Handmade Valentine's Day gifts are from the heart

Baltimore Clayworks artist Mary Cloonan makes Valentine jewelry from polymer clay, then bakes it in a toaster oven.
Baltimore Clayworks artist Mary Cloonan makes Valentine jewelry from polymer clay, then bakes it in a toaster oven. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

You're smitten with your valentine, but not with the idea of a mass-produced card or a pricey trinket. Then why not give the objection of your affection a handmade gift?

While crafting was once the domain of your grandmother, these days do-it-yourself projects are hip and retro-chic.

And thanks to such popular websites as Etsy — a marketplace for handmade and vintage items — and fun reads like Suzie Williams' "The Complete Book of Retro Crafts," it's now a cinch to go "crafty."

And there's sentimental value.

"The 21st century affords us much more in terms of avenues for expression," says Whitney Sherman, an illustrator who heads the master's program in illustration practice at Maryland Institute College of Art. "Art that conveys a message or tells a story," she says, "tells the story of our lives."

Just in time for Valentine's Day, we have assembled a group of local experts to help you create cards, floral displays, clay beads and other objects that can be tailor-made for your sweetheart.

So why not embrace your inner Martha Stewart or Nate Berkus? Use your imagination to craft a personalized Valentine that comes straight from the heart.

Greetings and readings

Experts: Students at Maryland Institute College of Art

Project: Valentine cards

Lisa Perrin and Aehee Shin are in MICA's master's program in illustration practice, which prepares artists to meld their artistic and business abilities and blend media in new cultural contexts.

In a sunlit studio on the campus, they're making an array of Valentine's gifts and eating pink and red M&Ms, amid lots of laughter.

Perrin has fashioned a pop-up card. The object placed on the pop-up can be any number of things — such as a paper cutout of a heart.

"It's simple but pretty," says Perrin, 23, a Long Island, N.Y., native whose work focuses on history, fashion, nature and fairy tales.

Shin, on the other hand, has gone high-tech, using her computer and smartphone to make a simple video or text that can be translated into a QR code — those black squiggly squares you've probably seen in product ads. The "quick response" codes are similar to a barcode and can be scanned.

"The QR codes can be used to plan a treasure hunt," says the 25-year-old illustrator and author, who was born in Oklahoma but moved to Seoul, South Korea, at age 5.

Shin integrates the codes into cute doll-like characters on greeting cards. Each one will lead to a Valentine's Day text message or video that can be posted online via YouTube. "Give it a try — it's fun."

Flowers from the heart

Expert: Carla Feigley, floral designer, Fleur de Lis Florist, Baltimore

Project: Nosegay floral bouquet

Inside Fleur de Lis, a fragrant little shop in downtown Baltimore, owner Christine Rubin and floral designer Carla Feigley specialize in custom arrangements that evoke love and romance.

"Most of our clients are brides," says Feigley. "And of course, it's busy around Valentine's Day, with men and women buying flowers for sweethearts and their mothers."

To celebrate the day, Feigley is making an old-fashioned nosegay, a tiny handheld bouquet.

She has come up with several designs: a cheery yellow bouquet of ranunculus, baby green hydrangea, daffodils and lily grass; a "beau" bouquet with dark red roses and anemones accented by a hint of eucalyptus; and a Ravens-inspired nosegay with tulips, hyacinth and anemones in hues of purple.

"You can adorn the bouquets with a jeweled brooch or feathers, or attach it to a bottle of champagne," she says. "Or add a black satin bow, and it resembles a tuxedo."

The nosegay can be presented with a vase or without; if you prefer the former, the shop carries small red glass vases with phrases like "Kiss Me."

Love props

Expert: Carla David, graphic designer, Say Cheese! Paper Props, Savage

Project: Paper props and banners

On any given day at her boutique in Savage Mills, graphic designer Carla David can be found constructing intricate paper goods that resemble fine art.

While wedding invitations and other custom projects make up much of her business, David recently launched Say Cheese! Paper Props to offer paper paraphernalia with a sense of humor.

"Some of the things we do that would be great for Valentine's Day are lips, banners with X's and O's, hearts and the word 'love' on a stick," says the owner of Carla David Design, who studied at Southern Adventist University. "They're great conversation starters."

David uses the computer and specialized machines to create and cut out her designs. But folks at home can use scissors to yield similar results, she says.

A fun project is to create a "hand prop," a message for your valentine that attaches to a stick they can hold. The props look like a mask that people carry for masquerade parties, but they can be made into all sorts of shapes like hearts, a mustache or even letters.

"I like using different colors and shimmery paper to make it unique," says the designer. "You can do this in 10 minutes."

Romantic gems

Expert: Mary Cloonan, Baltimore Clayworks

Project: Polymer clay beads

Put a lump of clay in the hands of Mary Cloonan, and she'll mold it into art.

"Most artists have a touchstone of artistic epiphany," says Cloonan, the exhibitions director, resident artist and teacher at Baltimore Clayworks in Mount Washington. "I blame that salty Play-Doh. I've loved it since I was a little girl, and it's led to my artistic career."

A native of western New York with a degree in ceramics from Syracuse University, Cloonan has studied in Taiwan and had her work exhibited in private collections nationwide.

Her creations range from mono-prints on fabric to polymer clay bead projects. She thinks the latter is perfect for Valentine's Day.

"The beads can be hung on a ribbon and made into a pendant or necklace. For men, you could make a key chain."

While clay artists typically use kilns and other tools of the trade, polymer clay is a modeling clay you can bake in your oven.

It comes in many colors, and Cloonan likes to layer them for a nuanced effect. "It's a great project for children. My 5-year-old nephew enjoys doing this."

How to make clay jewelry


Polymer clay in two colors (There are several brands, including Sculpy and Fimo; Sculpy is a little softer and easier to work with. Also, you can mix and blend clays to make new colors.)

Toothpicks, Popsicle sticks

Razor blade

Glass jar

Wax paper

Toaster oven with metal baking tray

Heavy-duty paper to line tray

Note: Children should be supervised if attempting this project. Michaels, AC Moore and most art-supply stores carry polymer clay.


Step 1: Roll two different-color clays into thin rectangular sheets. Use a glass jar as a rolling pin; wax paper or a pane of glass can be used as a work space. Avoid plastic, as the polymer will stick and ruin the surface.

Step 2: Sandwich/layer them together and pinch or roll one edge thinner. Start your jellyroll from the thinner edge, carefully rolling it to create an even cylinder.

Step 3: Gently roll it thinner and longer, compressing the design. The design will not smush, but remain throughout the cane.

Step 4: Roll up some balls of clay to serve as the core or center of your bead.

Step 5: Carefully slice thin pieces off the cane, like cold cuts.

Step 6: Arrange the slices to carefully cover the surface of the core bead

Step 7: Gently roll the ball in your hands to smooth and seal the edges of the slices.

Step 8: Shape the ball into cylinders, discs or other shapes.

Step 9: Carefully poke a hole using a toothpick. Support the bead opposite the hole and feel for the toothpick when it pokes through the other side. Use the toothpick to form the hole on that side, so it is clean and even.

Step 10: Place on a baking tray that has been lined with paper. Fold the paper like an accordion so you have places for the beads to rest without touching or rolling. The paper also helps to avoid shiny spots on the beads that can happened when they are baked on metal.

Step 11: Bake for 20-30 minutes, depending upon thickness, at 275 degrees. (This is well below the burning point of the paper.)

Optional: You can gently mold the clay beads into the shape of a heart. You will need to start with a core clay bead and then cover with a thin sheet of color clay. Add two slices of cane at opposite sides of the sphere. Roll gently to seal and smooth the design. Pinch one end of the ball into a point and then flatten the ball slightly. At the end opposite the point use a popsicle stick, tooth pick or other tool to make a crease at the top and form the heart. Continue from Step 9 above.

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