Artist Profile: Martha Biggar by Julia Rai

I always think of Virginia based metal clay teacher and artist Martha Biggar as part of a team – Ed and Martha go together like ham and eggs – for the US readers – or tea and crumpets as we say in the UK! I’ve called her a ‘metal clay teacher and artist’ but Martha describes herself slightly differently. “I usually think of myself as an artist/educator/farmer, but maybe renaissance woman would be better…” she told me.

It’s not often that I meet someone who still lives within a stone’s throw of where they were brought up, but Martha is an exception. “I grew up on the family farm that touches the one we own today in Draper, VA,” she began. “My husband Ed, a glassblower, and I travel and teach both glass and jewelry.  Although I sold my cow herd in 2013, we still have donkeys, horses, and a couple mules.  We raise specialized vegetables for the farmers markets and chefs in our area, including figs, asparagus, and assorted varieties of cherry tomatoes.”

Not surprisingly, her first memories of being creative involve animals. “My earliest memories involve drawing horses as a very young child,” she said. I asked her how she discovered metal clay. “I taught middle school art in our county, and as is required in Virginia, I had to take classes every five years at least in my field. Since I didn’t want to write reports, I generally went to Arrowmont in Tennessee, where I took my first class in metal clay in 2000 from Linda Kaye-Moses. I had seen metal clay advertised by Rio Grande and wondered about it but was concerned about the cost of a kiln. So, I figured I would try it out and see if I liked it. If I didn’t, my family would have a vacation and I would have Christmas presents. But I did, and promptly went home and purchased a kiln. My first piece was a 1-inch square that Linda always taught to beginners, I still have it.” I guess it was a lean Christmas that year!

If you follow Ed and Martha on social media, you’ll know about their creative space, The Shedio. “We have The Shedio, made by the construction class at our high school. Not big enough at 10×16, it has plenty of outlets dedicated for kilns and a hood for Ed’s glass work space. It is very chaotic especially if we are in and out for traveling.  But we both seem to manage.”

I asked Martha about her own creative process. “As a general rule I don’t sketch for myself,” she told me. “I sometimes make my own templates and draw them. Even though I draw well it’s not part of my process.” She went on, “Since Ed is so involved in glass, it was only natural that I should include glass in my work. I am not especially fond of dichroic glass, although I do like and teach fusing. Many of my pendants capture leftover bits of marble or goblet cane.”

Glass and silver pendant by Martha Biggar

I asked Martha if she has a style. “I think the most recognizable part of my ‘style’ is that I like clean finishing,” she said. “I use different grits of sanding pads to accomplish this and finish my semi-production pieces as nicely as the one of a kind items.” And what influences her work? “My two main influences are my faith and the natural world around us,” she began. “Many of my pieces reflect the many images of crosses. And, although some would say those two viewpoints are against each other, growing up as we did depending on weather and the land is something that is ingrained in me. Beautiful textures that come from plant or other natural forms are commonly mixed with cruciform shapes in much of my work.” Martha has a great example of these influences in her work. “This is one of my favorite pieces, a Jerusalem Cross made of Original PMC and PMC+ (which gives it the gentle curve). The back texture is from a skeletonized leaf.”

Jerusalem Cross by Martha Biggar, photographer credit Robert Diamante

I know that both Ed and Martha teach so I asked her to tell me more about that. “We teach both privately and at venues such as Bead and Button and Glass Craft. I enjoy fusing classes, photopolymer plates, and beginner metal clay classes.” They also sell their work. “We sell locally at our Farmers Markets, as well as regionally such as the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center in Abingdon, VA, and through the galleries and Fairs of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, based in Asheville, NC,” she explained.

With teaching and selling as well as farming, Martha has a full and busy schedule. I asked her what she does to relax. “Read, play with the animals, be outside.” she said. Not too surprising given her background and environment, so I asked her to tell me something that we might find surprising about her. “One summer in college I saw a poster for classes at Harvard University. One of my instructors helped me and I received a grant and studied there for six weeks in the Masters of Landscape Architecture program. Loved it!  And the Boston Pops too!”

I asked Martha what she was currently working on. “Here is this Celtic Cross made from Cyprus Clay.  I saw a blacksmith friend make a larger version from three straight pieces of steel; I went back to our demonstration booth and replicated it in silver. I truly enjoy working with the Cyprus, its flexibility allows the clay to be bent and then reshaped in wet form.”

Martha is about to embark on an exciting new challenge. “I am on track to become a certifying teacher for the new Camp PMC, Mitsubishi’s new certification program,” she told me. “I told Ed the other day that this has been a dream for years. As far as making goes, I’d like to take three to six months and concentrate on creating a larger body of one of a kind pieces, probably in series, and not concentrate so much on the bread and butter pieces.” When I asked her where she sees herself going with her metal clay work, her answer was simple. “Onward and upward…” That’s good enough for me!

Finally, I asked Martha about her online presence. “We use a Facebook page as a ‘plog’, a photo blog. This shows our jewelry and glass of course but also glimpses into our everyday lives. One of these days I’ll get a real website back up and running…” To find out more about Ed and Martha, and what goes on in The Shedio, visit the Facebook page here – www.facebook.com/theshedio

About the author: Julia Rai is an award winning artist, teacher and writer well known in the international metal clay community. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications and she writes regularly for print magazines and online. She teaches in her home studio in Cornwall and travels to teach by invitation. You can find Julia at her school in St. Austell, UK www.csacj.co.uk