Mayco: Susanna, I love your work. I am intrigued by your background in science and how it relates to your current work. Can you elaborate?
SMBG: I was raised in a household with two neuroscientists where the Molecular Biology of the Cell was referred to as the “Bible.” I have always had a passion for science, especially biology, and studied neuroscience at Vassar along with psychology and art.
I went on to teach biology in middle school and high school. I also taught art and found a lot of fun projects integrating the two. For example I had my students assemble a wall size 3-D illustration of the life cycle of locusts.
You say on your website that you use other art media. Which ones?
I started my first ceramics classes as a child, but also learned various crafts from my mother such as stained glass, cross stitch, needlepoint and some quilting. I studied charcoal drawing and oil painting in college, have dabbled in jewelry-making and photography, and generally have always loved trying new media.
But you consider clay as your primary medium – why?
SMBG: Somehow there seems to be much more freedom of expression in clay, and I have found myself being excited about the uncertainties and experimentation that occurs when the kiln has the final say in how the pieces turn out.
It feels like there are fewer rules, starting with just clay and glazes, or raw chemical ingredients, rather than a canvas and store bought paints, for example. Clay really puts the whole creative process in my own hands in a three dimensional format.
As I look at your current work, the images suggest a deep connection to nature. What do you use for reference? Do you take photographs?
I do take photographs, sometimes cutting out images and making something of a collage in planning the tiles. I also love collecting and looking through vintage scientific (botanical, entymologica) texts with illustrations of wildlife to help me learn about different species and their anatomy.
If I become fascinated with a certain bug or species of fish, sometimes I can get lost tracking it down with Google images as well to generate a composite feeling for the life dyamics of individual plants and animals. It’s also fun to scroll through different artist renderings of the species, such a wealth of images at your fingertips.
You have experienced a steady demand for your pieces lately. Why do you feel that people identify with these types of images? Could it have something to do with our high-tech society and our need to get back in touch with nature?
I hope the idea of a society so high-tech that it is removed from all contact with nature will remain relegated to sci-fi movies, but I definitely see your point. Maybe we are already so far down that road that instead of going camping or lying in the grass watching an insect walk across your book, we would prefer to have a lovely tile on the wall, free of creepy crawly segments, while we peruse the web and catch up on email in the AC.
If any of my images remind people of the beauty of nature and inspire them to get out into it, and look more closely at its intricacy, I’ll be happy.
You use a few Mayco glazes in your work. Any special firing methods or favorite glazes?
SMBG: For the most part I have been using low-fire glazes, drawing designs onto tiles and painting with the glazes. I love that the color of Mayco glazes are so close to their finished, fired color, which makes it easier to visualize the final project. I also have a lot of fun mixing glazes to create an almost infinite palette. I have really been enjoying experimenting with the Stroke & Coat Accents as an alternative to the traditional technique of using cuerda seca as a glaze separator, which needs to be mixed with turpentine and is somewhat of a mess.
I know potters can become attached to their kilns but you say you have a “huge, unique kiln?”
My mentor found a listing for an old vintage Unique kiln from the 1960’s (the company has since been bought by HED). The kiln is a large (20’x 20′) front-loader, not as popular/common in the U.S. but considered the “Cadillac of kilns” in European art schools – and my mentor!
I rented a pick-up truck, drove to Augusta, Kentucky in a scenic journey to pick up my first big (600 lb) kiln that will last the rest of my life, very likely. Getting it functional actually included buying a small studio for my yard, since the kiln would not fit in my house! After wiring the studio with electricity, getting the monster in it, rewiring, replacing the elements, etc., it is now fully functional! I used it to complete a 7′ by 5′ mosaic mural of an octopus that will be installed in a client’s bathroom.
Finally, where do you see your work heading in the future?
Right now I am learning some techniques with a clay which can be made into thinner tiles so that I can do larger mural pieces which won’t be too heavy to hang. I am also interested in doing work in public spaces, with the population of inner city kids that I currently counsel, so am looking into grant opportunities for that at the moment. Part of the excitement of this career is the new ideas that pop up around every corner and with every new project so I can’t wait to see what’s next.