Amy Schusser lets her imagination flow as she carves her clay vessels with spontaneous illustrations
Published in The New Bedford Standard-Times on March 23, 2007
Ceramic artist Amy Schusser of New Bedford is intrigued by the evolving texture of clay. Ms. Schusser, 51, approaches the medium in a number of ways, carving whimsical line drawings into the surface of clay vessels or fashioning intricate miniature clay chairs. But always there is the "mind trip" of starting with a damp, squishy material that hardens into brittle, bone-like forms and can be glazed to a lustrous gloss.
As a child growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., Ms. Schusser pored over her parents' issues of National Geographic magazine, fascinated by the photographs of other cultures. She also dabbled in crafts like crocheting, influenced by her creative mother who made elaborate holiday decorations, greeting cards and cakes. She was 14 when a chance experience foreshadowed her future working process as an artist. She was looking at a piece of wood when she suddenly recognized the details of a landscape within the grain. This vision revealed to her the exact location of the hills, the clouds and the sun. She still works this way, first envisioning faces and figures on the surface of her clay pieces and then drawing or sculpting these images onto the forms.
Studying anthropology and sociology at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt., Ms. Schusser took a pottery class during her freshman year and became hooked on clay. She discovered a new world in the studio, with a congenial group of fellow art students and a chance for creative expression available to her 24 hours a day. She also studied drawing during her senior year, appreciating how the experience broadened her observational skills. After earning her bachelor's degree in anthropology and teaching ceramics at the University of Vermont, Ms. Schusser began a series of moves around the country, each location a progressive step in her development as an artist.
She first moved to California, where she worked as a slide curator at Cabrillo College and studied art history. She also took courses at San Jose State College to develop a portfolio of work in anticipation of entering a master's program. She then attended graduate school at Ohio State University. Here the imagery in her work included wheels, birds and butterflies, based on themes of metamorphosis and transformation. Her master's thesis, completed in 1992, included 5-foot suspended ceramic hoops and wing-like forms that cast dramatic shadows against the wall.
Next Ms. Schusser moved to Maine to work at the Watershed Center for the Arts, where she created large-scale unfired installation pieces that were primarily of clay but also included symbolic objects like candles and slices of bread, arranged in repeating structures. These works were temporary and site-specific, with a focus on creation rather than the finished product. Ms. Schusser enjoyed the fleeting quality of these "statements of impermanence," the sense that they would eventually exist only in memory and photographs. Building the forms and then destroying them, she had the chance to "play with the rawness of what clay does and then say good-bye" to the work.
It was in Maine that Ms. Schusser discovered a subject and format that she would return to for years to come. She was creating a piece that recalled a past relationship; her former boyfriend had been a cellist, and she was impressed with the memory of him practicing alone in a room, empty except for him seated in a chair with his cello. She built a cello of clay, then fashioned a tiny clay chair, about 3 inches high, to be placed in the sound box of the instrument. Her intention was for the sound box to be reminiscent of the bare practice room.
A friend who owned a local gallery visited Ms. Schusser's studio one day and saw the miniature chair sitting alone. Intrigued by the strong impact of such a small form, she suggested that the artist make more of these chairs for sale in her gallery. Ms. Schusser created seven more little chairs, then her studio-mate saw them and bought them all. Thus began an ongoing series of diminutive chairs that have remained popular with art collectors over the years.
It is the scale of the chairs that attracts people, Ms. Schusser says, as well as their distinctive details. Each one has a unique design and combination of colors, including abstract or realistic elements and often incorporating found objects such as beads or trinkets. The artist thinks of the chair form as a "stage" for her "props." In addition to the tiny chairs, she has created a series of 10 life-size clay chairs in the same fanciful style. In 2000, Ms. Schusser moved to New Bedford to accept an artist's residency and to start up the clay program at Artworks! on Dover Street.
Her latest project is a series of large hand-built vessels with colorful vignettes carved along their sides from top to bottom. In these pieces, Ms. Schusser says, the vessel forms are secondary; it is the quirky, brightly colored pictures that are of primary interest to her. These images are drawn spontaneously onto the vessels without planning, and here the artist pours out the details of her daily experiences and nightly dreams.
Like the experience of seeing a landscape in the wood grain when she was a teenager, Ms. Schusser says she sees the images on the clay as she carves them. These include faces, figures and animals — cats, dogs, monkeys, birds and snakes — rendered in glazes of greens, blues and earth tones and outlined in black. In their directness of line and spirit of honesty, the drawings reveal her interest in Outsider art — works by self-taught or folk artists — and her role as a children's art teacher. "These vessels satisfy my love for imagery and my love for drawing," Ms. Schusser says. They involve all of her favorite artistic tools and practices — line, color, drawing, carving, hand-building, story-telling and plumbing the imagination.
Teaching art is central to Ms. Schusser's life. She teaches classes in wheel-throwing, hand-building, tiles, mosaics and masks to adults, teens and children at Artworks! and the South Coast Learning Network in New Bedford and at the New England Craft Program in Williamsburg, Mass. A member of the Massachusetts Cultural Council's Creative Teaching Partners Program, she has developed workshops on the Japanese tea ceremony and on symbolism in Renaissance art. She will be presenting these classes to elementary schools in New Bedford and in Boxboro this spring.
Ms. Schusser's artwork has involved major shifts in scale, from palm-of-your-hand size to 8-feet long and back again, often dictated by the dimensions of the kiln and the size of the studio available to her at various locations. The constant elements in her work have been her love for drawing and her search for new forms. After 30 years on the move, she seems to have found her home among New Bedford's artist community, where she has established a creative niche and earned a reputation as a much-respected teacher.
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