Donna Penoyer

Mamma, Did You Sing?
Meet the Designer-Artist

It's just a theory, but I may be the only person in the world who makes a living 1) creating metal clay whistles, 2) teaching all things metal clay, and 3) walking on stilts! Obviously, my interests vary.

In terms of the visual arts, what I'm attracted to on the one hand are old, worn things: ancient tools, tribal artifacts, medieval adornments, and objects that have been used and have withstood the test of time. They all have stories to tell that can yield serious meanings, helping us understand who we are and where we come from.

On the other hand, I also have a humorous side. I'm a big believer in the power of play to help us create, transform, solve problems, and be happy, no matter our age. I love that I get paid to become outlandish "hostess-with-the-mostest" stilts characters who roam and interact with people at fabulous parties. My favorite situation is entertaining for adults, helping them forget their business suits and remember how to have fun.

My varied interests really came together for me with the advent of metal clay. Here is a medium that responds well to both spontaneity and revision; that has the potential to look rustic or refined, austere or whimsical, with satisfying immediacy; that's strong, beautiful, and precious (all the things I want to be!); and that transforms all the way from clay to metal, from simple lump to complex construction. I love it! And I love helping others find their voice in it.

Whistles are one way that I join rich meaning with sheer fun. Flutes and whistles have had deep significance in many cultures, helping people connect to the spirit world and transform themselves through breath and sound. The history of such instruments is important to me, but so is the moment you blow a whistle and hear its sweet note--you forget your troubles and become truly present in that fun, surprising, joyful sound.

I got started making whistles six months after beginning to work in metal clay. I researched how whistles work and made my first whistle as a technical exercise, just to challenge myself. That first whistle, my "FishMan Whistle," who is part sea being and part woodland god, turned out to be my first real metal clay sculpture. Now I pursue whistle-making as a way to make meaning, also.

This whistle ring is called "Mamma, Did You Sing?" and was created for a friend who had set aside her dreams of performing in order to take care of her family. It's a whimsical piece--not a ring you'd wear to the grocery store!--but also powerful in its image of a proud bird singing. The question in the title is from the point of view of her children, who might ask her someday if she did, indeed, follow her dreams.

Share Your Background

My formal education is in creative writing. I haven't written a poem since grad school, but those experiences helped me see the world through an artist's eyes. I've always "made stuff," but until I was an adult, I didn't realize that my strength was in making things with my hands. Mostly self-taught in the visual arts, I tried many media before discovering metal clay.

How I became a jewelry-maker is typical of the roundabout path that artists often follow. At one point, I was a silk-painter. Wanting something to do with the lovely scraps of hand-dyed material that remained after hemming a scarf, I invented a line of folded fabric jewelry inspired by origami. From there, I explored beading, polymer clay, wirework, metalsmithing, ceramics, lampworking, resin, plastics, paper arts, and many other media. In 2005, I touched metal clay for the first time, in a certification workshop. I've had the honor of studying with some amazing jewelry teachers, but I also learn a lot through reading books and online sources, such as Fire Mountain Gems' e-newsletter.

I started teaching metal clay in 2006, and that has become a very important and satisfying part of my life. I teach all sorts of metal clay topics besides whistles, anything that will help people overcome their fears of trying something new and ease into the rewarding work of creativity.

Speaking of overcoming fears, ironically it was my terrible stage fright that led me to become a stiltwalker. I had performed musically and theatrically from a very young age, but my attraction to the stage was always accompanied by intense fear. After college, I gave up performing entirely, until my husband, Drew Richardson (also known as Drew the Dramatic Fool: introduced me to the concept of strolling entertainment. I had a hunch that performing for a few people at a time would make me more comfortable than standing on stage in front of hundreds of people. I was absolutely right. I have no idea why I chose stiltwalking, except that it was something my husband didn't do, so we wouldn't compete. But I'm glad I gave it a try, because once on stilts, spirited parts of my personality started emerging through the fun characters I invented, and I absolutely blossomed.

Beading Success

I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I work very hard, but at things that I absolutely love, and my husband is the best friend I could ever ask for. He and the rest of my family are very supportive of my creative pursuits. I never felt confident in myself at all until I became a stiltwalker, and making and teaching metal clay have increased my level of self-trust even more.

I'm proud of what I've accomplished in a few years, but I still have a long way to go, and I'm looking forward to the journey. I have the beginnings of a website, sell my work in an art center's shop, do one art fair a year, teach nationally (mostly for guilds and at the Bead and Button Show, Touchstone Center for Crafts, and Haystack Mountain School), have started to write how-to articles, and regularly try to get photos of my work published, but my immediate goals are to start an Etsy shop, create a blog, enter contests such as the Saul Bell Design Awards, continue my studies of the history of whistles, and above all, spend as much time creating art as I do teaching it. It's hard not to want everything all at once, but the truth is, I have to put one foot in front of the other, be patient, and trust in the process.

I'm at an exciting part of my life right now, with new professional opportunities around every corner. I used to get overwhelmed by such things, but I've learned that when you share your passion and commitment with the world, people connect and respond in a positive way. I always tell my students, "If you're afraid of trying something new, the discomfort you're feeling is not a signal to retreat. It's actually a sign that you're on the right track. It means you're putting yourself out in the world. And the process of stepping forward is an honorable one. So this petrified feeling you have? It's a badge of honor."