Joyce Fritz Explores the Bug Life

Donna Fischer

donna fischer | the artist next door | june 2018

If the insect world celebrated Mardi Gras, it might look a little like the critters that Joyce Fritz makes. Inside her workshop are beetles, bees and other bugs, all beautifully designed by Fritz and fashioned out of polymer clay in a riot of different colors. Her “Yipes!" line of quirky insects have been delighting or repelling gallery shoppers for more than 30 years.

Reactions to her artwork are rarely tepid.

“It's either wow or eww," says Fritz. “It's not too much in between, and I'm okay with that because it isn't for everybody. And there are people who walk by my booth and say, 'I can't look at that.'"

Originally working in clay with larger sculptures, Fritz found polymer clay to be more forgiving when she was busy at home with a young child. When left out for hours, the polymer clay doesn't get dry as traditional clay will.

A connection with the Neville Public Museum helped get her started in the bug business. Asked to make something for their gift shop that would compliment their garden show, Fritz thought bugs would be nice. You could say they flew off the shelf.

“I had another job so I was making bugs at night in my studio and I was working the other job. I had a sales rep take them to the New York gift show that year and she called me and she had $10,000 in orders."

Fritz eventually quit her day job to become a full-time artist and work out of her home.

“Back in the '90s the economy was quite different; things were really hot then. I had five employees that were part-time. Now I have one part-time employee and I'm fine with that. It's been a good way to make a living."

Fritz had created jewelry for a while prior to her venture into the insect world, but she feels good about the direction she took.

“There are so many jewelry makers out there and you have to have your own little niche that makes it you. I'll never do fuzzy things like cats and dogs; I always like to do things that might be a little creepier for people."

With her artwork going out to galleries and gift shops around the country, Fritz gets some help from Joan Berkopec, who is a naturalist as well as a talented clay bug assembler.

“I've learned a lot about real insects from her," explains Fritz. “She's been quite an inspiration working with me. She's also extremely meticulous. She fabricates all these pieces that I design."

Without being too heavy-handed, the work that Fritz creates is a statement in itself. Using gorgeous layers of bright clay, finishes of glitter and twisted wire, she makes us look at something that is often shunned, poisoned or simply squashed. Responsible for much of the pollinating of our crops and many other biological tasks, insects tend to get very little respect. By making them dazzling and even wearable, Fritz has enlarged their status in society.

“I guess I see it as a way of tweaking people a little bit about the importance of things like insects and the landscape, just trying to present the fact that you don't have to kill bugs when you see them; they perform a function," she says.

As Fritz talks, she busily shows me how to make bug parts like wire antennae or layers of clay. And for every element that makes up a bug, she has adapted a tool to make the process easier. There are power drills for twisting wire, tiny motors attached to pasta rollers, buffers, toaster ovens and other gadgets I'm not quite sure about.

“I love making tools. I love designing the systems. Not just the work, but the systems of how to make it. I like experimenting. Sometimes you just do a lot of things before you get something that works and I like that process."

Fritz will fill up her summer with outdoor activities and a few art shows in other areas of the Midwest. More than once she mentions how grateful she is to have enjoyed a career in art, though she hints at a new chapter in her life waiting around the corner. Work in clay or mosaic is tempting her and she seems ready to explore more possibilities in art. And as she shows me the pieces of clay that she has carefully blended, folded, cut and shaped for her happy little sea turtle figures, it's easy to believe that she could figure out a way to do anything she sets her mind on.

The Neville Public Museum carries Joyce Fritz' work in their gift shop. For moreinformation visit JoyceFritz.com.

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