It's nearly impossible to make ugly millefiori, which is what makes the clay craft such a great fit for kids.
I recently took my 9-year-old son to a class offered by artist Layl McDill at her studio in Northeast Minneapolis. We sat on stools around a long, high table made of clear Plexiglas with a half-dozen other children and a few parents. Chunks of polymer clay filled the middle of the table like squares of colorful bubblegum.
"We're going to learn a really cool technique called millefiori," said McDill, pronouncing it meel-fee-OR-ay. "That means a thousand flowers in Italian."
The term describes a process for making decorative patterns on glassware that dates back to ancient Egypt and later became popular among 19th-century Venetian glassmakers - think of those smooth glass paperweights filled with tiny mosaic patterns. Over the past decade, artists have begun creating millifiori in polymer clay. If you search Etsy, you can find everything from jewelry and vases to antique-looking cabinet knobs decorated with clay millefiori designs.
McDill makes tiny, intricate pictures of flowers and whimsical creatures. (One custom order featured a purple alligator with an umbrella standing in front of a New Orleans lamppost.) The pictures are embedded through the length of what's called a "cane" of clay about the circumference of a roll of nickels. When you cut the cane into thin slices, the same picture appears on each nickel-sized slice. You can then press the slices onto vases, picture frames, ornaments or anything else that can withstand the final baking in a 200-degree oven.
McDill sells her slice-and-bake canes under the name Silly Millies. And she incorporates them into her own sculptures, some of which sell for hundreds of dollars. She's partial to mermaids and animals in vivid colors that evoke both flower power and Grandma's crazy patchwork quilt.
"How do you do that?" asked one child, pointing to a tiny cat face, complete with whiskers and less than a half inch across.
"Well, that's the part that takes 18 years of practice," McDill said.
Our artistic goals were more modest in the children's polymer clay class. Everyone grabbed a couple small pieces of clay and rolled them into ropes on the table. I folded my blue clay into thirds and rolled it out long again. Fold. Roll. Fold. Roll. It was meditative.
When the clay was warm and pliable, we flattened it into pancakes a bit longer than a business card. Then, we picked two colors and made spaghetti strands, which we pinched into sections and lay close together until they covered our pancakes. When we rolled up our pancakes, the colorful spaghetti stuck out the ends, like grated carrot from the end of a sushi roll.
"I have no idea what this is going to look like," said my son.
"I've seen it done many ways and it's always cool," said McDill, reassuring the perfectionists among us. "That's the best thing about this. You can never go wrong, as long as you pick colors you like."
Next came the exciting part. McDill passed out sharp blades and we sliced through the center of our rolls, as if we were cutting a cigar in half.
"Wow," said my son, as he peered at his lime green, purple and orange pattern. The surprise of seeing the cross section was like cracking open a geode.
"Cool," said one kid.
"Look at my insides!" said another.
There were children as young as 5 in the class, and even their creations turned out well, with only a little help from a parent.
McDill has been creating millefiori out of polymer clay since the mid-1990s. She went to art school in Ohio intending to illustrate children's picture books. One day, she saw a page in a polymer clay book for kids on how to make a millefiori image of a ghost. She was hooked, in part because it was something she could do after her daughter was born. Just try painting with a clingy toddler in your lap.
"Plus it's very portable," McDill said. "I'd bring clay and mix colors wherever I was, at the playground or the dentist's office. People would look at me and wonder what I was doing.
Meanwhile, McDill's husband started making ceramic tiles and they opened a studio and ceramic tile showroom called Clay Squared to Infinity, tucked between the old Grain Belt Brewery and the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
McDill makes an average of one millefiori image per week. She starts with a sketch of what she wants the final picture to look like. Then she builds a three-dimensional image, using up to 6 pounds of clay. Finally, she squeezes and stretches the clay down into a rod the thickness of a broomhandle. If she does it right, the image doesn't change as it shrinks.
The process can take up to 20 hours.
"It all depends on how hard the clay is," she said. "One took me 16 hours just to stretch out because the clay wasn't soft. I was actually at an art fair, so I sat there and talked to people and squeezed all day long. If it's a hot day in summer, it will stretch down in 15 or 20 minutes."
She's made pictures of dolphins, mice, lambs, an Emerald Ash Borer, hot air balloons, cats, peacocks, snowmen and many custom images of people's dogs.
When we finished our simple millefiori designs, we sliced our canes into thin discs. Most of the kids made animals, such as snakes and turtles, by covering shapes molded out of crumpled tin foil.
McDill also provides objects you can decorate, such as small vases and frames. Doresa Brooks, 9, used her little millefiori designs to decorate the outside of a jar and a ceramic cup.
"I've done some clay at school," Brooks said. "But it wasn't as fun as this. At school you have to make stuff in 30 minutes, so you didn't have as much time. This is more creative."
My son covered a light-switch plate with his green and brown pattern, which he dubbed "gekko skin." He also decorated a little cardboard box as a holiday gift for Grandma. I walked out with two small picture frames, the perfect size to hold wallet-sized school photos, one to keep and one to give away. Perhaps most important of all, we left with peace of mind.
Another mom, Deb McBride, echoed my feelings.
"I love clay because it's so tactile," she said, working alongside her children, ages 6 and 7. "I find it's a great way to relieve stress."
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Kids' polymer clay class at Clay Squared to Infinity
Where: Keg House Arts Building, 34 13th Ave. N.E., Suite 109, Minneapolis
Information: 612-781-6409 or claysquared.com
When: 6-8 p.m. Nov. 17; 2-4 p.m. Nov. 20; 1-3 p.m. Dec. 27
Target audience: Kids ages 5 and older by themselves or kids with an adult
Crowd pleaser: The magic of slicing open your "cane"
Avoid: Perfectionism. It always turns out.
Tip: Make one item to keep and one to give as a gift
More: Read previously published Family Outings under "family fun" at MinnMoms.com.
HOLIDAY GIFTS TO MAKE
Counteract the craziness of the holiday season by making something with your child. Really. Felting wool, rolling clay, folding origami or dipping beeswax candles serves two purposes. You check a gift off your list and slide into that relaxing creative zone.
Even if you don't take a class, you can set aside a couple of hours to make something at home as a family. Consider it a gift to yourself.
Not all these classes are designed for children, but children are welcome. Most require advance registration.
American Swedish Institute
2600 Park Ave., Minneapolis
612-871-4907 or americanswedishinst.org.
Drop-In Christmas SlÃ¶jd (Handcraft)
10 a.m.-2 p.m. Nov. 12
Free with museum admission, $6-$4 (free under age 6)
Clay Squared to Infinity
34 13th Ave. N.E., Minneapolis
612-781-6409 or claysquared.com
Ceramic Ornament Class (ages 5 and older)
6-8:30 p.m. Nov. 10
2833 Johnson Street N.E., Minneapolis
612-788-1180 and craftyplanet.com
Sew a Tote (12 and up)
2-5 p.m. Dec. 11
$30 plus materials
Beginning Knitting (dishcloth and hat) (12 and older)
5-7 p.m. Dec. 4, 11 and 18 (3 sessions)
$50 plus materials
Creative Kidstuff (at all locations)
1074 Grand Ave., St. Paul
7150 Valley Creek Plaza, Woodbury
651-735-4060 or creativekidstuff.com
Finger Print Memories on Tiles (all ages, one tile per family)
Dec. 4-7. Call for 15-minute appointment.
Darn Knit Anyway
423 S. Main St., Stillwater
651-342-1386 or darnknitanyway.com
Wet Felted Wool Soap Bars (ages 6 and older)
12:30-2:30 p.m. or 3-5 p.m. Dec. 11
(bring several bars of soap)
Gale Woods Farm
7210 County Road 110 W., Minnetrista
763-694-2001 or threeriversparks.org
Wool Ornaments, Beeswax Balms and Mixes in a Jar (ages 3-12)
9 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 3
Minnesota Center for Book Arts
1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
612-215-2520 or mnbookarts.org
Marbled Paper, Holiday Cards and Ornaments (ages 6 and older)
10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dec. 3
$38 adult/child pair; $21 additional participant
Printing! Printing! Printing! recipe cards, bookmarks and more (2 and older)
10 a.m.-noon Dec. 10
$30 adult/child pair, $15 additional participant
Northern Clay Center
2424 Franklin Ave. E., Minneapolis
612-339-8007 or northernclaycenter.org
White Elephant Gift: Cups and More on the Wheel (ages 9 and older)
9 a.m.-noon or 1-4 p.m. Dec. 26
$45 for two people; $20/additional person
Piped Piper Crafts
681 17th Ave. N.E., Suite 109, in Casket Arts Building, Minneapolis
612-414-7547 or piedpipercrafts.com
Soft Wool Dream Pillow (ages 7 and older)
1-4 p.m. Nov. 12 and 19
Dipped Beeswax Candles and wood holder (age 6 and older, or younger with adult helper)
10:30 a.m.-noon Nov. 26; $23 person
Felted Wool Slippers (9 and older)
4-6:30 p.m. Nov. 25 and Dec. 2; $47 person
Pine Cone Gnome (8 to adult)
10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Dec. 3; $24 person
5 W. Diamond Lake Road, Minneapolis
612-827-9550 or sewtropolis.com
Sew a Pillowcase: Kids Only (ages 9-15)
1-3 p.m. Nov. 25
2500 County Road E., St. Anthony.
763-694-7707 or threeriversparks.org
Handbuilding Clay Dishes and Decorations (6 and older)
1-4 p.m. Dec. 3
$25 for two; $15 additional person
3000 University Ave. S.E., Minneapolis
612-436-0464 or textilecentermn.org
Covered Up: Aprons (ages 9 and older)
1-4 p.m. Dec. 4 and 11
$69 plus $5 material fee
Sock Monkey Ornament (12 and older)
6-8 p.m. Dec. 6
$25 plus $15 for materials, payable to the instructor.
Kids 14 and older welcome at many additional classes
Treadle Yard Goods
1338 Grand Ave., St. Paul
651-698-9690 or treadleyardgoods.com
Cozy Flannel Loungers (14 and older, some experience)
1-5 p.m. Nov. 26
Personalized Pillowcases (ages 14 and older, some experience)
9 a.m.-noon Nov. 26
Last Minute Fabric Gifts (ages 14 and older, some experience)
10 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 17
1684 Grand Ave., St. Paul
651-698-6431 or wetpaintart.com
Origami Decorations and Envelopes (ages 6 and older)
11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dec. 3
Free, drop-in, one per child
Still can't find what you want? Art and craft stores often hold demos and free events. Try Blick Art & Craft, Roseville (651-636-2818); Michaels, Eagan (651-688-2345), Maplewood (651-770-0350), Roseville (651-631-1810) or Woodbury (651-203-2500).