Studio Visit: Susan McHenry, Kalamazoo, Michigan

Just the Facts

Clay
red earthenware (Laguna EM-106)

Primary forming method
handbuilding, altering wheel-thrown forms

Primary firing temperature
cone 1 oxidation in an electric kiln

Favorite surface treatment
hand painting slips on leather-hard clay

Favorite tools
handmade brushes, bisque molds

Studio Playlist
Ben Carter’s Tales of a Red Clay Rambler, This American Life, Fresh Air, various musical artists, and sometimes just the quiet

Wishlist
more space for storing materials, art fair supplies, and inventory overflow

Studio

My studio is just 50 feet from the home I share with my husband, Mark, and our dog, Zuzu, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Before it was built in 2016, I rented space downtown in a former manufacturing facility converted into artist studios. While I enjoyed being a part of that community, the location and old structure were often noisy and I grew to need more solitude while working.

I love nature, so I wanted my home studio to feel as much like being outdoors as possible. Conservation and energy efficiency are also important to me, so I contracted a green builder to plan and construct the 512-square-foot space. Solar tubes in the roof and large, double-paned windows allow for a lot of natural light, so when it’s sunny I often don’t need to turn on the lights. Structural insulated panels were used in the construction, and 5 inches of insulation means less energy needed to heat and cool with my mini-split system. Another way I save energy is with an air exchange unit and ceiling fan that improve room circulation, allowing pots to dry efficiently.

It’s only a few steps from my wheel to the worktable where I alter pots, decorate, and glaze. A small display area near the front doors allows me to access finished work and serves to greet customers, while a nearby chair offers an invitation to read or reflect. The small space works well for me, though I’d like more room for storage for things like materials, art fair supplies, and inventory overflow, so I plan to put a shed outdoors in the future.

I’m continually restored by working in this peaceful, natural setting. Each season offers its own gifts, inviting me to pause to watch the snow fall, or open the windows to the sounds of birds or evening peepers. Having the studio at home has improved my work flow, too. It’s easy to step out to the studio before bed to cover pots or check on the kiln. And during the day, I can pause to prepare meals, tend the garden, or play a game of fetch with Zuzu.

Paying Dues (and Bills)

I always thought my career would be as a writer. With an MFA in writing and literature, I was in my early 30s and working freelance when my husband and I moved to Michigan from upstate New York. Working from home felt isolating, and since I loved handmade pottery, I signed up for a class at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, hoping to meet others while learning something new. Little did I know how that decision would impact my life and how pivotal the pottery community there would become to my happiness in Kalamazoo. I soon felt a calling to clay in a way I never felt with writing. Throwing didn’t come easily though. It took months of dedicated practice before I could center just one pound of clay. What surprised me most during that time was my determination to get it. I’ve since come to realize that the effort to show up every day despite, or even because of, my struggles is what being an artist is all about.

After years of wood firing, a workshop with Victoria Christen in 2011 inspired me to start working with red earthenware clay. I can still recall the delight I felt watching her pour white slip over a dark-red, leather-hard plate. I knew instantly that red clay was for me and I’ve never looked back.

Although I don’t have an academic background in ceramics, I’ve never liked the term “self-taught.” It diminishes the influence of teachers, without whom I would not be where I am today. None of us learns in a vacuum; we need each other. When I get stuck trying to solve a problem, I turn to my potter friends, the Ceramic Arts Network Community Forum, or CLAYART’s discussion group. I feel fortunate to be part of a generous community willing to share their expertise and help troubleshoot.

I teach at the same art center where I took my first class, which supplements my variable income from pottery sales. My husband earns a good living as an author and a teacher, and we enjoy the freedoms of keeping our own schedules. It’s not always easy being self employed though. The high cost of health insurance is the greatest hardship, but I wouldn’t trade my current way of life for the one I had when I worked full time for someone else.

I still do some freelance writing, but much less so over the past few years. As my life in clay has grown, I’ve realized this is where I want to put my energy. My hours fluctuate depending on deadlines, but I’m in the studio nearly every day tending to some aspect of my work. I’m a night owl, so it’s not unusual for me to work late when gearing up for an event, or even just to make the most of a creative flow. I relish the quiet and stillness of those evening hours.

Marketing

I sell my work through a mix of retail consignment, studio sales, art fairs, occasional group gallery shows, and my online shop. Over the years, I’ve been slowly building a mailing list, and I email subscribers announcements about upcoming shows or sales a few times a year. As of now, the retail venues I sell with are all local, so I’d like to start broadening my range beyond Kalamazoo. I’d also like to host more events at my studio. Last December I opened my doors to customers and friends for the first time since moving in. It was great fun and I hope to make this an annual event.

The exposure I’ve received from retail venues has been crucial for the growth of my business and name recognition. I value my relationships with the shopkeepers and feel it’s important to go beyond just dropping off new work. Spending time in conversation and getting to know each other also helps them discuss my work with customers. While I don’t meet people who buy my pots in a retail setting, art fairs allow me to engage with customers directly. Because they require so much energy, I only do a few of these each year, but it’s worth the effort. I enjoy seeing how people respond to my work and hearing stories about what happens to my pots when they leave my hands—about where a particular bowl resides in the kitchen or to whom it was given as a gift.

Mind

Working toward a deadline helps me stay focused. I don’t enjoy sitting down to make 20 mugs at a time however, so mixing things up keeps me engaged creatively. I typically have a variety of pots in process simultaneously. Most of my wheel-thrown pieces are altered, and some of my work is entirely handbuilt, so this allows for a natural flow from the wheel to the table. When pots are ready for decoration, I welcome switching gears to focus on surface design.

My late writing mentor, Jason Shinder, would often remind me that writing was not just about putting pen to paper—that part of working is to be in the world and experience beauty. This truth extends to my life with clay. Making time for activities that nurture me fuels and informs my work when I return to the studio. When I need a break, I take a walk, see an independent or foreign film, visit a museum, or rest in the hammock and look at the sky. I love to read and typically have books of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction close by. Currently, I’m enjoying On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry, and On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation, by Alexandra Horowitz.

I’m always working on refining my voice and striving to make better pots. Something Gail Kendall said at a workshop has stuck with me, “Let your ideas come to life.” This means giving myself permission to take risks without pre-judging the outcome. The end result may not be what I imagined, but following through with an idea has value, even if the lesson learned is that I don’t like something. Similarly, taking time to reflect on a form throughout the making process is as essential as the editing process in writing. It fosters the art of discernment, which leads to new ideas or solutions.

Most Valuable Lesson

As for so many of us, clay has changed the course of my life. It’s exciting to know I’ll never be done learning. Each day allows for some new discovery with the material and a chance to improve. Someone once asked the poet Stanley Kunitz how long it took him to write a particular poem. He paused before answering, “My whole life.” I feel similarly about making pots. It takes years to build a skillset, and making a good pot is reflective of a lifetime of practice in listening and responding to the material. How lucky I am that I get to keep practicing.

www.emptyvesselpottery.com
Facebook: @emptyvesselpottery
Instagram: @emptyvesselpottery

Studio portrait: brianbankston.com.

Comments
  • Ariadne I.

    Building a body of work is complicated, the details revealed here illuminate the process. Inspiring and refreshing read.

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