“Enathe,” a sculpture by Susan Wilson.
Courtesy photo
“Enathe,” a sculpture by Susan Wilson.

Putney ceramics artist’s work on display at SVAC

‘My way forward is through my art, traveling with people who seek only the opportunity to become fully whoever they yearn to be,’ says Susan Wilson

PUTNEY — Susan Wilson's work is, according to artist and critic Deborah Barlow, all about “emotion and empathy.”

“I work in quiet meditation,” says the figurative ceramic artist, whose art is on exhibit at the annual Solo Exhibition show at Southern Vermont Arts Center (SVAC) in Manchester.

“I breathe life into spaces around and within my figures,” Wilson, based in Putney, explains. “I use slabs laid over molds, from broomsticks and dowels to balls and ceramic head molds that I have made. From a head mold, generic at first, the character and gesture unfold. Who is going to show up?”

Wilson's sources are newspapers, photographs, life-drawing sessions, anatomy books, stories about migrants and refugees, reports from African friends, “and my never-ending visits to museums and galleries, from the Uffizi [Galleries] to Mass MoCA to The Hermitage to galleries in Brussels and Moscow.”

Her work has, indeed, been influenced by time on the road: she's visited an AIDS orphanage in Cameroon and a Kenyan village that is taking in orphans who have AIDS.

“And the years here of my singing and gardening with Rwandan graduate students at Antioch University and hearing their stories would [contextualize] this work and where it comes from in me,” Wilson says.

The intensity of her concerns about human justice for those with hopes and fears experiencing gross inequity comes from these life experiences.

With a background in art at Denison University, the University of Delaware, and Montclair State University, Wilson furthered her explorations in a range of workshops taking place at locales ranging from Odyssey Studio in North Carolina to Haystack Mountain School in Maine. She has shown throughout New Jersey as well as in Philadelphia, New York, Cleveland, and Boston; Brattleboro and Stowe, Vermont; and Keene and Hanover, New Hampshire, among others, and she has been published in 500 Figures in Clay, Vol. 2 (Lark Books).

“After a three-decade career teaching art in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, after raising a family and doing justice work for people from sub-Saharan Africans to those with AIDS and to those standing in our soup kitchen lines, I retired to Putney with my husband, two sons, and dog,” Wilson says.

Taken by the spirit of community in southern Vermont - by the awareness of and activity around social justice, food security, climate and energy issues, homelessness, and asylum seekers - Wilson says in an artist's statement: “Now I know that, instead of waiting and hoping, and searching for personal sanctuary, I must act. My way forward is through my art, traveling with people who seek only the opportunity to become fully whoever they yearn to be.”

In “Yearnings,” Wilson's SVAC exhibit, are two multi-unit pieces, one titled “Hands and Voices,” the other, “Yearnings,” as well as a single head-to-torso piece, “Enathe.”

Inspired by her Rwandan friends and others encountered in African countries, each of Wilson's figures manifests a depth and complexity, a capturing of human essence - of yearnings for dreams and fulfillment.

In faces richly worked and colored in clay atop bodies of rough-hewn wood, one can read miles into the heart of these subjects - and that of their maker. With eyes sometimes watching, sometimes downcast and lips just slightly, gently open as if asking to be heard, the figures hold their heads proudly, as if knowing their inner worth. Their skin gleams, and in myriad ways, they are beautiful.

About the work, Wilson says: “In this time of alienation and conflict in our world, I teeter on a razor's edge of glaring contradictions of our goodness and terribleness [...] My work in clay has always been about finding my place in my world.

“With the three-dimensionality of clay, I create real spaces within and around my archetypal figures to explore my fears and hopes, questions, and yearnings to belong. These universal concerns, I hope, invite viewers to contemplate their own questions and concerns.”

In text accompanying the SVAC exhibit, Wilson adds: “My imagery has changed from introspection and hoping and waiting for a path forward to imaging the nobility and quiet determination of a refugee on the move. There is a new urgency for me now. People are on the move. Fears are palpable. Questions are urgent. Seeking has hands. Reaching has arms. Hope has feet. Resistance has wings.”

The catalyst - and raw material - for fusing ceramics with wood, as seen in the SVAC exhibit, came about pretty organically.

“My son is a bread baker,” Wilson says, explaining that he uses slab wood to fire his oven. “For years, this slab wood has been evocative for me, and it had been standing in my studio. One day, I happened to put a ceramic head on top of one piece of slab wood, and that was it. I want the wood to represent a body, but also a wall or impediment for these people whom I honor to move forward in their lives.”

Wilson works in a converted animal shed and two carriage bays at the back of the 220-year-old farmhouse she shares with her husband, Phillip.

“The shed is now my winter studio, complete with a kiln, and the bays are now my summer studio,” she says.

With lots of southern light, the studio is, she says, “full of work in progress and lots of questions for me to answer. My kiln right now is half-loaded and waiting for me to fill it. I have a canvas-covered table for work in terra cotta clay and one for white clays, porcelain, and stoneware. I have lots of books for inspiration, as well as copious tests, experiments, and notes.”

Of the future, Wilson explains, “I'm ready to launch into new work. I find myself looking backward and forward. I want to finish and revisit old work and explore new ideas,” all the while inspired by those who support and guide her.

After a long list of family members, she includes: “Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, John Lewis, RBG [Ruth Bader Ginsburg], George Floyd, William, Yves, Enathe, Erasme, Phillip, [The New York Times] and its truths, my sons, and my dearest friends and neighbors - all are my saints,” she writes.

Without them and without their telling her the truth, “I would not be who I am,” she says.

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