four things moving along, each at their own pace, but in a place in my mind that I update when a part of the puzzle of it gets solved. Of course, sometimes I wing it!” she adds.

Catherine’s main influences are. “Pattern and line, flowers, pop art, animals, lace impressions, overlapping colors, polka dots, splashing water. If I was to describe my style it would be whimsical, cartoony, graphic, and not necessarily realistic. Good examples of my influences and style are my fire water stacking rings, fern earrings and the leaping hare pendant.” (As seen in the following photos.)

fern earrings 2 part 2.8MB 2015afire water stacking rings from 2011 716kbLeaping Hare pendant 2.7MB 2009a

I wondered how Catherine organises her work space with so many different media to choose from so I asked her about her studio. “My husband used to tell me when our two kids were young that someday he would build me a studio where I could work on my projects – even though one New Year he said ‘Catherine, I forbid you to take up any more space in the living area for your art supplies!’ HA! He also gave me the nicknames ‘24/7’ and ‘art all the time’ because I conditioned myself to work when he and the kids went to bed at night and sometimes I would stay up all night and even the next day until my regular bedtime rolled around again.”

“That someday he spoke about arrived and two and a half years ago we moved to a house with a smaller living area and a nice large space above the garage for me!” she laughs. “Now there are no art supplies in the living areas of the house. My studio is my playground and also like a private hideaway. I can leave everything out and go back to things whenever I want. It’s the best feeling! People have told me it’s overwhelming to them in there. I found out that sometimes my husband goes in there and borrows things, which makes me smile with glee!”

Studio wide viewSo what is her studio like? “My current studio is my dream come true, just four steps up from the main floor of our house, 20 feet from the kitchen and across the house from the master bedroom so I won’t disturb my husband who is a morning person when I am being a night person,” she explained. “Some parts are organized. In other spots I have a general feeling about where things are. Some items, I hope I find sometime because we moved and there are a few boxes that I haven’t unpacked yet.”

Studio - metal clay area“I have areas or stations so that if I get an idea, I can just start right up on it. There’s a corner with my desk, laptop and books. I have a sewing area, with a machine, fabrics, lace, fiber and leather. I set up a place for mixed media work with a wall for canvases and painting and a table for journaling. I also enjoy bookmaking. There are book shelves in each area with the books that pertain to that set of topics. I’ve been collecting books and art supplies for over 20 years. We put in a table with a Corian countertop where I can cut and polish stones and water won’t destroy it. One end of my studio, about a third of it, is the metal shop because that’s been my main focus for the last 15 years and in one corner of that I have arranged for metal clay. I do work in our garage too where I have a potter’s wheel and a ceramic kiln I got before I got into metals and I just added a new sand blaster and a powder coating gun set up. My husband said it was OK. It’s kind of a joke now but he really did say it was OK” she laughs.

This sounds like heaven to me! With so many tools to choose from, I asked Catherine if she had a favourite tool. “I don’t have a favorite tool . . . because I love all the tools!” she laughed. “Oh all right . . . with metal clay I love using small cuticle scissors to cut away the extra clay after the surface won’t allow fingerprints to be made on it anymore. I pick up the piece I’ve rolled out and textured, when the surface is dry and the clay is still soft inside and cold to the touch. It’s much easier to handle at that point and doesn’t get marred as easily. The tiny scissors have very sharp, narrow blades and remind me to treat the clay carefully. They get in very close and it’s very easy to cut away the excess. While still soft I add that soft clay back into my package with a quick swipe of a wet brush and kneed it back into my raw clay.” What a great tip!

Currently Catherine is working on new ideas with mixed media. “I’ve been working on mixing together any number of the different techniques and media that I’ve been learning about in new and interesting combinations,” she said. “As you may imagine there is a lot of risk of combinations that just don’t work but I love the exploring and the experimentation and it feels like I’m playing. I love to work – I forget what time it is when everyone has gone to bed, except me, and I get to hear myself think.”

my favorite envelope pattern pos-neg laser 12x6.5 150dpi 1.8MBShe continued, “In 2015 I learned how to use a laser cutter and cut my own patterns for making impressions for metal clay and for rolling with sheet metal through a rolling mill. I wasn’t satisfied with the depth of the low relief designs available from companies online however nice they are. I researched specialty papers and found the thickest and most dense cardstock for getting deeper relief and more defined patterns. Of course that sent me off in a direction I hadn’t anticipated and I started cutting acrylic shapes to use as silhouette dies in my hydraulic press. This is my favorite laser cut pattern and the positive/negative laser cuttings.”

powdered heart with rabbit & roses 8x15 150dpi 1.5MB“At the moment I’ve been exploring powder coating and adding color to aluminum and copper shapes I’ve pressed from my acrylic dies. Then I cut them out by sawing and add layers on top and behind to make a dimensional piece. The colored heart is coated in a lovely shade called Christmas Island and I found a tiny flower earring post I had and used it as a rivet to attach the metal clay leaf on top. I stamped and cut out a nice shape from sterling silver sheet with a jewelers saw to complement the heart shape and then soldered metal clay roses and a sweet leaping rabbit I made from silicone molds I created from a tiny Venetian picture frame and a brass rabbit stamping to fit around the heart. I laced the two pieces together with sterling silver wire. So my point is that you can use metal clay as a design element and not always as a whole piece,” Catharine added. (Photo: Powdered heart with rabbit & roses 8×15)

It’s pretty obvious that Catherine combines a wide variety of techniques in one piece. “Well by now I can say that I’ve learned enough that I can use any number of techniques. I make most of my own findings. I still have purchased findings from the days when I didn’t know how to make them so I’m trying to use them up but I noticed that my taste has changed and some of these things I would never use.”

“My favorite thing to do is to make two part earrings with argentium wire for my hooks and jump rings, soldering them onto the back of each piece and linking with the jump ring. Two parts makes them more interesting. I do make cold connections. I’ve also taken a bigger thick metal clay piece, drilled a hole in it and soldered in a piece of wire that then becomes a rivet as there are pieces too big to solder to something less substantial, like the monkey and the birds onto the floor of the carousel.”

So I’m guessing that Catherine would advocate metal clay artists learning a range of other skills to combine with their metal clay work. I asked her what she thought was the most important. “Learn how to solder, how to wrap wire and make clean findings, how to make a bezel and set a stone in it,” she explained. “Get consistent about forming metal clay so it doesn’t look thick and sloppy, unless you’re going for that look and can pull it off. Carve with consistency. Learn how to make a perfect rivet. Round off your earring hook ends so that they don’t injure people’s ear holes. Learn how to use a jeweler’s saw just in case it can save you from two pieces of metal clay fusing together in the kiln.” Useful tips.

Favorite class to teach - three jointed birds 2.1MBaCatherine used to teach and she told me about the classes she ran. “I used to teach metal clay classes in person. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed the students I have had. I was working for Teesha Moore at her big Artfest Retreat each spring of 2007, 2008 and 2009 and I had big classes of 18 to 20 students. My favorite class was the ‘Jointed Bird Pendant’ because we were collaging patterns to make up bird parts and then after firing the PMC pieces we riveted the appendages on and everyone could pose their bird. I liked the fact that it was a project class and everyone was very attentive so that they could walk out of there with a completed bird. My other favorite class was ‘Rings, Rings, Rings’. I had 25 gram packages of PMC for each student and I had a few extra too so people were buying extra clay and splitting it between two people. We fired so many pieces in that class you wouldn’t believe it! It was so much fun!”

Although Catherine sells her work, it’s not the main focus of her creativity. “I got to a point where I realized that I was really making for the pure joy of it and being a business woman is hard work,” she said. “I know artists who do a lot of selling online and I just don’t want to work that hard. I want my artwork to give me energy. I don’t want to give everything I have to selling – which I believe and have found takes a lot of perseverance.”

“The past two years, I’ve done a big push making gifts for my family and special friends for birthdays and Christmas, always in a series and always until my ideas are exhausted. Then I take a break and go off to learn and work in a different medium until I want to go back to the other thing again. In this way, I feel like I’m always working on something artistic and it keeps me engaged and thinking creatively. It’s my practice.”

6birdhouses300dpi-6x5 3.2MB-2007aI asked her how she sells her work. “I sell my work directly to my customers anytime I can,” she explained. “I like the one or two day shows in person the best, a blitz and then I like going back to my little word of making. I’ve sold my work on Etsy and Facebook too. It’s exciting to send your art to a far off place on the globe. I think about building a beautiful website and that may happen this year but people have to pick up and hold the pieces because they just don’t look the same in photographs as they do in person, so people have come to my studio to get something I’ve made or we correspond and discuss it through emails.”

“I’m grateful for every person who has purchased a piece of my work and everyone who has a piece has a little part of my brain, my feelings, what I think is beautiful, a memento, a token of friendship, a tiny spark of love. That may sound hokey but when I finish making something to my satisfaction, oh, it’s a wonderful moment for me. I did it! I made it. I carry it around the house, try it on, wear it to see how it fits and I’m just happy about the whole thing. And that feeling makes life great for me.”

Catherine  has a few tips for artists who want to sell their work. “First, get really good at what you’re doing so the quality sells your pieces. Spread yourself all over the internet so that when you hand out your cards at shows it’s easy to find you afterwards. When I started out, you had to have a blog, a Flickr, an Etsy or an ArtFire shop and connections to other artists because they could share their experience with you. You went to art retreats, you kept learning, adding to your skill set, networking while making friends.”

“Get in cahoots with other artists who can give you moral support and even have shows together so that you aren’t on your own. Comradery is a great thing – to have company and not go it alone. Donate a few pieces to the auctions or causes that you believe in and consider that part of your advertising budget. Write a blog that points to your online shop. Actually go to the shops you’d like to sell your work in and see if you can strike a deal and be happy with it.”

In Florence They Dance on Mosaic Floors box 3.1 copyCatherine’s work has featured in a wide variety of publications. She told me about a couple she particularly likes. “There was a wonderful little book published in conjunction with a two part online exhibition on Crafthaus in 2011 called ‘New Directions: Powder Metallurgy (Metal Clay) in Sheet Metal World’. The work of the 62 metal clay artists in that book is amazing! My piece is called ‘In Florence They Dance on Mosaic Floors’.”

“In 2009, I and my friend Deryn Mentock, self-published a small run of about 300 books called ‘Jewelry the Zine’ with 44 of our artist friends all about our favorite topic . . . jewelry! It sold out before the printing was done. It’s a fun book.”


Catherine also enters competitions. “I have entered a few and I did win once and it was a wonderful experience. Mitsubishi, the company that developed PMC, sponsored an online competition called ‘Tales of the Heart’ editor-add link <   and published the winners on Valentine’s Day in 2013. I got third place with my piece called ‘My Heart’s Golden Secret Gives Me Hope’ and I won $500. It felt so good to be acknowledged for all my hard work with metal clay by Mitsubishi and also by my peers on Facebook that day. It was a great day!”

I asked Catherine what she does to relax. “I work in my studio.” No surprise there! “It’s there that I meditate on my life while working on my latest idea. I forget about time, food, any problems I may have. I solve things. Most things work out the way I want them to. Some work out even better!”

Finally, I asked Catherine what she would like to achieve artistically or creatively in the next five years. “Well, I have this long list of ideas and projects and I think I’ll be working on them,” she explained. “I’m going to push myself and try to outdo the last thing I made. I’m going to keep on mixing things together.”

four small bowls 930kb

“As far as working with metal clay is concerned, it’s boxes, more boxes incorporating metal clay details. Objects like mementos that can also be worn like a brooch or a pendant. I like to make the thing serve more than one purpose. A friend would always treasure something given from their heart. It doesn’t have to be jewelry. One of my favorite things I’ve made was a series of small bowls that could hold your favorite rings.”

“I feel like I’ve done a lot in my creative life. My goal has always been to express myself and be happy. I’ve enjoyed my creative freedom and relating with other artists is also very important to me. I love making complicated things with lots of parts and figuring out the puzzles. I’d like to collaborate with other makers, think of some new ideas and keep myself engaged, learning and moving forward. That sounds like the most fun thing to do at this point in my life.”

You can see more of Catherine’s work in the following places:-
Catherine’s blog is at:
Catherine’s Facebook page which she uses like a blog is:

12347681_10154340055124045_4667653997826735386_nArtist Profile Author: JULIA RAI is a teacher and artist working in a variety of media. She finds inspiration in science fiction and fantasy and loves a good story where disbelief can be suspended in favour of wonder. Her practical and ultra-organised side is always vying for attention alongside her creative and messy side. Each is trying hard to learn from the other and live in harmony.



2 Responses to “Artist Profile – Catherine Witherell by Julia Rai”

  1. Quite possibly the most interesting interview I’ve read. Catherine’s personality came through and I think you asked all the questions I would’ve asked! 🙂 Catherine has always struck me as someone who knows exactly who she is and lives it. I wish she and I lived closer so we could get into some trouble together.

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