I’ve known UK based metal clay artist and tutor Tracey Spurgin for many years, so long in fact that I can’t remember when we first met! Tracey lives in the small village of Walkington in the East Riding of Yorkshire which is in the north of England. Tracey and her husband Steve were regulars at the US conferences that ran every year and which a group of us from the UK used to attend. I last saw them at the You Can Make It conference in the UK in March 2018 and it was good to have a catch up then.
I thought it would be interesting to interview Tracey to find out about her background, so I started by asking her about her family. “I have two adult boys, both in their twenties and engaged to be married,” she began. “They’re both very settled in their careers and have homes of their own. The eldest lives in Edinburgh and the other in Manchester.”
“I married Steve in 1985. We met as teenagers and have been together ever since. We actually met in the bell tower of a church where Steve taught me how to ring bells. When we got good enough we would ring for church services and weddings. We later got married ourselves in that same church.”
She continued, “Steve is a big part of my company Craftworx, driving the business side of things while I get to be the face of the company and do all the fluffy fun stuff with silver clay.” Sounds like a great partnership!
Tracey was born and bred in Liverpool. She told me, “a couple of years after Steve and I were married, we moved to Berkshire, then after almost a decade of being in the south of England we moved back up north, this time to East Yorkshire. We love it here, but still have family and lots of friends back in Liverpool and make regular trips to our old home town. We still get very nostalgic about the place.”
I asked Tracey about her upbringing and her first memories of being creative. “Saturday afternoons at Grandma’s flat, rummaging in her ottoman for old bits of fabric, buttons, zips or whatever else she had salvaged. My Grandma was widowed while she was still quite young. Times were hard, and she was a very resourceful woman, with the war ethic of ‘make do and mend’. So much of my creative side has come from her.”
She went on, “From around the age of six I remember making my dolls’ clothes. It kept me and my fingers busy and I guess it was the foundation of where my creative career began as I later went on to study fashion design and textiles. And of course, I would get stuck into making those Blue Peter projects,” she laughed. Like many of us, Blue Peter was a must-watch children’s TV programme in the UK and they were always making something with cereal boxes and sticky backed plastic!
So how did Tracey get from textiles to metal clay? “I came across metal clay by accident,” she began. “It was the end of the summer of 2006. I had been teaching art, crafts, interior design and soft furnishing for Hull College and the local education authority, but some of the courses I had been teaching were slowly being withdrawn from the curriculum. I knew I had to find a new ‘thing’ but I had no idea what was about to happen.”
“I was actually looking on the internet for some polymer clay when ‘ping’ in front of my eyes I read silver clay. That caught my imagination and I clicked that button and it was a light bulb moment. I spent about two weeks researching what it was all about. There were only the two brands at the time; PMC and Art Clay Silver. There was only silver and no such thing as base metal clays at that time. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I eventually found a class and signed up with great expectations. Somehow, I knew this was the path I wanted to take even before I’d got to the first class.”
“As previously I had worked with ceramics as a hobby, I felt those experiences were falling into place. My first silver clay piece was a ring and a complicated one at that. But I loved it. I couldn’t take the information in fast enough. Looking back now, that first ring was very dodgy, but I knew with a little practice I could improve. So that’s exactly what followed – lots and lots of practice. Silver clay was a little cheaper back then, so I was very lucky to be able to invest lots of time and money into learning and improving my skills.”
Tracey is a prolific creator of new things, so I asked her what her creative process is. “I am constantly observing the world with an open mind and sketchbook but mainly with a camera. As a creative artist my brain never switches off. I am constantly driving my thoughts to trying a new technique or finding new projects to design make and teach. It’s amazing what can inspire and stimulate the mind.”
She continued, “I love to travel and so many of my rather odd holiday pictures often give me inspiration to draw on; a shape, line or form, a colour palette. From a visit to Venice, I took dozens of pictures of doors and doorways. I have a fascination for making lockets and boxes and the door images gave me inspiration for those. I have at least a dozen beautiful artists’ sketchbooks with a few very rough sketches, but I don’t always carry them with me. I tend to have more very rough preliminary sketches on the back of a tatty bit of paper, or whatever comes to hand when the mojo moment strikes. But I also often have a camera or, these days, just my phone, so I like taking pictures which I frequently look back on for reference. I don’t make any models; I just get stuck into the silver clay these days. If it doesn’t work out I know I can always reconstitute the clay. That’s the amazing thing about this medium.”
Clearly lots of things inspire Tracey. I asked her what her main influences are. “My father was a precision engineer tool maker, so as a child he would bring home new tools and devices that he had designed and made for a new piece of machinery. I used to be fascinated with the notion of how my father went about making these tools such as screws and bolts, gears and pulleys and all manner of strange looking parts in metals. My father passed away many years before I started with metal clay, but he’s probably watching and laughing at my Heath Robinson efforts to make my own tools and how I go about trying to create mini-engineered hinged boxes and lockets, or screw thread vessels in silver clay. So, I guess there is some of that intrigue from those early days lurking around in the back of my head.”
“One of the pieces that I spent a long time trying to apply those engineering skills to in silver clay was my Freya’s Tears Amulet. This piece has now been made with several different styles, but the main feature is the spring-loaded bayonet fitted lid.”
She continued,” There’s nothing I like more than to sit down and try to work on a new design that looks and is complicated. I really enjoy challenging myself to find ways to solve problems. When I first made a hinged box, there was nowhere to find any instructions on how to do that, so I set about teaching myself. There was a lot of trial and error that went into that first hinge. I’ve now made many different styles of hinge and many, many boxes.”
For such complex work, I asked Tracey what other techniques she combined with silver clay to create her pieces. “I do a little traditional silver smithing with riveting, soldering and piercing. I really value those skills and feel they complement the silver clay work. I recommend that everyone working in metal clay also gains those basic skills even if smithing is not the direction you want to go in, those skills will come in very useful on your metal clay journey. Adding colour to the silver piece by adding gemstones or more contemporary media such as resins is always attractive.”
With so much diverse work in her portfolio, I asked Tracey if she feels she has a style. “Hmmm, I’m struggling to put a name to my style of work,” she laughed. “I get many comments on my work, about it looking like something from the TV series of Game of Thrones, although I’ve never watched the programme myself. I do like making boxes and lockets of varying shapes and sizes as well as vessels or containers with threaded closures. Many of my pieces are complex structures then embellished and I use a lot of tiny dots that look like rivets, I’m definitely not a frills, flowers and lace girl. So, my pieces tend to have a more medieval or industrial look to them.”
Knowing Tracey has a lovely studio, as I taught there for her a few years ago, I asked her to tell me a bit about it. “While we initially started the business 12 years ago, I’ve occupied a wonderful studio for just over nine years. I was extremely lucky to find the studio of my dreams, a converted barn on a farm. It is still a working farm but also the home to seven other artists’ studios. It’s wonderful to have this creative hub with other artists. It has a real community vibe.”
“I live quite close to my studio. The journey from home to the farm only takes me seven minutes in the car. On average I spend about 30 hours a week at the studio if I’m not out and about at other venues. If I’m not teaching, I will be making new projects, writing for magazines or videoing for my online courses, or even just doing the day to day chores of cleaning and tidying.”
“The studio is well organised with shelves of tools for students to access themselves. I try to keep this as orderly and organised as possible to make life easy for myself and the students. But if I get into a creative mood and I’m alone, I’m very good at creating chaos all by myself. When I get to the point that I can’t find any more table space, I know it’s time to blitz tidy. As my studio is on a working farm, I have cows as neighbours, as well as an artist creative community. I still feel very lucky to have such a special place to work.”
Tracey is very well known as a metal clay tutor. I asked her to tell me about her teaching career. “I love teaching. I was teaching in adult learning arts and crafts long before metal clay came along, so teaching metal clay was just a natural progression for me. The contact with the students, sharing ideas and the joy and satisfaction of what they can achieve with a lump of silver clay is priceless.”
“I’m very much a people person so enjoy the company of others, I believe teaching adults is a two-way process. I get a lot back from students too. They also motivate me.”
“Beginners classes are fun, that ‘ohh’ moment after firing when the learners begin to brush the piece up is always satisfying. But I think my favourite classes are some of my master classes. Again, there’s an ‘ohh’ moment from the learners when I demonstrate a technique. I frequently get asked, how did you think that up?”
As well as teaching in her studio, Tracey has also produced several online courses. I asked her about them. “For just over a year now we have been producing Online Distance Learning Courses. [editor note – link to online courses http://www.craftworx.co.uk/online_distance_learning_programme.html] This was in response to so many people liking the projects I teach but being unable to access them due to time or distance to get to the studio. I’ve really enjoyed working on this as a project and have plenty more ideas for projects and courses up my sleeve for years to come.” I can believe it, Tracey is never short of ideas!
When you see Tracey’s work, it’s always something you’d like to handle or maybe own. I asked Tracey if she sells her work. “I don’t aim to sell any of my work as I really don’t have time to be a production artist,” she told me. “That’s unless someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse. All my time and attention goes into designing new projects, writing articles and filming videos. I teach at my studio or at any other venues that I’m invited to. I also give demonstrations at shows and events. All in all, I’m very busy but I love it.”
Craftworx, Tracey’s company, has an online shop and I asked her about it. “My online shop is where I sell many unique tools and accessories to help people make their silver clay projects. I am also the UK and European distributor for Brynmorgen Press, Tim McCreight’s company. The books and DVDs are available directly from my website as well as from Amazon in the UK only.”
Tracey seems to have a pretty clear idea of where she’s going with her business and career, but I asked her what she wants to achieve in the next few years. “Targets and goals were set at school and in the corporate and education world where I have previously worked. I’m now at a point in my life that I don’t want to be tied down to restraints.”
“I’m loving my metal clay journey and one of the most exciting things is that the metal clay community is ever growing with new products and tools popping up all the time. It’s very much a voyage of discovery. I still think there is so much more to learn and so much more which hasn’t yet been discovered. So, while I do have some ideas of what I’d like to achieve before I give up or retire, I don’t specifically have a date or time scale on those thoughts. I also like to go where the wind takes me and can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.”
“I love the journey of discovery that metal clay is taking me on. The versatility of the material, finding new techniques and the challenges they bring. It’s given me opportunities and taken me to places and to meet people that I would have never thought possible. So, for the next few years I’ll mainly be working on producing more magazine and video tutorials.”
She went on, “I also signed up for the Masters’ Registry and submitted my first batch of pieces in 2010. Following the feedback I received, I then realised that I was probably being over confident and over ambitious with what I thought I could achieve with just a few years’ experience. So, I wound my neck in and quietly sat on that idea. I kept the criteria for many of the projects in the back of my mind as I made pieces for magazine articles and many of my more recent signature pieces meet the criteria. So, I think it’s time to revisit and get busy with the Masters’ Registry again.”
She finished, “There are things I would like to do one day, such as write a book, but I’m not in any hurry.”
With such a busy schedule and so many ideas to realise, I know Tracey has little time to relax but I asked her what she does when she finds herself with some free time. “Out of choice I do work a lot of hours which doesn’t leave much down time, but this year I’ve taken up swimming and make every effort to do that at least three times a week. I love days out and holidays to visit new places especially if there’s an interesting building to look at. I love to get my camera out, taking pictures of interesting buildings and places. Time with friends and family is always fun especially with my boys and their partners as they don’t live too close these days.”
With such a huge portfolio of work, I asked Tracey if she had a favourite piece or something that has special meaning for her. “A few years ago, I asked Holly Gage to come to teach at my studio. After some discussion it was decided that we would collaborate to put on a retreat. A week-long event was planned. Holly would teach one project over two days and I would teach a second project, also over two days. As the event was to be hosted at my studio we wanted to capture the essence of my local area. So, my immediate thoughts came to the local town of Beverley. It is steeped in history with a variety of beautiful old shops and houses as well as Beverley Minster which dates back to the 13th century. With a theme to work on I created the Filigree Orb, a spherical hinged ball with friction clasp. The details include pierced out apertures which are then filled with delicate filigree scrolls. This took a long time and many samples of troubleshooting before I figured out all the details. So, it was a true labour of love.”
Tracey later created the Filigree Orb as a downloadable project tutorial for Craftcast [editor note – link to project https://www.craftcast.com/recordings/creating-filigree-orb-using-metal-clay ]
Tracey continued, “The event was such a huge success we then repeated the retreat the following year with another theme, this time we chose Viking history. Taking influences from a trip we made to the Viking Museum in the nearby city of York, I created a narrative piece which I called Freya’s Tears.”
“The story is steeped in Viking mythology. Freya was a Norse Goddess. As she wandered through the forest she came across four dwarfs who had made the most beautiful necklace she had ever seen. She asked if she could have the necklace and the dwarfs ask her to sleep with each of them. When her husband found out, he cast her out into the forest with a curse – that as she cried her tears would turn to amber.”
“So, the piece I made has all sorts of Viking influences. The shape of the piece looks like the profile of a Viking long ship and there is rune writing along the sides. The spring-loaded bayonet fitted lid is sculpted with the serpent head, another feature on a long boat, with the amber stone featured on the body of the vessel.”
“Many a long day went into working through the trouble shooting issues to make the spring-loaded bayonet fitted lid work. But I loved working on this project.”
It was a pleasure to interview Tracey and get some insight into her busy life and work.
You can see more of Tracey’s work, explore her classes and online courses and keep up with what she’s up to at the following places online. Website – www.craftworx.co.uk
Instagram – @craftworxuk Facebook – tracey.spurgin Facebook – @craftworxuk Twitter – silverliverbird Link for Newsletter Signup
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.