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Star Tribune Article

Visiting our national parks inspired a rural Minnesota woman to re-create them in miniature.

With clay, she sculpts striking vistas on pendants the size of a penny.  

She always begins with a smoosh of her thumb.

Grace Vanderbush flattens a ball of polymer clay the color of the sky onto a round brass pendant. Then she starts to layer and sculpt a tiny scene — creating a wearable landscape the size of a penny.

Vanderbush creates clay necklaces depicting miniature scenes from each of the country's 63 national parks. She also sculpts pendants featuring bison the size of a ladybug, mini flower arrangements and scenes from U.S. Park Service locales like Wisconsin's Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. She sells her artworks online and at her Earth Clay booth in art fairs in Minnesota and across the U.S.

(Earth Clay's upcoming Minnesota stops are Minnehaha Falls Art Fair, July 19-21, and the Minnesota State Fair, Aug 22.-Sept. 2.)

With her husband, Jordan, Vanderbush has visited about half of the country's national parks, and they plan to cross more off their list each year. During their hikes, she snaps photos of vistas and closeups of rocks and wildflowers. Back at her home studio near rural Canby, Minn., she uses the photos for inspiration.

Her workbench is next to wide windows looking out onto the flat fields of this farm country near the South Dakota border. Tiny balls of colorful clay are scattered within reach and images of iconic park scenes are usually propped nearby.

Sense of place

Vanderbush's national park landscape necklaces feature specific plants, rock formations, and color palettes, making the small scene instantly familiar to anyone who's visited the park. She layers clay in the exact colors of Badlands National Park's striated pinnacles at sunset and sculpts Arches National Park's famous "delicate arch" in miniature, giving it a ¼-inch span.

She tries to tease out the smallest details of each park's ecosystem, she said.

"I think it really gives my work a sense of place," she said. "I will sculpt the mountain that you know — the iconic scene — but the texture might match the moss on a rock that you see on the hike."

To create texture, she pokes with dental scalers and scrapes with ceramic tools to make a bison's fur look fluffy or get a rocky shoreline to come to life.

For the parks the Vanderbushes haven't crossed off their list yet — like Alaska's wild Gates of the Arctic or the desert of White Sands in New Mexico — she relies on photos she finds in books and online. Earth Clay donates 10% of all national park artwork profits to the National Park Foundation, and some park stores sell the necklaces.

"We had always dreamed of visiting all the national parks," Vanderbush said. "And just making travel more of a goal of ours — because we didn't really get to do that growing up."

So far, her favorite national park is Grand Teton in Wyoming.

"That is just such a special place," she said. "It's just magical. It has the valleys and the open prairie areas that we really like because we live in the Minnesota prairie, but then there's just a huge mountain range, too."

An unlikely trail

Vanderbush can't remember a time that she wasn't making art. She brought her creations to the county fair as a member of 4-H and carried a set of markers with her everywhere.

"I always had a backpack full of art supplies," she said.

She left Canby to study art education at South Dakota State University in Brookings, where she met Jordan. The couple built a house down the road from where she grew up. Now they embrace small-town joys like Monday pizza nights at P.K. Egans on St. Olaf Avenue, Canby's main street, and are working to conserve and transform their land by planting grass and trees in a former cornfield.

Vanderbush was working as a substitute teacher when she created her initial clay necklace design, inspired by a visit to Arizona's Saguaro National Park.

As her art business, which she started in 2018, took off, she stopped teaching to create full-time. Soon, her engineer husband left his job to become Earth Clay's logistics guy and display builder.

As they travel to art fairs across the Midwest this summer, Vanderbush brings supplies along to work on her miniature clay sculptures at her booth. Invariably, someone at every fair will make note of the tiny, detailed work and make a familiar comment: "You're going to go blind!" Vanderbush said. (She doesn't notice any eye strain.)

The Vanderbushes love the travel and freedom that comes with their art fair life. And they love coming home to Canby — even though what they do can seem a little mysterious to neighbors in a place where most work as farmers or teachers, they said.

"At church, a guy was asking me, 'What do you do?' because I hadn't seen him in a while," Grace Vanderbush said. "And I was like, 'I'm an artist.' " He didn't understand what she meant, and asked: "An or-tist? What does an or-tist do?" she recalled. "He made up a word, because that would be more likely than 'artist,'" she said.

It may not be typical, but Vanderbush's path brings lots of joy. It leads her from chasing waterfalls in places like Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park back to her Canby kitchen, where she bakes batches of her clay sculptures in the oven to finish them.

And then she's off to the next art fair.

By Erica Pearson Star Tribune

JULY 1, 2024

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