Playing with polymer clay

Creating realistic food replications with clay provides one student with a sweet distraction during quarantine

Photo: Elvira Chan / The Peak

By: Elvira Chan, SFU Student

During the first few months of quarantine, I had made a mental list of all the things that I missed doing, such as exploring Stanley Park on a sunny day, seeing my closest friends that lived nearby, and going to the pool or ice rink after a stressful day. But with the thought of the things I missed in life came a slow but gradual realization of what condition the world is currently in. Headlines, anxiety, and restlessness came crashing down on me week after week, and I decided it was high time that I found something soothing and time-consuming to occupy myself with.

I ordered a kit of FIMO modelling clay with an assortment of colours that was left unopened, and started molding the clay without any expectations or experience. I started making basic things like miniature chocolate chip cookies, glasses of milk, and golden pretzels. I found that working with my hands was immensely therapeutic and productive. Eventually I began challenging myself to make more complex replicas, such as naked cakes with fruit and flowers, spaghetti and meatballs, and a colourful basket full of shiny, glazed lollipops. 

Photo: Elvira Chan / The Peak

Depending on the complexity, each piece could take anywhere from as little as 10 minutes to as much as a full hour. I found that the time tended to fly, especially if I had Netflix playing in the background. 

I would start out each piece by having a visual of what I’d like to create, then I would try different techniques to get the right size, shape, and texture. Then I’d finish off the item by baking them in a little toaster oven for 15 to 30 minutes, and using a glaze if the product needed to be sealed or shiny.

Before long, the entire FIMO clay kit had been finished, and I bought more tools and clay online, branching out to different brands of polymer clay, such as Sculpey. Compared to FIMO, Sculpey clay is a lot more malleable and soft, which can make it easier to shape and mold, but harder to make very small or detailed pieces as it can come apart easily due to the warmth of your hands. For beginners, I’d definitely recommend FIMO clay as it’s slightly more durable and easier to detail. A lot of the starter kits on Amazon such as Klutz or CiaraQ came with shaping tools and mini instruction booklets, though I found that everyday things such as a clean toothbrush, rolled up tinfoil, toothpicks, and butter knives cut, shaped, and texturized the clay just as well. 

As I started creating replicas more often, I began looking through video tutorials and reading instruction books on different techniques and tips so I could improve on my art. Specifically,  SugarCharmShop Gourmet, Maive Ferrando, and Mayu Sekiguchi’s tutorials on YouTube were my favourites because of their realistic replications at such a small scale. I also looked at the real version of some common desserts and tried to mimic the details accurately. 

Photo: Elvira Chan / The Peak

People always ask me why I’ve decided to focus on food that couldn’t be consumed, and my only response was that I loved trying to replicate the real versions. Food plays such a big part in every culture and revolves around sharing, tradition, and enjoyment. I found myself creating miniature clay replicas of the foods that I grew up with. I made things like the xiaolongbao and pad thai, or foods that you see at celebrations and parties, such as cakes and pastries. For me, being able to have a permanent and miniature version of the foods that I love and have great memories of something so special.

I’ve been branching out to make miniature creations for my friends and family, and when I see their eyes light up over the details or the miniature size, it truly feels worthwhile. It started out as a hobby to keep me busy during quarantine, but it also helped me realize that time was a true luxury. I could spend hours focusing on adding clay flowers to a miniature wedding cake or dreaming up ideas for the next creation because of that time on my hands, and that was something I never would have slowed down enough to enjoy if not for being stuck at home. 

For now, I’m going to continue challenging myself in creating replicas that are more realistic and complex and gifting them to family and friends. Although I love my hobby right now, I cannot wait until things are in a better place in the world and I can share some (real) food and drinks with my loved ones.