I wrote this post to share my mom’s beautiful imagination and creativity. Hopefully it will bring joy and inspiration to others.
My mom, Arlene, passed away from Alzheimer’s in March 2020. Soon after, I wrote a post to reminisce about our travels together and how they impacted my life (read Traveling with my Mother). Since then, I have been thinking of writing more about mom… perhaps overthinking how best to pay tribute to her, perhaps avoiding my feelings. Then suddenly it became so obvious – I will write about something that was a big part of mom’s life – her art.
“Throughout my life, art has called to me in various medias and forms. Color, texture, and design make up much of my world.”
– Arlene Summers
A Career in Art
In college, mom planned to be a fashion designer – likely inspired by her father who owned a clothing factory in the New York City garment district. She won a national contest sponsored by Lanz in which she presented a store layout and publicity plan (read a newspaper article about the award) . Mom decided to devote her career to art – first as an elementary and high school teacher and then as a director after earning a MS in Education. She took pride in her accomplishments which included developing specialized curriculum, creating innovative programs, and mentoring new teachers.
I’m not sure when DIY crafts become popular, but mom may have been an innovator when she designed, manufactured, and sold creative products in the late 1970s. For adults there was the sew’n stuff pillow kit – an accent pillowcase with choice of artwork. Kids could create their own wearable art on a t-shirt. The kidoodle contained a t-shirt, paint, and paintbrush – think of it like a wearable coloring book. There were several design options like a mountain scene, city block, and decorative frame with happy doodles. I found a school photo of me rocking my own t-shirt creation.
In 1980, a New York gallery commissioned mom to organize and lead a workshop and multimedia show. During the two-month workshop ten participants created life-size soft sculpture and props. The gallery was turned into a restaurant called Doll-F’Inn – the sculpture were the diners and staff. On the exhibit’s opening day, actors from a theater group joined the party and interacted with the sculpture. The event drew a lot of attention and was well received. Read newspaper articles about the art show. . .
- Art Happening at Odin – Glen Cove Record Pilot February 7, 1980
- Stuffed Shirts For Art’s Sake – Newsday April 26, 1980
- A Sculpture Show Where They’re Packing ’em in – Newsday May 17, 1980
A Passion for Art
After experimenting with various materials over the years, mom found her favorites – polymer clay, mixed media, and jewelry. She introduced me to polymer clay and jewelry making, which became hobbies that I still enjoy. When mom retired, I created a website where she could showcase her latest work. Below is content from the website she wrote about herself and her art.
“I am a mixed media sculptor and jewelry designer. I have sold my work at craft fairs and art galleries across the country and worked with sales representatives in New York and California. My work has been featured in several publications. Now I focus primarily on designing and making jewelry.
I was born and raised in New York. I graduated from New York University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in art history where I learned about different art styles and movements and became familiar with the clothing and jewelry from each period. I have continued to take studio art courses and workshops with artists across the country.
I spent most of my life living on Long Island with easy access to the wonders and limitless art resources of New York City. After retiring I relocated to the Phoenix area and found a very different environment where I discovered big skies, an amazing range of wildlife right at my doorstep, and the primitive beauty of the desert. The new environment offered a wider range of experiences that has also influenced my work.”
Mixed Media Sculpture
“My mixed media sculpture embraces a wide range of characters drawn from my imagination, art history, theater, cinema, literature, myths, fairy tales, along with observations of people throughout my life. I am fascinated with the human form, particularly the face. I strive to celebrate the diversity of humanity in all its joy, pathos, flamboyance, and sensuality.
I sketch and refine my character ideas using a wide range of reference materials. The busts are sculpted in polymer clay over an armature with a rod that mounts on the pedestal. Next, they are cured, sanded, and polished to a soft luster. I paint all the features by hand and hand-dye natural fibers to make the wigs. The costumes are embellished with trimming, beading, and a wide range of decorative materials. The pedestals are designed to enhance the character of the bust.
The vessels are made in much the same way. I create the textures with impressions from tools and various objects. The finials are made of glass and metal beads, wire, and other embellishments.”
“From the dawn of prehistoric time to our new high-tech millennium, the Shaman has been a source of mystery and intrigue. As a healer, maintainer of balance, and guardian to the spirit, the Shaman has played an important role in many civilizations. In the Shaman’s face we see his passion as he loses himself in his mystical powers. Each Shaman is an individually crafted, one-of-a-kind sculpture with his own personal charisma.”
“The dolls wear elaborate, funky costumes featuring intricate handwork and sensuous materials. Fine silks, vintage fabric, feathers, embroidery, beading, and handmade wigs are carefully combined to create a unique ensemble that enhances the personality of each doll. I use polymer clay to create lifelike facial features so that the characters appear to have a soul of their own.”
“In today’s hectic, fast-paced world our dreams can slip away unnoticed. Dream Keepers help you to stay in touch with your dreams. Each sculpture has a fragile exotic beauty, much like our own dreams.”
“A Merlin Box is a vessel with a removable lid, named after the mysterious legendary sorcerer Merlin. Each box is individually crafted and embellished with lampwork glass beads created by the finest bead artists. My passion for collecting these wonderful beads and sharing their beauty led to the birth of the Merlin Box. I combine polymer clay with the beads to create a vessel with personality, rich textural effects, and luminous surfaces. These magical boxes evoke moods that range from baroque to whimsical.”
“My jewelry is designed for women who are looking for something unique. Necklaces, pendants, and earrings are individually hand crafted and often one-of-a-kind. Special care is taken to select fine quality components that are exceptional and beautiful. I work with a wide range of materials including semi-precious gemstone beads, pearls, vintage beads, sterling silver, fine silver, pewter, 14K gold, 14K gold filled, and Swarovski crystals. I also use lampwork beads that have a personality of their own, which inspires many of the designs. To me each bead is a jewel, a unique and precious treasure.
Like the women who wear my jewelry, my mood can change just like a chameleon. A woman may wish to look sophisticated and sleek one day, sexy and sultry the next. To suit these moods, I create jewelry in a variety of styles including bold, romantic, whimsical, funky, sophisticated, and sultry.”
Mom’s Art Studio
When I was a kid, we lived mostly in apartments and there was no space for an art studio. So when mom worked on projects, the art materials became part of our home. For example, while she created the life-size soft sculpture people, the living room played host to a giant bale of stuffing. One morning I had a big surprise… When I walked into the living room there was a strange man sitting on the couch. I did a double take and wondered if I was sleep walking. Then I realized, it wasn’t a man – it was the life-size sculpture mom was creating.
After I went to college, mom bought a house and was finally able to have an art studio. When she retired and moved to Arizona, the family room became a spacious, light filled studio with a scenic desert view. Mom wrote this about her art studio…
“I am a pack rat and collector of treasures old and new. This feeds my passion for working with a diverse range of exotic, unique, and lush materials. My studio contains a vast collection of vintage fabric, buttons, beads, handmade lace, fine silks, feathers, found objects, pieces and parts from jewelry, molding and hardware from antique furniture, and whatever I discover in attics and antique stores. I also use a variety of polymer clay, resin castings, paints, dyes, lacquers, mohair, trims, semiprecious stones, glass beads, and glues. These wonderful, diverse materials comprise my palette and provide an opportunity to experiment and explore a wide range of possibilities as I create each piece.”
As mom’s Alzheimer’s progressed, she stopped creating art, but still enjoyed spending time in the studio looking at her materials and finished pieces. She took pride in showing them to her caregivers.
After mom moved to a care home, I spent several months preparing her house for sale. The art studio was the first room I tackled, and the room that took the longest time. It was difficult to see the condition of the studio. Nearly every cabinet, shelf, and surface was filled with stuff… beads, clay, fabric, ribbons, doll hair, doll eyes, stuffing, molds, masks, castings, tools, adhesives, paint, chemicals, empty containers, shipping boxes and labels, binders with inventory information, binders with sales receipts, and lots of junk mail. Unfinished jewelry and polymer clay creations were hidden amidst the clutter. The happy, hearty plants that filled the windowsills were gone and the empty pots were scattered about. Mom had a wonderful way with plants – African violets were her favorite.
Preparing the house was a big job and I did much of the work alone (Michael had limited mobility due to recent back injury). So there was no time to be sentimental – it was necessary to work quickly and suppress my feelings. Every once and I while, I allowed myself to stop for a moment when something sparked a memory… fabric from a skirt mom wore when we lived in Mexico, polymer clay beads she got on one of our bead show trips. I also took some time to look through mom’s inspiration books filled with faces, butterflies, and of course jewelry. I pushed away the emotions when I saw some items that I also had in my inspiration books. Michael helped pack the art materials that would come home and become part of my hobby space.
After several trips to Arizona to finish preparing the house for sale, I had time to unpack the art materials from mom’s studio. It took many weekends to sort, organize, and put away her carefully selected treasures. I was finally able to take my time and think about the memories.
Although I spent a great deal of time organizing the art materials, it was months before I had the urge to be creative. During the years mom suffered from Alzheimer’s and after her death I suppressed many of my feelings. The first time I sat down to make jewelry with mom’s supplies, I had a long overdue cry.
Now, the jewelry I create has a mix of my beads and mom’s beloved treasures. As I design, I welcome the memories – sometimes they make me sad and sometimes they make me smile.