Cream & Sugar
Butter Dish 1
Cruet Set 2
Butter Dish 2
Flower Brick 1
Flower Brick 2
Gravy Boat 1
Gravy Boat 2
Pair of Pitchers
Salt and Pepper 1
Tea Pot 1
A Conversation with Susan O'Brien
By Mary Ellen
The lottery changed Susan O’Brien’s life. She never won zillions of dollars, but the question of what she would do if she won such a prize prompted her to pursue ceramics.
“I asked myself what would I do if I won the lottery, and I said make pots,” O’Brien said. “So I said, well I’m not going to win, so I’ll make pots anyway.”
With that, O’Brien began pursuing ceramics professionally in the early 1990s.O’Brien had graduated from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga with a B.F.A. in sculpture and a B.S. in psychology in 1986. She had moved to Colorado and had held various jobs, including working for an airline, working in a cabinet shop, and making and selling her own jewelry.
In 1992 when the ceramics bug bit, she turned to the University of Colorado in Boulder where she studied ceramics as a postgraduate student. There she met Walter Ostrom, an instructor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Canada, who was visiting the university, and in 1994 she headed to Canada to study under him through an exchange program.
Ostrom helped her get into the graduate program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where O’Brien earned her M.F.A. in ceramics in 1998, under the tutelage of professors Kate Blacklock and Bobby Silverman.
O’Brien worked as an instructor and teaching assistant in the ceramics program at Louisiana State while she was a student. After graduation in 1998, she became a visiting assistant professor of ceramics at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
Then in 1999 she arrived at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, where she serves as assistant professor of ceramics. O’Brien enjoys teaching and watching her students learn to create with clay. “I enjoy beginning ceramics because people come to the medium without any expectations,” she said. “Some of the stuff they come up with is wonderful.” And while her students learn from her, she learns from them. “It’s really subtle, sometimes a different way to do a lid or something like that. They might come up with something unique,” she said.
Fabergé eggs, 18th-century silver, Turkish ceramics, a lidded Sevres urn called Mrs. Mooney that lived in her grandmother’s dining room—such decorative objects have been a major influence on Susan O’Brien and her ceramic work. O’Brien is influenced strongly by items she grew up with, like Mrs. Mooney, and other such decorative objects. “I’m Irish, European by descent. I find I look at European ceramics, accessories, architecture,” she said.
She looks for source materials in places like antique shops, including Joe Ley Antiques in Louisville, which can be full of inspiration. “I could spend days in there. I’ll see a finial on a fireplace and use it on a teapot, or I’ll see a border on something and see how I can mimic that,” she said.
Objects from bygone eras display a certain quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail that has been lost to a large degree with today’s focus on mass-production, O’Brien said. “The craftsmanship and the time spent on ornamentation and decoration of everyday objects, that’s kind of gotten lost with the streamlined, stamp-it-out stuff made today,” she said.
To make a piece, O’Brien often starts on a potter’s wheel, but only uses the wheel to create a basic shape. Then she alters the piece by cutting into it, inlaying textured panels and doing whatever else she needs to create the desired effect.
She uses things like an antique crepe iron or lace to create intriguing textures. For instance, using lace can produce a texture that looks more like lizard-skin. “It’s an unorthodox texture that some people might think is creepy and grotesque,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien likes to use such details that others might consider unconventional for dining room items. “Part of me is being this bad girl in the dining room, making unlikely unorthodox pieces that belong in the dining room” she said.
She creates lids, spouts, handles and finials entirely by hand. Details such as snakes, common on turn-of-the-century silver, and pineapples, a traditional symbol of good luck, often appear in O’Brien’s work. For example, the pineapple theme inspired O’Brien to use a garlic clove finial design in some pieces.
After the design is complete, O’Brien bisque fires the piece. Bisque firing is a preliminary firing that hardens the clay so it will not turn back into mud when glazes are applied.
Glazing is a painstaking process that requires much testing and many steps. O’Brien continually experiments with glazes and combinations of glazes on test tiles or tumblers, small bits of clay that are glazed and fired to give an idea of how a glaze would look on a completed piece.
When she glazes an actual piece, she often dips the piece in one color, then creates a design on the piece with hot wax. Then she dips the piece in a second glaze, which adheres to the piece except in the areas covered by wax. The wax burns off during firing, revealing the color of the first glaze in those areas.
Then O’Brien might do additional lower-temperature firings called luster firings, which allow her to add details in silver, orange, black and other metallic finishes. “Some give a metallic sort of sheen, where you can see through to the next glaze, and some are just like gold,” O’Brien said.
“I have a vivid memory of my grandmother sitting at the dining room table with Mrs. Mooney, a lidded Serves urn, looming over her shoulder. As a child our family would visit my grandparents at least once a year. Most of the activity of the group centered around the table, upholding Irish traditions. Though delicate, Mrs. Mooney held a commanding vigil over the dining room with an iron fist. Grandmother adored her. I remember the frequent threats reminding me to take my rambunctious self outside lest I hurt Mrs. Mooney, an offense surely punished by death. My grandmother’s pride and joy stood a mere two and one-half feet tall. Prominently seated on the dining room hutch, her porcelain body was covered with china paint and gold luster. She was the first decorative vessel to earn my respect. I never fully understood her importance until I began to make objects for the table."