Native Arts | Turning to Clay

Clay pots. southwest art.

By Dottie Indyke

Early in her life, Susan Folwell gave her mother a stern warning. “You will never, ever, never get me to make pottery,” she said. To the daughter of renowned Pueblo potter Jody Folwell, ceramic art seemed no more glamorous than washing dishes or taking out trash. “When you grow up finding clay, mixing clay, and picking up cow patties for firing, it’s just a chore,” Susan Folwell says today.

Her refusal to have anything to do with pottery continued until six or seven years ago, when Folwell was a budding photographer working at a camera store in Kansas City, MO, desperately trying to make ends meet. Her finances got so tight that she quit her job, capitulated, and called her mother to arrange to have some clay sent to her.

Asking for clay was one thing, but actually making pots was a bit trickier. Though she’d grown up watching the process, it took Folwell some time to master the craft. Meanwhile, she moved back to her native Santa Clara Pueblo and later to the small northern New Mexico village of El Rito, where she experimented with pottery until she felt ready to enter her work in Santa Fe’s Indian Market. From there, her career was off and running.

Like many of her peers, the 30-year-old Folwell favors a combination of contemporary imagery and traditional craftsmanship. At the 2000 Indian Market, she received the Best of Nontraditional Pottery award for her Harry Potter pot, a vase with painted imagery of some of the lesser-known characters from the popular books for young people. The pot was fired outside her Tucson home in a trash can with charcoal briquettes and sawdust.

“I was having difficulty with pots breaking during firing when I first moved to Tucson,” she recalls. “A man I spoke to suggested that if I wanted a slow burn, with less chance of breakage, I should use this method. Santa Clara firings generally take 30 to 45 minutes. This technique takes up to 24 hours.”

Folwell’s pots often contain light-hearted social commentary, such as a piece that depicts two black dogs named Bill and Monica chasing each other around the pot. Other works are inspired by her surroundings, like a vessel sparked by her time in El Rito when dragonflies would zip into her studio and zoom around her. The resulting pot, adorned with airplanes and “kamikaze” dragonflies, took first place at Indian Market three years ago.

Some of Folwell’s animal subjects are her interpretations of indigenous Northwest Coast imagery, which she first saw as a 20-year-old spending the summer outside Fairbanks, AK. “I picked up a fascination for the imagery on the totem poles,” she says. “I do the animals in abstract form and combine that with Pueblo imagery from Santa Clara, Zuni, and Hopi.”

Buffalo are also a Folwell favorite: deep-carved buffalo in relief encircled by miniature x’s on polished red pots fired with the trash can method. These, the artist says, are “about as close to traditional as I’m ever going to get.”

Folwell is steeped in years of fine-art training, first as a high school student building a portfolio at California’s Idyllwild School and later studying on scholarship at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI. Originally set on becoming a painter, in high school she switched to photography, enamored with the ability to let the world see what the artist sees.

Making the shift from painting and photography to pottery has proved challenging. “I still struggle with applying two-dimensional imagery onto a three-dimensional thing,” she says. “But when you’re too content with yourself as an artist you get lazy and things become stagnant.

As for the impact of her mother’s career on her own, Folwell says, “My mother’s reputation was certainly relevant to my work. That’s why people bothered to look at my work in the first place. But I really try hard not to play on that. In the end, you have to prove yourself.”

Once a naughty young girl sent to Catholic school to learn to behave, this child of Anglo and Native American parents who never felt she belonged in either world is finally carving out a place for herself in the annals of contemporary pottery.

“Pottery keeps me grounded in who I am,” she says. “I have a tendency to move around a lot, but as long as I do pottery I always know who I am and where I belong. There’s comfort in that.”

Susan Folwell’s work can be seen at Robert Nichols Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Blue Rain Gallery, Taos, NM; King Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ; and Adobe East Gallery, Delray Beach, FL.

Featured in March 2001