The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.


1 Collage vessel, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2018. Photo: Cami Leisk

Susan Feagin has had a long-time love affair with Penland School of Craft, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Prior to accepting the position of clay studio coordinator there in 2007, Feagin took classes and concentrations at Penland for years, and was a Core Fellow from 1998–2000. Her association with Penland dates back even further, to her great aunt, Sue Rice (whom Susan is named after), an art teacher and weaver, who took classes there in the 1950s. “It’s been a good match,” Feagin reflects, on this place that has shaped much of her life.

Early Years in Clay

Born in Burbank, California, and raised in Marietta, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, Feagin decided she wanted to live in North Carolina while in high school. Home to both sides of her family, she recalls with fondness the frequent family trips there. But going to college in North Carolina meant paying out-of-state tuition, so she worked hard and received an academic scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG), where she majored in design.

Feagin had some exposure to ceramics in high school, but “got hooked” when she was introduced to the potter’s wheel in an undergraduate wheel-throwing class. She had thought she would become a graphic designer, but it was 1990, with computers just coming into the picture, and Feagin wanted to work with her hands. She notes she likely has some undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, so the step-by-step processes involved in ceramics and learning to center the clay appealed to her. “They were helpful in calming me down,” she points out.

2 Collage basket, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2022. Photo: Loam. 3 Tall collage vessel, 10 in. (25 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2019. Photo: Cami Leisk.

After graduating, Feagin moved back to Georgia, took a job at a grocery store, and did some babysitting—“all the jobs you’d have with a clay degree,” she jokes. She also took on a paid internship in the registrar’s office at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, helping to maintain their permanent collection. All the while, Feagin continued to practice her throwing skills in the small clay studio her parents let her set up in their basement. At the suggestion of Setsuya Kotani, her ceramics professor at UNCG, Feagin started taking workshops and concentrations at Penland, traveling back and forth from Georgia regularly. 

Studies at Penland 

Feagin first learned about sgraffito during a Penland concentration with Matthew Metz and Linda Sikora in 1996. She responded to the look of the graphic linocut surface and began carving through black slip on high-fire porcelain. A 1997 concentration with Michael Corney led her to continue exploring sgraffito in combination with drawing and painting on her pots. At this time, she met Stan Anderson, Cynthia Bringle, Suze Lindsay, and Gay Smith—all of whom were supporting themselves by selling pots. “That was really inspirational,” says Feagin, noting it had never occurred to her that someone could make a living selling their crafted items.

Once Feagin was accepted into Penland’s Core Fellowship program, in addition to working in the ceramics studio, she took several printmaking classes, where she learned linoleum and wood-cutting techniques. During this time, she met renowned majolica potter, Linda Arbuckle, a professor at University of Florida (UF), who was at Penland teaching a ceramics workshop. That’s when Feagin started thinking about graduate school, though she notes that it took some time to build up her confidence before applying. 

4 Large catch-all, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2021. Photo: Loam.

During those years in between the Core Fellowship and graduate school, Feagin moved to Athens, Georgia, where she worked as a paste-up artist for the Athens Daily News and the Athens Banner-Herald. She also held a job as a studio assistant and instructor at Good Dirt Clay Studio, continuing to make pots, both there and in a rental space she shared with a friend, before applying to graduate school in 2004.

Discovering Her Voice and Rethinking Function

While in high school, Feagin recalls being impressed by the works of Richard Shaw and Les Lawrence, both of whom she had seen featured in Ceramics Monthly. Shaw was known for his trompe-l’oeil style, utilizing overglaze decals on porcelain objects such as tin cans, playing cards, pencils, and books. In the 1970s, Lawrence began using photographic silk screens to print onto wet clay, later devising a monoprint process that combined an oil base with ceramic pigments. Feeling that she had “just scratched the surface” at Penland and had not yet found her voice, Feagin was eager to explore screen printing when she was accepted into the MFA program in ceramics at UF, where she also acquired a teaching assistantship. 

She studied with Linda Arbuckle and Nan Smith in ceramics, while Bob Mueller, whom Feagin had previously met at Penland, served as her advisor in printmaking. Arbuckle proved to be a formative teacher, and Feagin remarks that several prompts were instrumental in moving her work forward. One such prompt was “What things are important to you and what do you value? How can those appear in your work?” These are questions Feagin asks herself to this day.

While taking a sketchbook class with Lauren Garber, Feagin began the practice of cutting out parts from her sketchbook—decorative wallpaper patterns, botanical designs, and abstract patterns—and gluing them together to see what different combinations would look like. These two-dimensional collages became the inspiration for her ceramic vessels.

5 Set of cups, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2018. Photo: Cami Leisk.

Letter writing was something Feagin had always valued, and she wanted to construct forms that mimicked overlapping sheets of paper. So, she switched from wheel throwing to handbuilding with slabs that she would decorate using screen printing, linocut, and sgraffito techniques. She would create separate prints on a series of slabs, then cut up the slabs, mixing and matching the parts. Color found its way more prominently into her work at this time too. “Working with Linda and living in Florida, I couldn’t help but want to explore color,” she says. Adding Mason stains to slip gave her a broad color palette, and she began firing her work to cone 6 in an electric kiln. 

Another prompt from Arbuckle led Feagin to reconsider the notion of function. Noting that many of the pots she was making were not easily used due to all the overlapping seams, Arbuckle mentioned that maybe Feagin’s pots wouldn’t be used for food. “It was exciting to think about a whole other world of functionality,” Feagin says. This led her to consider vessels one would find outside the kitchen—to store earrings or glasses by the bedside, or to help organize a desk. In response to all the paper clutter in her life, Feagin began making ceramic objects that would allow her to store pencils and other office items. She even created a ceramic portfolio case.

A Love of Letters

Having always been a journal and letter writer, Feagin treasures handwritten letters. She was influenced by her dad, an avid letter writer with beautiful penmanship, who would correspond regularly with his family back in North and South Carolina. As a child, Feagin was encouraged to send thank you notes and birthday cards to family members, and when her family moved to Georgia, she stayed in contact with her friends in Los Angeles, California, through letters. She can still recall her excitement whenever she’d receive a response in the mail.

Feagin refers to letter writing as “a lost art.” It calls forth a more reflective part of ourselves, something which texting or email—by their nature, quick forms of communication—don’t tend to elicit. She wanted her love of letters to be reflected in her ceramic work, so she began carving text into linoleum blocks that she would press into clay slabs. She later made silk screens from some handwritten letters that she could transfer onto clay.  

6 Small basket, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2022. Photo: Loam.

While in college, Feagin maintained a meaningful ongoing correspondence with her dad. “I learned a lot about my family history during those four years, which I appreciate and treasure.” These letters held even more meaning after Feagin’s dad died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1999, and she wanted to find a way to bring their written correspondence into her ceramic work. She carved a linoleum block of her own handwritten text, made a screen print of her dad’s handwriting, and created a series of slab vessels utilizing these two printing processes.

Returning to Penland

After graduating in 2007, Feagin was applying for teaching positions when she saw the job announcement for the clay studio coordinator at Penland. “I’ve always considered myself a Penland protégé,” she reflects. “It’s where I first discovered my passion for clay.” Now she finds it rewarding to take care of the studio where others might make the same exciting discoveries. In her full-time role as clay studio coordinator, Feagin supervises the studio assistants, works directly with instructors to facilitate their workshop experience, orders supplies, and maintains equipment.

An annual one-week paid sabbatical, which she refers to as her “staycation,” allows Feagin to focus on glazing and firing her own work at Penland’s ceramics facilities. But during the year, it can be difficult to have uninterrupted time for her clay work, even when she’s there in her free time. In 2018, she purchased her own home and has recently set up a studio. She continues to soda fire at Penland, but has plans to build a shed to house a soda kiln at home. 

Collage bowl, 6½ in. (17 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2022. Photo: Loam.

Having been introduced to the process at UF, Feagin started soda firing in earnest when she took the job as clay coordinator. She continues to be attracted to the variation from the soda atmosphere and the interplay with her imagery. Having used porcelain for years, Feagin made the switch to a buff stoneware clay around 2008, preferring how the kiln gives it a toasty appearance. It’s also more forgiving when handbuilding, especially with all the seams in her forms.

Feagin says being at Penland has definitely influenced her work. She’s surrounded by artists, not just there, but in the greater North Carolina region. Since 2009, she has been part of the Spruce Pine Potters’ Market, and many in the group have become close friends. She jokes, “It’s like the Real Housewives of Mitchell County. But instead of clothes, shoes, and cars, it’s who has a wood kiln or a log splitter.” In addition to Spruce Pine’s annual October show, Feagin sells her work at In Tandem Gallery, Penland Gallery, and the Toe River Arts Studio Tour.

Continuing to Learn and Embracing Change

Feagin values change in her work and that of others, remarking, “You don’t have to make the same pots forever.” She’s recently started using flashing slips as a transfer onto wheel-thrown forms, overlaying them with black “floofs”—a term she uses to describe small petals and round wagon wheels. In the future, she’d like to explore using a dark clay body, and envisions making larger abstract sculptural wall hangings. She feels fortunate that she doesn’t have to make a living from selling pots, as it allows her the freedom to try new things more readily.  

Collage vessel, 8 in. (20 cm) in height, stoneware, colored slips, screen-printed underglaze, soda fired to cone 7, 2018. Photo: Cami Leisk.

Gathering ideas from the countless demonstrations and artist presentations she’s seen at Penland, Feagin pieces together details of process, form, and color in her mind—much like constructing a collage. “I’ve learned a lot by watching other people teach, about organizing workshops, understanding what students need, and what not to do,” she notes. And she finds it inspiring to hear the stories of those who come through the clay studio, some of whom have withstood great adversity or who are returning to clay after decades. 

Just as she constructs her forms through collage, Feagin has pieced together a life rich with varied experiences. This past year, she was a presenter at SodaPosium, a weekend soda fire conference, at the Clay Lady Campus in Nashville, Tennessee, along with Will Baker, Ian Bassett, Justin Rothshank, and Gay Smith. “I learned a lot there,” she says, and she loves getting the chance to teach. In 2023, she’ll be offering workshops at both the John C. Campbell Folk School and Double Island Studio, and thinks the time is finally right to submit a proposal to teach at Penland.

To learn more about Susan Feagin, visit or follow on Instagram @susanfeagin.

the author Susan McHenry, is a studio potter, writer, and educator based in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She has an MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. To learn more, visit or follow on Instagram @susanmchenryceramics