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Woman creates miniature flower arrangements in clay

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CHOCTAW, Okla. (AP) _ Kanjana Stearns' delicate hands move skillfully as she tints a pinch of clay with purple paint, massages it into a ball and rolls it into a teardrop shape.

With precision honed through years of practice, the artist cuts slits into the clay with small scissors, creating the precursor to petals. She uses a slender metal tool to gently spread, roll and texture the nubs of clay into full, lifelike petals. She then slides a sliver of wire topped with a tiny colorful clay ball into the center of the minuscule flower.

In less than five minutes, the Bangkok, Thailand, native has created another miniature daisy to add to the clay garden flowering on the worktable next to her washer and dryer. The shelves in her narrow laundry room are lined with little pots blooming with pink calla lilies, red roses and orange birds of paradise.

``For this, you have to use a lot of techniques. And you have to be good about all the details to look so real,'' said Stearns, who goes by the nickname ``Tukie.''

At first glance, Stearns' flowers look real, silk or plastic. But they feel much stiffer because the petals, pistols, centers and leaves are all handmade from a secret mix of clay. Even the stems are wire covered with clay.

Handcraftingg clay flowers is an art form in Asia, particularly in Thailand and Japan, where the needed tools, guidebooks and clay ingredients are made. She said the flowers are sold at art markets in those countries, but they are not well-known in America.

``Everything (is) made from clay, not only the pot. ... People say, 'Only the pot, right?' And I say, 'No, whole flower.' And they say, 'Are you sure?''' Stearns said.

When Stearns takes her flowers to craft shows and fairs, she does frequent demonstrations, making and giving away tiny daisies at her booth. Once they see it done, most people are amazed. Their stunned responses sometimes puzzle the artist, since English is not her native language.

``They say, 'Unreal. It's unreal,''' Stearns said. ``When Americans see my flowers, their reaction makes me want to make more. ... They're so excited. Their reactions give me a lot of energy to make more.''

The Choctaw resident learned to make clay flowers about 25 years ago, when she attended college at Bangkok School of Arts. Stearns, who worked her way through college making shoes on the streets of Bangkok, focused on shoe design andshoemakingg but learned a variety of arts in school.

She said she studied clay flower-making for a year in college. The art form was difficult to master, and she was tempted to give up at first.

``I picked it up very quickly, but I wasn't very good at first. I had to practice all the time,'' she said.

After college, Stearns put her artistic and entrepreneurial skills to work. For about 20 years, she designed shoes, which were produced in a small factory and sold to stores. She also operated a shop in Siam Square, where she sold her shoes along with designer fashions from Europe and elsewhere.

Over the years, Stearns would occasionally take classes in clay flower-making to refresh her skills. About eight years ago, she decided to really get back into the craft and took classes every weekend for a year.

``It had come up again in my mind: 'I love to do it, so I should take a class to extend myself,''' she said.

Five years ago, Stearns came to Oklahoma to visit a friend in Seminole. She met her future husband, Robin, in a Midwest City hair salon. They dated for almost two years, even staying a couple when she moved back to Thailand. After they married three years ago, Stearns became a stay-at-home mom to her husband's sons, Kenneth, 17, and Korey, 14, and her daughter, Cavina, 12.

``She's an artistic person. ... She's got a lot of energy, and she doesn't sit still very much,'' Robin Stearns said of his wife, who also makes clothes and curtains and cuts their family's hair.

Stearns started making Thai clay flowers again last year as a hobby and established a home-based business called All Clay. She works on the flowers while the children are at school and often late into the night after they go to sleep.

``It's too difficult to find the equipment to make shoes; that's why I picked the flowers,'' Stearns said. ``I have a lot more practice here in America. I have a lot more time.''

Since resuming the craft in Oklahoma, she has learned to make many kinds of flowers not grown in Thailand, including hyacinths and foxgloves. She studies and takes apart real flowers to help her learn to make new varieties.

``My daughter, when she finishes her homework, she helps me make the leaves,'' Stearns said. ``And she knows how to make daisies and tulips and roses.''

When she works on her flowers, Stearns makes the leaves and centers before the petals. She makes just one type of flower a day, but she can make 30 miniature pots of tiny irises in one day. The special clay air-dries quickly.

Her wares range from petite pots of strawberry plants no larger than a thimble to big baskets of towering orchids. Robin Stearns said many people want to try their hand at crafting the lifelike flowers, but they typically find it isn't as easy as his wife makes it look.

For Kanjana Stearns, the clay flowers are a way of sharing something from her native country.

``I'm so happy to work with my flowers because it's natural and wonderful. The flowers make everything pretty,'' Stearns said. ``Every time I finish a new flower ... I'm so happy I made it.''
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