Susan McHenry,
Empty Vessel Pottery,
Kalamazoo, MI


Instagram: @emptyvesselpottery


Artist Statement:
I'm continually inspired by both the strength and vulnerability of clay, how it requires either a force or gentleness of hand at various stages. Having recently switched from wheel throwing to hand building due to an injury, I'm exploring new shapes and forms that convey movement and softness. I use a thin white slip (liquid clay) as the background for my surface decoration, then apply layers of colored slips portraying flowers and branches that wrap around the rims of bowls and feet of plates, inviting the eye to travel across each piece. At each step of the making process, I’m striving to make work that reflects a collaboration with the materials—allowing evidence of process such as a brush mark, fingerprint, or drip to become an active part of the piece. I love seeing the dark clay body peeking through the layers, the earthenware always having a voice in the final product. I believe that pottery made by hand with thoughtfulness and care can elevate simple day-to-day moments we might otherwise take for granted, like sitting quietly with a cup of coffee or serving a meal to beloved friends. Items made by hand offer a direct human connection. When interacting with my pots, you’ll find evidence of this: my fingerprint visible somewhere on the surface, the way I considered the lip on a mug or the comfort of a handle, the expressive quality of a brushstroke. Through such considerations, I hope my pottery will serve as an invitation to slow down, to drop into the present moment more fully. Crafted by hand in my home studio in Kalamazoo, Michigan, my durable pots can stand up to daily use. Everything is food safe, lead-free, and microwave and dishwasher friendly. In addition to working as a studio potter, I teach ceramics at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and am a freelance writer for Ceramics Monthly.

Studio Description:My 512-square-foot studio is just fifty feet from the home I share with my husband Mark and our dog Zuzu in Kalamazoo, MI. 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 lots of natural light, and when it’s sunny I often don’t need to turn on the lights. Structural insulated panels were used in the construction, and five inches of insulation means less energy is needed to heat and cool with my mini-split. 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, 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. It’s easy to stop out before bed to cover pots or check on the kiln. And during the day, I can take breaks to prepare meals, tend the garden, go for a walk, or play a game of fetch with Zuzu.

What type of clay do you use? red earthenware

What temperature do you fire to? cone 1

What is your primary forming method?
Hand building (slab and coil).

What is your favorite surface treatment?
Brushing on slips colored with mason stains.

Do you make any of your own tools?

What one word would you use to describe your work?

What is your favorite thing about your studio?
The natural light from my solar tubes and many windows.

What is the one thing in your studio you can’t live without?
My collection of brushes.

What are your top three studio wishes?
A shed for more storage a lower table for wedging a slab roller.

What’s on your current reading list?
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.

How do you save money on materials and supplies?
Rather than spending money on commercial underglazes, I make my own colored slips using mason stains. I also reclaim all my scrap clay.

How do you recharge creatively?
Taking long hikes with my dog, Zuzu; watching independent films; reading.

Do you have any DIY tips for studio efficiency?
Have work tables and major equipment like wheels or slab rollers close to each other for efficiency of movement.

What challenges have you given yourself to overcome?
I've recently switched from wheel throwing to hand building due to an injury. It's been quite a challenging process to reimagine how to create certain forms. I'm stretching myself and having lots of failure, but I'm learning a lot through those failures.

What did you first piece look like?
It was a textured slab that was slumped over my knee to create a bowl.

What ceramic superpower would you have and why?
The ability to wedge clay without neck pain (I'm dealing with arthritis in my neck and chronic pain).

What area of skill do you most look to other artists to learn?
I love watching other artists work. I always learn something from each person's unique approach to handling the clay.

Who is your ceramic art mentor and why?
After years of wood firing, a workshop with Victoria Christen in 2011 inspired me to start working with red earthenware clay. I knew instantly that red clay was for me and I’ve never looked back.

What is your studio playlist?
Anything by Rufus Wainwright; podcasts:Tales of a Red Clay Rambler, This American Life, Hidden Brain, Good Friend, Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out.

Why do you create art?
I feel most completely myself when I have my hands in clay. When I'm working in my studio, I'm able to get out of my head and feel free of my anxieties.

Who is your favorite artist and what do you admire about that artist?
Currently, my favorite artist is Sunshine Cobb. I admire her openness and honesty. I love the marks of the hand in her work, and how she's not trying to erase her direct experience with the clay by overworking it.

What is your best studio tip?
If I'm struggling with something or having an off day, I'll return to something basic, like making a pinch pot. This allows me to reconnect with the material in a direct way and can help reset me.

If you could change one property of clay, what would it be?
Being able to keep it at the leather hard stage for longer. Sometimes I get behind in my decorating, and pieces get past the leather hard stage before I've had the chance to decorate. This can lead to problems, like slip flaking off, after the firing.
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