Archive for the Ceramic Sculpture Category

In the Sorceress Workshop

Posted in Ceramic Sculpture with tags , on December 25, 2015 by playthell

In the Wizards Workshop

Marvelous Conjurations in Clay

 Revealing the Secret Beauty Of Clay

A couple of years ago I thought of ceramics as tiles – floors, walls and ceilings – and ceramic artists were the marvelous Italian tile men that did the fabulous works in fine homes and commercial buildings in New York City – of which I had seen many during my forays into the construction industry as a member of the Society of Master Painters, Local 18 District Council 37 of the Brotherhood of Painters, Plasterers and Allied Trades.

Despite my acknowledged skill as a writer I often found myself laboring alongside my Blue Collar brethren after writing something that pissed an editor or publisher off and abruptly caused a parting of the ways.  Since I thought virtually all of them were intellectual lightweights I was usually beating them down whenever fate would have us cross swords – Alas, I regard intellectual polemics as a blood sport and neither ask, nor give, any quarter.

As a result we often came to a parting of the ways and I returned to the construction business, where I got to see the greatest artisans in the world lay tile in fantastic color coded patterns, especially the Italians, who seemed to have passed their techniques down from Roman times.  I thought I had witnessed the best of the achievement of ceramicists….and then I discovered Ceramic Sculpture!  It was a revelation when I first saw the works of Susannah Israel, an internationally renowned ceramic Sculptor and Professor of Sculpture.

I would later learn that she was part of a venerable tradition of mud magicians who could fashion works of fine art from clay.   This was all the more surprising since all of the sculptors that I knew in New York were into bronze and used clay only as a throwaway material employed to create models for the molds that produced the bronze sculptures.  The works of Susannah and her colleague Michelle Gregor first captured my imagination and I composed multi-media photo essays on their works

Under the careful direction of Professor Israel, the Resident Artist Director of the budding Oakland Museum of Ceramics – which was the original vision of her late husband Bill Lassell, who sought to provide a permanent home for the many works of Susannah and her colleaguesI have been carefully documenting these works of art for a forthcoming multi-volume photo essay on the artists and their works.  Since I find the fashioning of fine art from mud a splendid alchemy indeed, this has been a real labor of love.  Here are some selected photographs of Susannah’s work from my forthcoming book “Molding Marvels from Clay.” Some of them will be displayed in a show here in New York this winter; the invitation has been extended to me and accepted.  I will announce the time and place as soon as a firm date has been agreed upon.  This is a Christmas card for art lovers designed to make your spirit dance!


In the Wizard's Workshop III


Poseidon’s Daughter

Posieden's Daughter Edit

A Freshly Fired Beauty…..

Posieden's Daughter II

Still in the Kiln
The Marvel is….

Posieden's Horses rear view

….. Susannah Conjures the horse’s form and spirit from all perspectives

The Royals!

Royals Standing Tall

Standing Head and Shoulders above
Above the Common Lot
Royals Exacting Tribute
Their Nobility…..
Is Reflected….
Royals Presiding over their subjects
In their Regal Bearing
Wisdom and Confidence is Projected
Royals Standing Tall
In their faces and body language
An Enchanted Place where Natural and Supernatural Creatures….

The Soul Patrol III

Commune with one Another
All Manner of Visual Alchemy is Conjured Here
Fire Horse I
Even Multi-Media Marvels
Like Horses flying through Fire Clouds

Fire Horse II

Stuff that Messes wit yo Mind!
Through Imaginative  Multi-Media Minipulations….

Mimo's horde

We can make Clay horses flee New Guinea Ghosts!
Or Fly through Silver Clouds
First Choice
Like Mythic Apparitions
Then Descend to Earth under the Omnipotent Gaze of Ceramic Idols
Descending to Earth
Landing with elegance of movement and figure
Sometimes they fly in the window to escape the storms
Anything can happen in the Sorcerer’s Workshop
They Even Run through Cosmic Fires
And Emerge Magically Unscathed!
Sometimes they just Cavort About
 First choice
 Racing through an enchanted Forest
The Intrepid Art Collector
Posieden's Daughter and Suitor
Will discover many rare treasures 
At the Oakland Museum of Ceramics!
 At the Oakland Museum of Ceramics
A Tent of Aesthetic Miracles!

Edit I

Where endless art treasures are fashioned from clay!
Even the Light is Magical 
Light and Shadows A Place where Light and Shadows play Hide and Seek
 Kristopher Mandell: The Sorceress’ Apprentice

The Sorceror's Apprentice

A budding Ceramic Artist
The Sorceress!

The Wizard V

Sculptor Susannah Israel Chillin in a Contemplative Mood
Or Planning her Next Magic Show

First Choice 

Bill Lassell
Bill Lassell
The Visionary who Conceived the Oakland Museum of Ceramics
PhotographerPlaythell Benjamin
Photographed by Susannah Israel


Playthell George Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Christmas Morning 2015

Conjuring Goddesses and Nymphs

Posted in Ceramic Sculpture, Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on January 5, 2014 by playthell
Exhibition at the John Natsoulas Gallery circa 2013

The Neo-Classic Womanist Art of Michelle Gregor

Not that long ago I thought of clay – in the rare instance when I thought about it at all – as toys to be manipulated and twisted into fantastic shapes by curious children, or as a medium for modeling the work of sculptors for works to be cast in bronze.  This view was fashioned from watching two great New York based artists – Vinnie Bagwell and Gabrielle Koren – who create heroic sculptures in bronze.

However in the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered a community of sculptors for whom clay is the material of choice: ceramic artists.  These sculptors have developed a series of techniques that enable them to produce art objects whose beauty and intricate design place them among the first rank of fine artists.  Professor Michele Gregor is one of the leading lights in this vibrant and growing artistic community.  Mention of her name among colleagues, critics and gifted up-and-comers elicits a torrent of panegyrics.

Her colleague Susannah Israel, herself an outstanding ceramic sculptor and college teacher, wrote of Ms. Gregor’s work in an essay titled Transcendent: Michelle Gregor, David Kuraoka, and Don Reitz – published in Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 88, 2012.       “Michelle Gregor is a neoclassic ceramic sculptor with a contemporary flavor,  inspired by the urban diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and informed by previous travel to Bali and Southeast Asia…(she) distills the best of figurative art traditions world-wide, mixed with contemporary influences, to give us the personal expression of an artist whose first allegiance to beauty.”

The recently mounted exhibit at the Natsoulas Gallery, located in the bucolic University town of Davis, set in the heart of Northern California’s agricultural region, was a praisesong to beauty.   Whether we look at the exquisitely executed forms and finishes of the sculpture, or the pathos, pain, wisdom and gravitas on the faces of Ms. Gregor’s women….. everywhere we witness revelations of beauty manifested in myriad ways.  Her sculptures are full figured voluptuous women that radiate an aura of strength and sensuality, no bulimic babes or anorexic Annies here; Professor Gregor is clearly no slave to au courant notions of feminine beauty.

There is also a generous dose of truth in the emotions with which Professor Gregor has invested her sculptures, for it accurately reflects the predicament of women in the world at the dawning of the 21st century.   Whether we take our cue from the dastardly machinations of the Republican Party’s attacks on the rights of American women – at present one of the freest and most empowered groups of women in the world – or women in the Islamic world, who are the most oppressed, we see the rights of women under attack everywhere.

I advance these views as speculation only.  Alas,  it is a risky business attempting to read the minds of artists, since their sensitivity and imagination often operate on a different frequency from the rest of us.  Yet if the artist offers the  work for public exhibition without instructing us on how we should view it, then we must assume that they intend us to make of their offering what we will.  That is what I have done with Ms. Gregors’ splendid show.

Fascinated by my discovery of what great ceramic artists can do with clay, which is a fancy name for special sand, I have sought to learn how these latter day alchemists turn clay into timeless art treasures. Looking at the delicate colors in the sculptures of Professor Gregor in the photographs below, they remind me of impressionist paintings about classical myths.  The question every thoughtful observer must ponder is: “How is it possible to heat an object to over 2,000 degrees and it not turn out charred?”

The answer to this lies in the fact that great ceramic artists must know something of science, because in ceramics art and science merge.  Professor Israel, who can go seamlessly from discussing techniques for glazing and firing sculptures in a wide variety of kilns, to the chemical uniqueness that distinguishes clay from mere sand, is a classic example of this merger.

In discussing the techniques Ms. Gregor employed in producing the beautiful sculptures in this exhibit,  Israel tells us “Gregor emerged early on as a particularly fine colorist, and her subtle brush work shows the unmistakable evidence of originality and dedicated practice.  Her figures wear colors as subtle and sophisticated as an oil painting, but here, these effects depend upon intensive thermochemical changes occurring within molten glass inside the kiln.  Calculated to a nicety, she layers raw glaze, so delicately positioned that it melts and flows, to create the convincing illusion of a silk garment over skin.”  There are several sculptures in this exhibit that demonstrate this technique.

A splendid Example of Professor Gregor’s Technique
Turning Clay into fine Art

Fortunately, it is not necessary to possess even a small fraction of what Professor Israel knows about ceramics in order to be edified and spiritually elevated from experiencing Ms. Gregor’s art.  Many of these works possess great spiritual power, and the messages they communicate are as universal as the poignant portraits of human character painted by Shakespeare.

The power of Ms. Gregor’s art as womanist propaganda was succinctly explained by Chairman Mao Tse Tung, leader of the largest mass transformative movement in history.  In his famous Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, held in his mountain hideaway during the heat of a revolutionary war, Chairman Mao observed: “All art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art….in order for art to succeed as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”  Hence Professor Gregor’s power as a propagandist for universal humanist values lies in her spectacular success at producing great art.


Pictures From the Exhibition









Nineth Choice






































































DSC04536 (2)
















DSC04594 (2)




Edit - (2)


Pinkface (2)


I Loooves Michelle!

DSC04665 (2)

Cried John Natsoulas, Gallery Director

A Deep Communion


Between Art and Artist

Professor Israel Droppin Science!


Offering an impromptu disquisition on the elements of great Art


Professor Gregor
Michel the Artist
Hangin with her Peeps

Note: I first met Michelle Gregor – Professor of Art and head of the Ceramics Program at San Jose City College – in September while she was working on this exhibition and I found her to be very well informed on the major issues that converge to shape the human condition in our time.  She was not only knowledgeable but committed to adding her voice to those calling for the elevation of humankind.  Hence it comes as no surprise to me that her work mirrors this concern; not as mere agitprop but as fine art achieved on the highest level.  Thus she is a paragon of what the French call the “Engaged Artist.”

For a demonstration of how ceramic artist work their magic…
…double click to see master potter David Mcdonald
 See Professors Gregor and Israel conduct a workshop 
Double click on link above
Text and Photos by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
San Francisco, California
January 2014

Molding Marvels from Clay

Posted in Ceramic Sculpture, Cultural Matters with tags , on October 11, 2013 by playthell


Fascinating Figures from the Fantastic Imagination of a Visual Alchemist


On The Transreal Art of Susannah Israel

There are many hidden treasures in the hills and valleys of Northern California; gold being the least among them when compared to the impressive colony of  artists that live and work there.  And the tradition of ceramic art in the region  represents a unique cultural treasure –  you can see it exhibited even in the facades of buildings – and spawned a  tribe of modern alchemists who turn sand into great art.  

The medieval Moors that ruled Spain were said to possess an alchemy that could magically turn sand into gold….but this proved a myth when confronted by modern science.  Great ceramic artists turn sand into priceless treasures for real; and once created, like fine diamonds,  they will grow more valuable with time.  One of the brightest stars in this artistic galaxy that illuminates the East Bay art world is Susannah Israel: Sculptor, Teacher and insightful Critic.

In a world where art schools and universities turn out “well-trained” artists in a never ending stream – people who have been tutored in the history and techniques of their chosen field – the search for an original style is endless.  And in the modern era this has more often than not led to gimmickry, farce and sometimes tragedy; far less to success.  Ms. Israel is one of the rare artists who have achieved an original style that is as distinct as the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet, which is unmistakable to even to the casual jazz fan.

Ms. Israel’s work reminds us that there really is a sharp distinction between innovation and what I have called elsewhere “a mindless search for novelty.”  Just as she demonstrates that personal style is the result of mastery in art.  Alas, while to the untutored ear all of Miles Davis’s records sound alike, Ms. Israel’s art is said to lookalike by commentators with untutored eyes: the novice, philistine and pretentious dilettante.

In such instances the observer appears to be mesmerized by the distinctiveness of the artist’s style, much as Immanuel  Kant was mesmerized by the church steeple outside his window, as they ponder the meaning of the work. I have always felt that people who think all of Miles’ music sounds alike were either tone deaf or tasteless, and I get the feeling that those opinionated wags who say Susannah’s art all looks alike are in need of a seeing eye dog, who would probably exhibit better taste and judgment.  With Miles it is the pervasive use of the mute in one of his most prolific and musically profound periods that leads the careless listener to conclude that all of his music sounds the same.

Yet the careful listener can easily hear the vast difference between Miles’s languid legato phrasing in “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” compared to the rapid fire staccato statements on up tempo tunes, although he is using the mute in both performances.  Likewise, the careful viewer can easily see the dramatic differences in the work of Professor Israel.  Like Miles’s Mute, it is the otherworldly character of her figures that stands out in the minds of most people.

While this is a signature element of her style, the variety of ways in which it is expressed is dizzying.   Susannah has produced over 5000 works of sculpture – which have brought her honors and accolades and are exhibited in museums around the world – and from what I have seen of it every piece is unique.  They express the full range of human emotion – pathos, bathos, mirth, mystery and more – a truly remarkable achievement.

This can be clearly seen in the photos of her work below.  Artist who achieve an original style often arrive there by different routes.  For Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, two of the greatest innovators of 20th century music, it was the need to free themselves from the musical conventions established by the great virtuosos that preceded them on their instruments – such as Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter on alto-saxophones, and  Roy Eldridge  and  Dizzy Gillespie on trumpets – and find their own voice.

Susannah, however, although no less intent on freeing herself from  the influence of her mentors, nevertheless arrived at her style by virtue of philosophical considerations anchored in her personal history.  Part Chinese, part Spanish Sephardic Jew, and Part Irish, she has never fit into the neatly defined racial and ethnic categories that have shaped race relations in America.

Her father, Dr. Calvin Israel, a Spanish Jew that grew up in Jazz Age Harlem and cut this teeth in Greenwich Village with the “Beats,” was first a radical labor organizer then metamorphosed into a professor of Literature and a Beckett scholar.  Her mother – Bonnie Burbank– was a history teacher and a painter.  It is no wonder that Susannah is such a lover of books and avid reader that she  is a throwback to the likes of Robert Penn Warren, a two time Pulitzer Prize winning writer, banishing television in favor of books.

All that reading made for an inquisitive mind and a free thinker.  Thus it is also not surprising that she would question social conventions and even taboos about race, gender and sexual orientation.  Living in San Francisco – with its open minded cosmopolitan ambiance – facilitated her unconventional take on social reality.  It is reflected in the family she formed; a Afro-American father, a multi-racial mother, a white daughter and a bi-racial daughter who is Black like Barack.   Ironically this was the “all-American family” even as most white Americans continue insist it’s still Ozzie and Harriet.

As a result of her experience with race and ethnicity, and the fact that many of her closest friends and colleagues are gay or lesbian, added to some misguided attempts to classify her art by gender, Professor Israel decided to make a statement in her art about arbitrary and dangerous distinctions between human beings, and thus she makes her figures unrecognizable based on gender or race. Hence the otherworldly characters that populates her oeuvre, which many would describe as surreal.

My decision to label her work  “Transreal” is no mere play on words; it is meant as a mark of distinction.  Although Surrealism was revolutionary in its time, when Salvador Dali was all the rage early in the last century, the aesthetic philosophy that guides Professor Israel’s work is of her own invention.  What Susannah shares in common with surrealists  is her unwillingness to be bound by the limitations of “reality” imposed on “representational” art and surrender to the dictates of her imagination.  She tells us:

“My approach to my materials is a combination of well-practiced skill and reckless disregard for established convention. I willingly sacrifice lifelike anatomy to questions of composition and gesture. I use both high and low-fire clays. A confirmed alchemist, I am always testing new formulas. I use nontraditional materials with clay – paint, metal, found objects, – when they serve the work best. I tell my students  ‘Use all your options,’ and I actually do take my own advice.” 

This is the source of her unique style, and her works  only “look alike” to the untutored or prejudiced eye.  Many people  who insist that all of Ms. Israel’s work looks alike know nothing of serious art, they are  pompous ignorami, given to muttering muddled manure masquerading as learned opinion.  But let me hasten to add that professional critics who have ventured an opinion on Professor Israel’s sculptures have been kind, if not reverential.

Professor Michelle Gregor, an outstanding ceramic sculptor in her own right, has called Ms. Israel “A ceramic sorceress.”  This salutary assessment of Susannah’s work was echoed  in a statement from the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Arts, who called her “one of the most fascinating artists working in the field today.’  Yet Susannah points out that despite her good fortune in winning critical acclaim, the commercial market place has been indifferent, if not hostile, to her work and the field of ceramic art in general.

Fortunately the art merchant’s opinions shall have but little moment, because great art will find an audience and a market long after the memory of these snide and ignorant philistines, who genuflect before Mammon while sacrificing truth and beauty upon the altar of commerce,  have faded from the scene.  In fact they shall be remembered in history as the art world’s equivalent of the television executives who turned down Bill Cosby’s  “Huxtables”.  Which,  soon after it was aired, became the most popular television show in the world!

Susannah’s treasures in clay will last as long as the rock of Gibraltar if the curators do their jobs.  Yet despite her great originality she is working with materials provided by mother earth that some conservative critics say is not the stuff from which great art is created – for them clay is for modeling bronze sculptures.  And the difference between the two in their considered opinion represent the distinction between “art” and “crafts.”

Yet one has only to study the remarkable sculptures Susannah molds from clay to see that,  despite their attempts to sway the conversation through intimidation by pretensions  to expertise, they are clueless.  And while I claim no specialized knowledge of the art and science of ceramics, I recognize intelligence and beauty wherever I see it; whether in music, painting, literature, sport or an intellectual treatise.  And I see  generous doses of beauty, intelligence and inventiveness in the sculpture of this gifted artist.

As I carefully studied the uniqueness of her work, I was astonished at the subtle ways she manages to give each of her statues a distinct  facial expression that seem to mirror spiritual qualities.  Sometimes it seems that she just gives the clay a slight twist to produce a remarkably different attitude, bequeathing each figure a unique personality.

This heightened facility for subtly and nuance is the mark of an artist equipped with uncommon gifts, and defines virtuosity among molders of clay.  Those critics who refuse to recognize the achievements of the best ceramic sculptors as fine art should be placed in the same category as those pompous churchmen who believed Johann Sebastian Bach was ruining the music of the high church.

The representations of Susannah Israel’s  work in this photo-essay, though only a peek into the  vast oeuvre of this prolific sculptor, speaks far more eloquently to her gifts than any words a poet, much less a critic,  could conjure.

Each Statue Expresses a Distinct Persona

Even the casual observer can see it
Majestic in their Silent Repose
The Evidence of a Rich, Fecund Imagination
The Myriad Postures of Repose
To Each its Own


Chillin in tha Cut
 Sometimes They Appear…

 ….To be in conversation

They even Gesture for Emphasis…

…..Like Real People!


 As if they were alive
Edit - copy
How animated they are!
Soul in a Restful Place
 Terra Cotta Beauties
 Susanna's Terra cotta -Edit
Reach out to the Visitor


 Everywhere They Sit….
 ………Like otherworldly beings bearing silent witness to human folly
They Seem to gaze at Us…..


…….As if we are on display
Sometimes they even seem vain
Checking out their finely wrought forms in the mirror


 They hang out in Cliques


 In A Temple to Art    


 And Other Times………

……..They seem to be just hangin out
 With Godlike Aura’s


 They Fix their gaze down Upon Us
      Dissatisfaction with the Foibles of Mortals
Seem Etched on Their Faces
 Their Faces are life like Masks…
On which the entire range of human emotions are revealed
Some Masks….
….Look as if they might speak
Some Got Attitude


Like they don’t give a fig….”Whatever!”
And others……..
Look as if they speak to Each Other Every Night

And Boogie Down…..

 In the Dark!
 Other’s Prefer Ballet
Daring Duets at Dawn… It’s a Splendid Alchemy
 And Some Prefer Solo’s


 Dance!  Ballerina Dance!

 Some Regal Figures Look Like they are…..


Watching Each Other’s Back

 Paragons of the Contemplative Life….

A Visual Paean to the Life of the Mind


They Stare into Some Distant Horizon

Staring into the future 
 Which only They Can See
Fantastic Creatures Seem to Dwell Everwhere
Like Magical Astral Travelers


 They Cavort on Desktops

As if they were in a Playground
 Prometheus Tames the Eagle
Susannah Twists the Myth

 Mixing Myths and Metaphors: A Modern Medusa…….

………Or a highly stylized Lone Ranger with Tonto Rising?

Sometimes they lurk in the Dark

Like Frozen Shadows

 Many of these Fantastic Creatures began as Drawings


This is how Susannah Conceptualizes her Sculpture
 They Now Paper the Walls
In that Temple to Art that she calls Home
Through Susannah’s special alchemy these drawings……
………are transformed into Marvelous Sculptures
A Hundred Years Shall Pass
And the Glow of their Majesty will Flare even Brighter!
Professor Susannah Israel!
 The Innovative Artist that Created these Treasures….
Demonstrating the Magic of her Potter’s Wheel


 The Artist Amid her Creations

Edit - selcted for essay

A Spiritual Communion with Clay


 Professor Israel is also a distinguished Writer /Teacher/Critic
Susannah III
The Statuesque East Bay Bohemian Amazon /Artist/Intellectual in her study


As Resident Director of the Oakland Mueseum of Ceramics….
The Fecund Sorceress Meditates…over he next Creation
Double Click to hear Miles Davis:”Someday My Prince Will Come.”



 Text and Photos By: Playthell G. Benjamin
October 12, 2013