A line set in motion with such balance of finesse and restraint that it seems to move of its own accord cannot help but conjure the meandering of vines, the concentric expansion of xylem rings that imparts both order and variation to the cross-sections of tree trunks, or the swirling of phytoplankton blooms in the currents and eddies of oceans. The spirit of Maine ceramic artist and Bates College faculty member Susan Dewsnap’s compositions is, in this respect, inevitably perceived as natural—and so, effortless. Line sweeps over the curves of her vessels with the conviction that it cannot be wrong since nature never is. Line interacts with line in arenas where harmonies and tensions appear to have evolved as a matter of course and in such a fashion that both feel necessary and sufficient to the microcosms they define. Each composition seems to have emerged with the natural integrity of an organism. But consistency in such effects of effortlessness and inevitability in art is, of course, just exactly not natural, and Dewsnap’s path to achieving it was the familiar one of time, patience, practice, and determination that is demanded of every artist who aspires to mastery.
Aspirations and Dedication
Her dedication to art began with painting— she earned a BFA from the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, and planned to attend the MFA program at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, New York. The high cost of living in New York City coupled with the financial burden of graduate tuition dashed hopes of achieving that objective, leading her to take a day job to finance pursuit of a painting career without the benefits of advanced study. Although the vibrant artistic community of the city had much to offer as compensation, some six years later she left New York and found her way to Colorado. “I ended up taking my first pottery class at the Boulder Pottery Lab, founded by Betty Woodman,” she recalls. “When I was a painter, I painted still lifes and spent time searching out objects. A lot of them were cups. In Colorado, I ended up at a local yard sale of somebody who probably had taught at the university. I bought some amazing pots. Eventually, I decided to take a pottery class with Kate Inskeep, and I was hooked. My paintings had been planned out, very methodical, so when I came to ceramics I felt much more engaged in every part of the process. In my first class I thought, ‘Wow! I could do this for the rest of my life.’”
Bills and rent imposed reality on that aspiration. Dewsnap worked as a paralegal for years, though after moving from Colorado to Maine she affiliated herself with a community of potters at Sawyer Street Studios, a ceramics cooperative, and with ceramic artists associated with Maine College of Art. Working in soda-fired stoneware, she gradually developed skill in resist decoration. “I was largely self-taught,” she says. “I took three or four classes at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and Penland School of Craft, but I would just work on my own in the studio. Eventually, I felt like I didn’t have enough time to make work and hold a full-time job. I really wanted that immersion, that complete immersion in ceramics, and to be around people who were serious about making work. So, I went to graduate school in 2005 at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.”
5–7 Vase with pink, stoneware, slips, glaze, soda fired.
Inspiration and Development
For the first year of MFA study, Dewsnap was pushed by faculty to work outside her comfort zone by making vessels free of all ornamentation, a directive she found challenging in the extreme. The most notable outcome of that experience was a compensation for simple surfaces through greater material presence: an increase in scale from the more-intimate thrown-and-altered pieces with which she was familiar to the 12-to-14-inch-tall vessels that make up the bulk of her production today. The quintessential type in her repertoire has long been the lidded vessel, which, since her return to ornamentation in the latter years of graduate school, has most frequently taken a globular or bulbous form inspired by Asian ceramics. Traces of Korean moon jars and Chinese meiping vases not only linger in the swelling profiles of her vessels, but sometimes assert themselves in aspects of the surface decoration as well. Initially these allusions were more deliberately pursued. “I’ve always looked at art,” Dewsnap explains, “and when I started working in clay, I looked at ceramic history. It’s something I’m interested in. When I started decorating again, I used historical pots as a direct springboard for surfaces. Some of my favorite work was Cizhou pottery. I almost directly used ideas from those works.”
If the high tonal contrast of Cizhou slip wares survives in Dewsnap’s current vessels, there is nothing of the banded nature of typical Cizhou decoration, nor its textures in slip trails or sgraffito. Her method in both soda-fired stoneware and the porcelain wares she has more recently added to her output is a wax-resist process involving two to three stages in which the first dip-applied layer of slip defines the color of the lines. “In some of my older work,” she explains, “I would dip everything in a white or yellow slip, then paint the lines with wax resist and soda fire them, so the drawing would all be white or maybe a golden yellow color. More recently, I’ve been drawing with the wax over a black slip. Sometimes I use both slip and glaze after that.”
The methodical aspects of this process—meticulous, even, given the difficulty of altering the wax once it has made contact with the slipped surfaces—are belied utterly by the effect, which is one of long, free-flowing lines painted with a sure hand and lightning speed. At the same time, the slow process of painting in wax belies the actual nature of Dewsnap’s conceptual relationship to the disposition of line, which is spontaneous: effected entirely without benefit of preliminary sketches, guiding pencil lines, or even preconceptions about exactly where a line will finish once it has begun. “It’s like working in an abstract narrative,” she explains, “like there’s a story unfolding, because I don’t plan it out. Sometimes I’ll start with a gestural mark on the pot and build from there. I’m putting something down, responding to what’s there, and thinking about the form of the pot and trying to integrate all those things.”
The resulting dynamic between linear surface decoration and material vessel form is the defining factor in Dewsnap’s aesthetic, which achieves the impression of dimensional painting. Denser disposition of lines reinforces the roundedness of the vessel form, like the mesh of a shopping bag stretched tightly around the sphere of an orange. Sparser disposition of lines operates like camouflage, visually disrupting the viewer’s grasp of the vessel’s profile and, especially on pieces in which a mottled gray to green glaze creates veiled effects, dissecting the curved walls into shapes that seem to transform hard surfaces to glimpses into depths. “It’s almost as if the surface is floating,” Dewsnap observes. “Some of the marks look like they’re moving across the surface and you’re looking between them into a different space.” Such illusion of volume is explored in the lids of many of the globular jars, which feature indentations for lifting rather than knobs. Painted in black slip, these indentations serve as trompe l’oeil mouths, visually opening vessel interiors that are in fact closed.
Stylistically, and conceptually as well, Dewsnap’s vessels tempt the viewer toward neat connections with the virtuosity, asymmetric dynamism, sinuous line, and biomorphic rhythms of Art Nouveau. Charles Rennie Macintosh’s stained-glass designs ostensibly reverberate in the sweep of her botanical lines, which sometimes snarl or pool into concentrations suggestive of buds. Her overarching concern for the inextricable relationship of decoration and vessel seems plausibly traceable to Victor Horta’s influential design of the Hôtel Tassel, in which three-dimensional elements of staircase and railings and two-dimensional aspects of floor and wall decoration were conceived from the outset in organic integration. The problem with this tidy analysis is Dewsnap’s assertion that Art Nouveau “was one period that I never looked at.” The actual sources of inspiration for her aesthetic are in fact more interesting, invoking complex reflection on style and innovation.
Although Dewsnap is always looking at a range of historical art and even keeps a changing stack of books next to her glaze table, the deepest roots of her style are Asian pottery and Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the latter of which were undoubtedly the seminal sources of her bounding, organic lines. It can hardly be coincidental that the Art Nouveau style derived largely from a blending of elements from medieval art with the same ukiyo-e influence. Like Braque, whose paintings done at L’Estaque look remarkably similar to those made by Picasso at Horta de Ebro due to their parallel responses to the compositions of Cézanne, Dewsnap found in the ukiyo-e line a path to stylistic innovation that parallels rather than duplicates the key formal devices of Art Nouveau. What more intriguing suggestion could there be of aesthetic penetration to some facet of the universal?
the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.