Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
Although Susan Bleckner Heller studied fine art at The School for Visual Arts, she is wholly self-taught as a ceramicist and initially came to it through collecting. Perhaps because she grew up in an artistic family—her brother is Ross Bleckner and both her mother and her uncle were talented artists—when she started taking classes at Clayworks on Columbia she was confident enough to dispense with working on the wheel because she found it boring and “achey”. Instead she focused on what interested her, which was working with slabs and hand-building.
Her work is full of organic forms in unglazed stoneware that are reminiscent of seedpods, gourds, moonscapes and lava flow deposits. “When process, material and instinct come together, things begin to happen almost magically,” she says. With a “what’s there to lose?” attitude, she found a gallery, Cocobolo, to represent her although she admits she isn’t that good at self-promotion. “I think I would still go into the studio every day even if I never sold another piece at all.”
What we always ask people who make art, is why they were drawn to their particular medium, so can you tell us why you were drawn to ceramics as opposed to something else?
Okay. I started collecting ceramics many, many years ago when I was nesting. Now I’m like wanting to get rid of everything! And then I actually taught for twelve years – pre-school, while my daughter was in school.
How did you get into teaching?
That’s a good question! [laughs] Let’s see … we opened a day care center, a bunch of women, before they even had to be state-certified, so we could have a free day here and there. Then St. Ann’s started this pre-school and I went and I interviewed and she liked me and she hired me. You didn’t need to have a degree to be an assistant teacher.
Did you do lots of artwork with the kids?
It was mostly doing artwork. I never even wanted to be the main teacher. It was too big of a responsibility. I just wanted to go home and be a mom. I actually loved being a mother, I did.
Lucky you! Not everyone likes it. Did you and your brother [the artist, Ross Bleckner] grow up doing a lot of art together?
Always art. My mother painted and her brother was actually a very good artist. I really should have kept some of his paintings. You think, “It’s in the genes.” And then when I was sixteen I commuted on Saturdays to go to Art Students League—I was like a Beatnik, you know, the black tights … I loved going to the Village, I actually met oh God, who’s that writer, he had a beard?
Yes! Alan Ginsberg! They tried to pick up young girls.
I think he was gay.
What did they care? They still tried to pick you up! Who even knew about gay men!
Now your work is very abstract—how did you get to that? When you were mentioning the ceramics you collected, they were quite traditional.
I started out doing vessels and throwing on the wheel but it was too boring. I didn’t want to master it. It made you achey. I started doing work with slabs and hand building and I loved that. I didn’t like the wheel because I’m a leftie—actually I’m ambidextrous—but I would have to throw one way and then turn the wheel the other way to lift it.
But for someone coming from a background of pre-school teaching and a long- ago art degree, you have a very confident vision, the work is very confident. Did you surprise yourself with that? You didn’t start out making coffee mugs.
Well … I’m still surprised. I don’t know how I do it. I’m totally self-educated. [laughs as if still surprised at herself]
Some of it is like a lunarscape. Have you been to Cappadocia in Turkey? It looks like this, only on a huge scale.
Ooh, I love that. I have to write that down.
And you knew straightaway that you didn’t want to glaze it? Most people love the idea of glazes.
I did glaze a few things, but yeah, I wanted to keep the natural surface. I wanted to keep it looking close to looking like stone.
You could make the stuff but then how about the next step, when you had to grapple with the process of promoting it—how was that for you?
That—I figured, well, I’d love a gallery so I tried to get a gallery.
Do you think if hadn’t had a brother in that world, you would have been as confident?
I think I would have because that’s what people were doing in my studio and I just said, what the hell? It can’t hurt. And if they turned me down, it didn’t really bother me. I figured that more would turn me down than would be interested.
How did you feel when you sold your first piece?
I loved it! Then you get addicted! Hah hah!! That’s [also] how you start doing these competitions. Actually I think Ross told me that. Do the competitions, that’s how you build up a resume. I had nothing. I bought Ceramics Monthly magazine and they have all these competitions. I don’t do it now. I hate doing it now, you know, picking the picture and writing about the work and so on. I’m not that good at the promoting.
Do you think ceramic art inevitably gets shunted into the decorative arts category?
It did for a long time but now it’s definitely crossed over.
Why has it now been recognized as art, do you think?
Because a lot of artists who already painted maybe, or who had names, have gone into it. You know it’s funny because ceramics, like anything else goes through certain periods and styles and for a while it was all this figurative stuff and I really didn’t want to do that and now I’m seeing all this wild, crazy color [stuff], blobby and textural.
Yes, it allows for a huge range because you have the extreme minimalist Japanese type of work through to what you’re describing, and perhaps people don’t appreciate that range.
Yes! And it’s exhausting to do too! I’m getting much looser now, I’m experimenting more, basically because I got bored. I needed to see color. I’m very into surface—I feel like it’s my thing. It’s like painting on clay. I feel like everything I do is I add [then] I take away, like even in my home, like when I was nesting, I added all this stuff but now I’m taking away.
Why are you doing that?
Because the less I have the better. You have to think of the long term. Where is this stuff going to end up? And I can’t stop thinking of that. I’m obsessed.
Is the problem with making ceramics, kind of overproduction?
Well I think the problem with [making] any art is that, unless you sell everything you make—it ends up being just stuff—I shouldn’t say this! [laughs] … unless you’re a famous artist!
What would your brother say to that? Presumably his work isn’t “stuff”?
No! But he jokes about that.
What do you think of these celebrity potters, the ones who manage to eventually make it into the public eye like Edmund de Waal and Grayson Perry?
I don’t know Grayson Perry but Edmund de Waal … he did all those cups. Well, anyone can do an installation. You just put a whole lot of stuff together. In fact Ross [Bleckner, her brother] was here and he said, “Why don’t you put a whole lot of those pieces together and do an installation?” He said that!