By Gina Malone
When Susan Feagin began making pottery as an art major at the University of North Carolina- Greensboro, one place kept suggesting itself to her for further studies: Penland School of Crafts. She first heard it mentioned by her great-aunt, Sue Rice, for whom she was named and who had attended Penland in the late 1950s to gain skills that would further her career as an art teacher. “I have some of her snapshots that she took at the school when she was enrolled there learning to weave and do enameling on copper,” Feagin says.
Her aunt recommended that she consider classes at Penland. A ceramics professor at UNC-G seconded the suggestion. Feagin then discovered two well-known books about clay and Penland in the university library—Finding One’s Way With Clay: Pinched Pottery and the Color of Clay by Paulus Berhenson and The Penland Book of Ceramics: Master Classes in Ceramic Techniques, featuring work by Cynthia Bringle and Jane Peiser. “These two books sparked my interest in colored clay and also confirmed to me that this Penland thing must be serious and I better look into it.”
After a summer workshop there on wood firing, two more concentrations in the clay studio, and selection, in 1998, for the core student program, she moved on, eventually attending graduate school at the University of Florida where she obtained a MFA and began teaching 3D design and beginning throwing. “As part of my research, I learned how to screen print on the clay and decided that I should learn more about hand building,” she says. “I had been making wheel thrown pots for a few years and I wanted to improve my work and make it more personal. I wanted my clay ‘prints’ to suggest collaged scraps of paper and so this led me to building vessels with slabs.”
Today, she is back at Penland as the clay studio coordinator and she still creates the collage vessels that she began making in Florida. An affiliation with letters and writing inspires her work, she says. Her father was an avid letter writer and, living in California so far from his family back east, he kept in touch with handwritten or typed correspondence. “I would fall asleep sometimes to the sound of his Royal typewriter,” Feagin says.
After her family moved to Georgia when she was 11, she was the one writing letters to friends back in California. “In college my dad wrote me tons of letters too,” she says. “When I was a core student at Penland, Aunt Sue wrote me letters reminiscing about her time at Penland. Letters have been a big deal for me,” she says, adding that she misses the intimacy and connection that handwritten letters provide.
“These pots are meant to be cheerful and energetic,” she says. “I imagine them stuffed with paper coupons and shopping lists on the kitchen counter, displayed on a shelf in the library or holding special pens and pencils on a desk.”
Her multi-step process involves making floofs (decorative elements such as little motifs or logos), rolling out slabs of clay, rubbing monoprints of layered colored slip on newsprint and then applying the floofs. “So, basically, I’m making a patterned slab of clay, not unlike someone screen printing on sheets of fabric,” she says. “To make the vessels, I cut up and piece together the slabs to make a quilt-like slab. Or I can drape the slabs over or into a mold to start a basic shape. As the clay dries, I can add additional strips of clay to build up the sides of the vessel.” When the pieces have dried to a leathery hardness, she adds more intricacy such as sgraffito details that suggest block printing or lino cuts. “I want these pots to look like they came from the recycle bin at the print shop,” she says, “so, therefore, I want to introduce as many print techniques as I can.” After firing, she adds colored glazes.
Penland has been a grounding and inspirational place for her and she advises those curious about the school to take a class or visit. “Penland is for everyone, not just experienced artists,” she says.
To learn more, visit SusanFeaginCeramics.com or find her on Instagram @ #susanfeagin. Look for her work at In Tandem Gallery at 20 North Mitchell Avenue in Bakersville or at Penland Gallery near Spruce Pine.