Susan Beecher is a renowned potter, her bio can be found at http://susanbeecherpottery.com. She is full of life and love. Her work reflects those direct connections to the human race and mother nature. Talking with her was inspirational, you’ll want to go and create some pots with her when you’re finished reading! ~Vicki Thompson
You have lots of workshops planned for this summer at Sugar Maples that not only involve the ceramics department, but all types of art genres such as Mosaics, Chinese Brush Painting, Print Making and Plein Air Painting workshops. Are you the instructor for them as well?
No, I don’t teach any of the other art classes. I don’t have a degree in art, although I studied ceramics and drawing extensively I’m not proficient in other media. I love other media, of course. So I go about finding someone who has either been referred to me or that I’ve see their work and I’ve met them. It’s important to me that they are good teachers besides good artists. I do my best to figure that out and then I hire people. The woman who is now teaching mosaics, I met when I was teaching ceramics at another craft center. I could see what a great teacher she was and what wonderful work she did, so I hired her for Sugar Maples, so that’s sort of how it works.
I’m really impressed that you don’t have a degree in art and you are self made
I loved art and clay from the time I was a very young girl. In those days, I never even knew another woman who was an artist. It was something foreign, so when I went to school it wasn’t even a question about studying art. My degree was in communications and my minor was in business. When I got out of school, I had children young. I made pots and I apprenticed myself to a really wonderful maker in NY and in exchange for my working for her, she taught me. She was an MBA from Alfred so I learned lot from her. Then, I started making pots and eventually teaching. When I got a divorce, the whole question of what to do to support my family arose. Making pots in NY is not a very viable way to support your family, so I was lucky that I had a degree in communications, so I went to work in publishing. I had quite a career in publishing for 20 years.
Were you able to practice your ceramics in the meantime?
For a while I did, but as I got promoted and I had jobs of more responsibility, I couldn’t make pots, raise my kids and do my day job, it was too much. I didn’t make pots for almost 15-18 years. At my last job, I was the Director of Marketing at Scholastic in NYC. I worked my way up. Eventually, it got to a point where I really wanted to make pots. I really wanted to get my hands in clay. Luckily, I worked it out so that I could do freelance and I started making pots again. I immediately started studying with people I admired, I was able to study with some very great makers. It just gradually happened. I made more and more pots and sold them. Because I didn’t have a degree, the only way to get your name known and get your pots into galleries, you need to enter national shows. It’s very competitive though. Gradually during a five-year period I started to get accepted into national shows and then I started to get invitations to teach. So that helped. You make some money, usually
your students buy your work, and so it’s sort of a win-win. By that point, we had brought a little house in East Jewett with an old horse barn. I built my studio, I think it was in 2000, I built my wood kiln. I had experienced firing my pots in wood, and it was thrilling to me, it was magical. Woodfiring makes a whole different surface on your pots and the clay and the glaze I think become alive in a different way. So I built my wood kiln and that was really a great experience.
And you wrote a book about Woodfired Pottery.
At that point, the Catskill Mountain Foundation had a small publishing arm and they were publishing books about contemporary artists in the area. They approached me and asked me if I’d do a book and I said sure, it was very exciting!
So you had your wood kiln and that’s when you got involved with Sugar Maples, thereafter?
I think around that time Peter Finn had just started the CMF and they wanted to start a Ceramics Program so he approach me and asked me if I’d be interested in running the ceramics arm of Sugar Maples. That sounded really exciting to be because I feel that crafts are almost being forgotten today in this technological world that were living in and I think it’s very important for children and adults to continue to make things by hand. I think it’s sort of wired into our DNA that we should continue to make, on whatever level, not necessarily on a professional level. I see it with my students; they become so satisfied making pots or mosaics. I thought that would be a really good part of my journey and it has been just wonderful.
Do you think ceramics creates an art community that other genres don’t create?
Yes. First of all you need equipment, you need a kiln, you need a wheel, you need a place that it doesn’t matter if it gets dusty or messy, so it’s harder to do on your own, although many people do. Whereas painting for instance; you can go to the store and get your paints and paper and it becomes much more accessible. I do find that Ceramics’ people seem to love the workshop experience, it’s part of their thing. Whereas painters are more solitary, ceramic people seem to really love that group experience, feeding off each other and people. They are grateful for the experience, they really are.
There’s a lot of mental disorders associated with famous artists, I wonder if there’s less on the ceramics end. There’s no statistics I’ve seen, but I’m just wondering if there’s less of a correlation due to the community aspect.
That could be true, there is much more sharing community and support.
What type of pots are you currently focusing on?
Traditionally I have made functional ware, I sort of feel like functional pots, meaning pots you would in your kitchen or on your table, are sort of like the last affordable art form. It’s a very enriching experience to drink your coffee out of a handmade mug or eating off of a hand made plate. It’s very different than eating off of a plate from Macys. It just is. And if you think about and open yourself up to that experience it can be really enriching, so I love to make pots that people will use. That said, I make lots of pots for flowers, flower arranging, but I do do some more sculptural work at times also. That had the kind of determination on what kind of wood kiln that I built because I don’t want so much wood ash on my pieces that people cant drink out of them, so that largely determined by the kind of kiln you have. I don’t know if that answered your questions or not.
No, you answered the question just fine! Who are your favorite Ceramic artists?
Number one is Michael Simon, he is a wonderful ceramic artist out of Georgia. I’m very much in the Leach-Hamada tradition. Those were one of the most influential and finest sort of studio ceramic artists of the last century. They schooled two or three particular artists in this country. They are from Japan and England. That Leech-Hamada tradition really influenced a whole generation of potters including myself. Michael Simon was also in that tradition, as was Warren MacKenzie. Warren MacKenzie, he’s in his 90’s still making pots. He’s like the grandfather of American Pottery. Michael Simon, He’s not well so he’s not making now. I was very, very lucky to work with both if them, they were exceptional.
What do you do in your down time? Besides art…
(laughs) Do I have down time?
I don’t know….
I don’t have much down time. I love to cook for my friends and family and I have a grandson. That’s why I’m now spending half of my time in California because I have grandkids here. My daughter has an organic fruit nursery. I spend time out there helping them. My greatest joy right now it that my youngest, 8 year old grandson, loves clay, so he comes and stays with me for a couple of days. We make pots and things together in my little studio here. It is just wonderful; he glazes the pots and then we fire them. It’s really great to pass on, that tradition. I also love to read, I came up in publishing and never seem to have enough time to read what I want. I just finished the Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch, which was like 7 hundred and something pages. It’s something unbelievable, that book and she deserves the Pulitzer Prize.
I agree with you on that one, that was a great book. There’s never enough time to read, I always wish the books would read to me sometimes.
Do you like to listen to books on tape?
People have been telling me to get books on tape but somehow I just never can.
Do you listen to music while you make pottery?
Maybe if you listen to books on tape….
I don’t know, it’s not the same as loosing yourself in reading.
Right, And music does so much when your working with clay that you can loose yourself in that way. What’s your favorite musical genre?
I love classical music, but at the same time I love old blues, old blues jazz and old folk music, so I’m really diverse in my musical interests.
Can you share one of the many of your favorite memories from working at Sugar Maples?
Last summer I taught a workshop on Pouring Vessels, It was the smaller class, like 7 or something. Teapots are the hardest thing to make because you’re trying to bring together all these different elements to work as a whole, everyone managed to make a teapot and some of them were not experienced students, they were quite new to clay. So it was very challenging, but they all got it together. It was so exciting and at the end of class we put all the teapots on the end of the table and we talked about everyones work. People were just so happy and proud that they had accomplished that.
That actually makes me want to cry, I don’t know why.
Yes, you can relate to it. The other thing is, I’ve had such great makers. Every other summer Jack Troy comes to us. He is one of the most respected makers to date in clay. This man, he’s a retired professor in his 70’s he’s also a poet. Sometimes in class everyone’s making while he’s demonstrating and he’s reciting one his poems. It’s the most precious moment and people are so enraptured with him.
That’s the full experience.
We’ve had Ron Meyers , a maker in his 70’s, so talents, he does a lot of very funny painting on his pots. He did a remarkable workshop, and he doesn’t give workshops anymore! I called him for 3 years, I worked on him for 3 years inviting him to come. Finally he came!
Good, I’m glad to hear that your magic works!
So those moments of very special people are really golden moments that I wont forget and that the students are not going to forget either.
Any advice for young aspiring ceramists?
Keep your overhead low and it’s just a lot of hard work. It’s inspirational. I think when finally starting getting national shows it was those little cruet sets, those a little oil and vinegar sets, they were unique. Those were the first pots that got my into national shows. My advice would be to keep searching for something you make that has a uniqueness about it because that’s a way for people to take notice.
Anything else you’d like to add Susan?
People should try the experience of working and making things with their hand no matter what it is, painting, clay, mosaics, it will enrich their lives.