The creations of award-winning California clay artist Susannah Israel. by Deanna Selene. Editor, Combustus Magazine
"Susannah Israel's sculptures reflect a deep understanding of our collective past." full transcript below
Looking at Susannah Israel’s sculptures, one becomes flush with curiosity, as if stumbling upon an anthropological dig from a civilization that exists only in the artistic and spiritual mind. Or does it? Are these characters inviting us to reconnect with our collective human histories? A spirituality that crosses all cultural and political divides?
ISRAEL: “My work has its source in the fluid nature of experience and the transience of personal history and memory. These gathered images come together like the many variations found in stories of shared experiences.”
She has lost many people close to her, to cancer, AIDS, and other terminal illnesses
ISRAEL: “A particular resonance comes from the voices of the beloved dead, who shared these memories with me. Hence, though my work is largely elegiac, it also celebrates and honors the living community.”
The California artist’s medium of choice is terracotta (literally, ‘baked earth’), common to cultures from Japan to Italy to Mexico to China and beyond. Says Israel, “Their distinctive qualities have certainly influenced me while working with the material; my visual library is a compendium of historic images, across time and around the world.” Specifically, the Haniwa figures of Japan, from whom she borrows their distinctive way of sculpting eyes: “rendered by cutting out the shape of the eye to give the illusion of depth to the gaze.” Israel also found inspiration from the Xian terracotta tomb figures of China, who “depicted the people of the time in such lovingly crafted detail.”
The faces of her people echo the “attenuated length to the facial features” of figures created by the Olmec, the first major civilization of Mexico. Israel says that her lifesize terracotta sculpture series titled “Figurative Language, 2007-2008 is “challenging our assumptions of gender, ethnicity and culture.” And finally, the artist has studied the formulation, application and firing of Italian majolica extensively, finding the majolica surface to be “beautifully suited to the warm red of terracotta.” With such a rich palette to draw from, it’s no wonder Israel is the only artist from the USA ever to win the Fletcher Challenge Premier Award.
Do you see herself as a sculptor or a clay artist? And does the distinction even matter?
ISRAEL: There is a definite distinction” a clay artist is focused exclusively on ceramic media. I was ‘raised in clay’ on the potter’s wheel, a practice I still greatly enjoy, and I do teach wheel-throwing once a year. I studied with master throwers: Byron Temple at Pratt Art Institute, and David Kuraoka at SF State University. My sculpting process might be described as slow-motion throwing, where I construct my pieces from large coils, rotating around the piece as I build. The alchemy of glazing, from designing the formula to application and kiln firing, are ceramic art practices requiring years of dedicated practice. So clay is my foundation. However I agree with Rene Di Rosa that what is important is “not what it’s made out of, but what it’s made into.”
Is there a story being told with your pieces? A narrative you wishe to convey? Or are these creations left deliberately open-ended?
ISRAEL: Every piece has a story. But what continually fascinates me is the way an intensely personal piece will be claimed by the audience as their own story, even when the details informing the work are quite unique to me. So I have, gladly, abandoned any idea that I need to make the work more general for it to communicate broadly.
ISRAEL: I grew up reading animal stories. Wind in the Willows, White Fang, and Andre Norton’s sci-fi, telepathic, post-apocalyptic beasts combined with the good luck of a city child exposed each summer to the fields, woods and barnyards of the east coast, from Maine to Pennsylvania. I had pet fish, mice, an opossum, cats, a chicken, dogs and birds, and I spent many an enchanted moment watching the wild animals as well.
Such a childhood left Israel’s imagination “free to roam.”
ISRAEL: I invented an ongoing, poly-themed, multicultural adventure narrative to all my relationships with animals, and it makes sense that would translate to the sculpture. Certainly we are all here together on this planet for the same ride.
One wonders if the artist is creating her own unique spirituality: A new people formed of the past but with an eye to what might be possible for us in the future.
ISRAEL: I was raised by a painter and a writer from sharply different cultures, and one of the compromises they sought, in spiritual matters, was fellowship in the Society of Friends, or Quakers. So from an early age, I was taught universal tolerance, global pacifism, and fair sharing of resources. Probably the most powerful message was recognition of the divine spark in everyone, everywhere. I also benefited from the unusual practice, from six years old on, of sitting in silent group meditation for an hour each week, which developed my thinking and imagination through freedom from distraction.”
So what was it specifically about the medium of clay that you connected with as an artist? Was it the sensual aspect, that tactile relationship between hands, fingers and clay?
ISRAEL: Clay is a remarkable material, requiring attention to its forming qualities through a series of stages that are akin to working with bread dough, leather, plaster, wood and glass. There is always more to learn throughout the lifetime of the artist; Peter Voulkos once described his entire working life as ‘the courting of the accidental.’ The tactile aspect and the immediate freshness of the clay are irresistible, and the process is a metaphor for human endeavor. There is an inherent paradox when working with so responsive a material as clay. Traces of touch – fingerprints, knuckle marks – are formed, moment by moment, with relentless fidelity. Such intimate contact of hand and clay remains far beyond the process, beyond even the life of the artist; it is a permanent record of impermanence.
Susannah Israel at Contra Costa College
by Lauren Shiriash
"Susannah Israel’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” is vibrantly hot-hued, textured, with saturated color spilling from the figure’s body onto a primitive piano keyboard."
Levin, Elaine, The Art of Making Art, "Vision," AJU, V. 9 Winter 2010, pp 7-9