Archive for Susannah Israel

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

It’s Yo Birthday Susannah!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on March 30, 2014 by playthell


Holla! Hue Yang and daughter Quinlee

 Susannah Makes Sixty and the Eulypians Rejoiced

 She was like the Chief Sorceress in the gathering of poets, painters, thespians, musicians, singers and other makers of that splendid alchemy called art.  As she strolled among the adoring crowd of mostly former students, colleagues and friends,  Susannah Israel – sculptor, writer/critic, and teacher extraordinaire – graciously presided over the crowd with the grace of a queen mother from some ancient time.  It was Susannah’s sixtieth birthday and the convocation of free and generous spirits had gathered to joyously celebrate this gifted artist and teacher that never stops giving.

It was a celebration worthy of the occasion, as Susannah’s friends brought forth a variety of gifts, some in the form of succulent foods prepared with loving care by their own hands. Others, skilled in the culinary arts, offered their service on the grill or in the oven, and some groomed and decorated themselves in daring fashion, adding panache to the party by making exotic spectacles of themselves.  And of course, one of the joys of any gathering of Eulypians – i.e. makers and lovers of the arts – is the stimulating conversation.  Suffice it to say that was in rare abundance.

However of all the evening’s amusements the musicians stole the show.  Of course I am one of those musically sensitive souls for whom the bang of the drum, trill of the trumpet and clash of the cymbals causes my pulse to quicken.  I confess this because I believe all writers who venture value judgments about the relative merits of cultural experiences ought to declare their biases, and I have been madly in love with music all of my life. The proof of it is that I have written about more different genres of music than any music critic in New York City….which is the mecca of music critics.

Yet despite whatever bias I might bring to the subject, I believe I am right in the accolades I pay to the musicians. The groove ranged from the tight Neo-Soul sounds of Harry and the Hitmen, who were jamming in the exotic décor of bassist-bandleader Jesse Toews Studio/Crib.  The band plays original material wherever possible, because they write a lot of music, and if the sampling I heard is a fair representation of what they do – first rate music performed by accomplished musicians.  I think they have a better than even chance making themselves felt in the music industry.

The musical offering was diverse, ranging from smooth Neo-Soul to hard rock guitar boy band sounds and deep Blues.   Veteran musician Dee “Big Dog” Hensley anchored the evening’s musical offering in rock and blues performances. first with a Jimi Hendrix style trio of Lead guitar, bass and drums reminicent of Band of Gypsies, and then a rendering of deep blues. His set was topped off by a blues performance featuring his wife Donalda Gilligan, a former singer with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, who gave a soulful blues shout out.

Listening to the musical peformances I got the same feeling I expeienced in a nightclub on a visit to London. (See “On Being Black in London” on this blog)  I was taken to what I was told was the hippest nightclub in town, which had three floors and on each floor the music was of Afro-American origins. The band on the first floor, all British musicians, was a septet laying Miles Davis’ “ll Blues ” with the same instrumentation.  On the second floor was an elegant restuarant that played only Afro-American big band classics and when I walked in I heard Sarah Vaughn with the Count Basie Orchestra.  and on the top floor was a disco where “Ladies Night” by Kool and the Gang was rockin the house.

The London experience and the Vulcan party honoring Professor Sussanah Israel offered irrefutable evidence of the extent to which Afro-American music has changed the cultural sensibilities of the western world in the twentieth century and left its imprint on world culture (See: “Jazz Around the World” on this blog and Western Culture Revised, in the Freedomways Reader.)  All in all it was a joyous fete that brought friends together and good vibes were everywhere in the air.  It was a happy birthday indeed!

                                                                  Josh and Lexi…….
……..Were the moving spirits that made it Happen!

 Friends Brought Food, Wine and Wisdom Weed

DSC06763 And Joyous Smiles all Around!
 And Real Prime Northern California Bud!


 True Wisdom Weed…A gift from the Earth Goddess!
It was a Carnivore’s Paradise!
Real Mexican Beef!
 And there was Music


 Vintage Hard Boy Band Rock
 And Real Blues too


Dem low down dirty Juke Joint Blues
Wailed by Soulful Shouters……
…….Who stomped the Blues
 Harry and the Hitmen….


 Rocked tha House
 They Have an Original Sound


 Not Just Old Wine in New Skins
 And they Keep it Funky!


It’s all about The Rhythm
They Sing Too!


 And Rock the Tambourine
 They Are a Self-Contained Band


They Play, and Sing, and Write their Own Songs
 Erudite Conversation was Common Fare
 DSC06727 edit
Professors Tiffany Schmierer  Michelle Gregor and Jason Dunn
 Some Board Members of the Oakland Ceramic Art Museum


                                                    Dr. Dar Fong Joined the Fete
  It was a warm Diverse Gathering
 Where old friends greeted each other enthusiastically
 Lexi Greeting Elaine Toland…….


 ……….the Illustrious East Bay Painter
 Princess Lia Went High Fashion
And got it just right: elegance through simplicity


And Other Free Spirits……


……..Were indifferent to fashion


Charity, A Grateful former Student and Fine Artist…


 ……….Gave her Professor  a Big Bear Hug
While Lexi Laughed with A Wild Child


 If they are lucky 30 years hence…..they may look like the Birthday Girl

 Susannah at Sixty!!!


And look what she’s workin With!


 A Sizzling Senior Citizen!

Fire and Ice in a Contemplative Mood
 Double Click to see Harry and the Hit Men


Playthell G. Benjamin
Oakland, Cali
March 30, 2014

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