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Sofie Skein is a the creative mind and artistic hand behind the heart-warming polymer clay figurines known as Poupettes. Outside of her artistic career she lives a very quiet life with her partner, who is also an artist, and her cat. She has recently left the city of Portland to live on the northern coast of Oregon.
Her world is full of books, art supplies, musical instruments and great home cooking. Both her and her partner are content to spend most of their time focused on their work or watching the storms roll in.
Toonari Post (TP): How and when did you first start practicing your art (are you traditionally trained or self-taught)?
Sofie Skein (SS): My mother used to draw pictures and sculpt miniatures with my sister and I when we were very young. I think it set in motion an intimate relationship with my hands and sense of confidence about what I could create with them. I am always making something and cannot resist exploring every medium that I can get my hands on.
I would have loved to study art but my formal education was in landscape architecture, which seemed to be a sensible compromise between a creative and practical education at the time. I am mostly self-taught in the arts, although I have taken a variety of classes over the years in whatever has interested me. My current focus on miniature polymer sculpture is entirely self-taught.
TP: What made you decide to work with polymer clay instead of another medium?
SS: These particular figurines would be impossible to make without the polymer modeling compounds. I’ve worked with nearly every modeling medium available and nothing compares with the level of plasticity and detail possible with polymer.
These qualities support the expressive silhouettes of my figurines and allow for the details that make them what they are. I build each one along a spiral axis which makes them difficult to re-create and virtually impossible to create molds for reproduction.
I also enjoy the synthetic beauty of the material itself. Some polymer compounds are blended with pigment and mica, which creates a subtle marbling and sparkle with a satin finish. Others are blended with pigment and kaolin clay, which creates a pristine matte texture.
There is a remarkable variety of polymer compounds available commercially and I use them like a painter uses a palette; custom blending various compounds to create new colors and textures. Although polymer can be painted, I prefer the challenge of creating color variations through meticulous layering and blending of the material itself.
TP: When you first started making your Poupettes did you ever think they would make it to homes around the world?
SS: I actually had no intention of making a living from the Poupettes and started the shop on a dare. I was one of the millions laid off in 2009. Before that I had been working full-time and spent every free moment pursuing freelance illustration gigs as well as my own private art practice.
After I was laid off I knew it was time to start an online shop for my artwork but the learning curve seemed overwhelming and I kept avoiding it. In the meantime, I’d begun making these little animal people, which I called Poupettes, just for fun. They made me smile and were good company at a time when I was feeling pretty isolated.
Finally, after many months of watching me procrastinate, my boyfriend dared me to set up a shop for the Poupettes on Etsy. It seemed like it could be a good way to practice for when I opened my ‘real’ shop and somehow it was less scary because it was just ‘practice’. I was totally shocked when I sold five figurines within the first week.
That is how it all began and it’s continued to evolve from there. I had no idea who, if anyone, would appreciate these figurines. It turns out that there are quite a few who do, and over a third of my sales are to addresses outside the U.S.
TP: Do you have any art projects outside of your adorable Poupettes?
SS: Honestly, in the past year, I haven’t had time for any other art projects besides the Poupettes. I did have one show of encaustic paintings last year and I would like to get back to painting in the future but for now I’m really enjoying my work.
TP: Can you tell me the story behind the Poupettes name?
SS: I never planned to make the first one. I was just playing around and all of a sudden it seemed to be forming itself in my hands. When it was complete I looked at it and asked, “What are you?” and the word that came to me was ‘Poupette’. I said, “Poo-PET?” and it sounded right, but I had no idea what it meant.
Was it sort of like a puppet or a poppet? Maybe, but it definitely sounded French. Finally, I did some research and found out that ‘poupette’ is a diminutive form of ‘poupée’, which translates to ‘doll’. A ‘poupette’ is a ‘little doll’, which is how I see all of my figurines. When I needed to choose a name for my shop, my boyfriend suggested ‘Bonjour Poupette’ and it was so much fun to say that I couldn’t resist it!
TP: What of your designs is your favorite and why? Which one are you most proud of and why?
SS: One of my favorite figurines is the siamese twins because of the play on words as well as the sense of drama between the two cats. When I was growing up we had a Janus cat (a cat born with two faces) for a short time. He was a magical creature to behold and made quite an impression on me.
The figurine that I’m most proud of is a custom cat portrait of an Egyptian Mau named Alice. When I saw photos of the cat, it seemed to be an impossible task to recreate the complexity of her stripes with polymer.
After many discouraging attempts, I used a Millefiori glass work technique to create a patchwork ‘skin’ for the figurine. It was painstaking work but I learned so much in the process and was thrilled with the final effect.