With the annual NCECA Conference rounding the corner, and the first days of spring upon us, I figured it was the perfect time to feature Sue Tirrell’s spirited work! I have been a fan of Sue’s work since I can remember…being particularly attracted to the narrative aspect in combination with her unassuming forms and vibrant palette. I’m also intrigued by how her pots inform her sculptural work and vice versa.
In the interview, Sue gives succinct advice about how to market your work as well as explaining the realities of building and maintaining a studio art practice. Sue also expands on how both Art School and life experience have helped her to shape a successful career. Find out why Sue connects her creative process to that of a sourdough starter, why the word “whimsy” just isn’t descriptive enough and why horses are an integral part of her narrative.
How did you first get involved in ceramics? Can you briefly describe your background and education?
I took my first ceramics class during my freshman year at Cottey College, a 2-year liberal arts college in Nevada, Missouri. My strengths and interests were in drawing and painting, so I thought I would end up in illustration or graphic design. I signed up for ceramics because I had never worked in a 3-D medium and it sounded like fun. My first teacher was Cameron Crawford, who currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He was really tough and I found clay to be extremely frustrating. I’m pretty stubborn though, so I kept after it.
I ended up taking ceramics the full two years I was at Cottey before completing my BFA at Alfred University in Alfred, NY. I chose Alfred because they had 6 dynamic faculty members in ceramics and an extensive facility; also, I liked that it was in a rural setting. Having a network of peers and faculty that were both rigorous and supportive was a tremendous experience. Everybody worked incredibly hard, but we had a blast doing it. I came home to Montana during my summer breaks to work for a couple that made production pottery and jewelry.
It is hard to describe how beneficial it was to have this experience sandwiched between semesters at Art School. I learned to be a better thrower, what an efficient studio and home business look like and, most importantly, I saw how being an independent artist is really a lifestyle. I really think I got the best kind of education during these years—creative investigation and development punctuated with practical experiences in a production environment.
How do you feel that your formal education prepared you for your career in ceramics?
I was fortunate to have been surrounded by teachers and peers that were encouraging and supportive, but at the same time had extremely high standards and expectations of me.. It was really exciting to work with colleagues that were always pushing their work to the next level and trying
new things. I think this is a really helpful way to begin a career—observing that even if you are working alone, there are others in the clay community working just as hard–or harder–than you, to be better every day. Art School also taught me about asking questions and considering what motivates me as a maker and why. Working for the studio potter in Montana taught me about making things that people want to use and, therefore, purchase; about taking care of my equipment and taking care of my back; and about managing my time (something I continue to struggle with! ).
I was first introduced to your sculptural work and then years later fell in love with your pots. Did one (sculpture/pottery) come before the other or have you always worked on them simultaneously? How do they inform each other?
I’m really not sure which came first! I fell in love with functional pots for the simple way they connect the maker to the user. I’ve always made pots, but I never felt like I had a unique hand with functional forms. My strengths were in the surface, not the forms, so making pots wasn’t something I did regularly. As a result, my undergraduate work dealt mainly with abstract, landscape-inspired sculpture. At the same time, my drawings on paper became more dense and sculptural. I began making figure and animal sculpture when I graduated and came home to Montana in 1998. I loved the landscape-based work I made in school, but once I returned to the landscape that I had been away from for so long, I felt I didn’t need to make it anymore.
That year, I found myself in Miles City, the largest town in Eastern Montana, running educational outreach programs in rural schools and communities for the Custer County Art & Heritage Center. I loved driving the lonely highways and dirt roads, stopping to admire herds of cattle, horses and sheep. I boarded my horse at a farm nearby that was also home to goats, dogs, chickens, geese, burros and a giant pig. There were even a couple of bison at one point! This was the closest I had ever been to being a farm-girl, and I wanted to tell stories about the animals in my sculpture. When I moved to my current home and studio in 2005, I became a full-time studio artist and began making pots again to supplement my income.
Currently, pots are my main focus, but making sculpture allows me a mental break and the chance to take a drawing from a pot and turn it into a more complex, three- dimensional narrative. Each body of work informs the other—I started drawing people on my pots because there were things I didn’t think I could achieve with sculpture, like trick-riders and horses flying through the air or a skier encountering a polar bear. Now I am taking some of those drawings and translating them back to sculpture.
Well,the short version is I was tired of the word “whimsical” being used to describe my work so often! Whimsy implies that everything is all sunshine and flowers—and some of my work IS just that, which is perfectly fine. However, a lot of it tells a more complicated tale. I want my work to evoke memories and spark conversation in the audience. The best feed-back I get from people are the reasons why they relate to a piece. I have heard stories about beheading chickens, midnight lambing duty, encounters with bears, favorite dogs, and swimming in the ocean with horses. I love how people identify with certain animals, and that a mug or platter or sculpture can enhance that relationship through a shared
narrative. I often use bits and pieces of folktales or fables as a starting point for a piece, making the reference vague enough that the viewer can imagine their own version of events. To further this ambiguity, I use a combination of traditional-looking details and modern touches so the piece can’t be placed in any specific place or time. Often the imagery itself can look “vintage,” but the vibrant colors and animated carving on the crisp porcelain canvas give it a more contemporary feel.
How do you come up with new ideas? Can you walk us through your creative process when coming up with new forms/ideas?
I draw a lot on the rich history and physical beauty of Montana and the West and my experiences in it. I used to visit a lot of antique stores when I lived in Eastern Montana, making a bee-line for the boxes of old photos. I looked for images of people with animals, specifically women and horses. These photos have served as a starting point for many of my sculptures. I also loved looking at old horse tack and vintage textiles—quilts, embroidered pillowcases, crocheted doilies and tablecloths. All these objects beg to tell their stories, and they find their way into my work through color combinations, textures, and direct drawing references.
When I am finishing a body of work, I always take something from that group and add it to the next—like a sourdough starter. Similarly, I might think of something new along the way and save it for the next piece. I like the unity this creates in my work over time. The changes may appear slight, but to me they are significant.
Do you have a favorite “creature” to draw? If so, why?
Horses! I have been obsessed with horses as long as I can remember, and I have been drawing them since I could hold a pencil. Drawing was how I got to know them before I had the pleasure of meeting one in person. I got my first pony when I was 8 and I have been riding ever since. I also love drawing rabbits. I had several pet rabbits when I was growing up, and I showed them, along with my horses, at the 4-H fair each summer. Having the privilege of this intimacy with animals gives me endless inspiration. I love to see them come to life each time I finish a drawing.
You are lucky to live in Montana where despite its remote location and sparse population, there is a rich ceramic history and incredible community support for clay. Recently, a group called Montana Clay was developed to help promote ceramic artists/craftsmen/schools/art centers/galleries/etc in the state. Can you talk about how Montana Clay formed and what your involvement is in the group?
Yes, we are very lucky! Generally speaking, Montana has a notably vibrant arts scene, and the ceramics community is especially large and tight-knit. Montana Clay is two things: A website clearing-house of information related to ceramics in the state of Montana and a loosely organized group of artists, teachers, and advocates. The site includes links to schools, universities and residency programs, art centers, museums, galleries, and artists who are currently living and working in the state. The group itself welcomes anyone in Montana who is involved in the ceramic arts to gather once a year to share ideas, plan exhibits, celebrate each other’s achievements, and have a kick-ass potluck! Montana Clay provides a very inclusive, supportive means for artists across the state to stay connected in what can otherwise be a very insular vocation.
How did you decide to settle and build a studio in your current location and how has your studio practice evolved?
I moved to my current location in Southwestern Montana when I married my husband in 2005. He had a teaching job here and I was ready to move back to the mountains after spending 7 years on the beautiful plains of Eastern Montana. I set up a studio in the unfinished basement of our house and divided my time between art-making and a number of part- time jobs. During the first few years it was hard finding my groove—up until that point I had always worked in a communal studio setting so the solitude bothered me at first. I also had a hard time giving myself permission to call what I did in the studio my full-time job. Gradually, my artwork kept me busy enough that I could quit the other jobs. In 2009, we put an addition on our house that included a large basement space which became my current studio. Today, my biggest challenge is finding a balance between my studio practice and other areas of my life. I find it very easy to work long days and not take breaks between deadlines. I know my body and mind suffer when I get into that routine, so I am trying to be vigilant on that front!
Being in such a remote area, how do you best reach your audience? What kind of advice could you give someone wanting to market their work?
I have found that my audience is best reached through a combination of gallery representation and my own efforts to present my work through home sales and craft fairs. Having a diversity of marketing strategies enables my work to be seen in many places at once. I rely heavily on galleries that have a strong client base and web presence to sell work on my behalf. Everything involved in marketing and selling online—photography, uploading each item, communicating with buyers and shipping—takes an enormous amount of time that could be spent working in the studio. I love all the galleries I work with, and they do a MUCH better job with outreach than I ever could.
When personally marketing work, I would suggest use of user-friendly internet mediums, studio sales, local arts and crafts fairs, and workshops. Facebook and Instagram are easy DIY marketing tools. You don’t have write exhaustive, image heavy blog posts, but giving your followers a peek at what you are up to on a regular basis keeps your work in people’s minds. The same goes for attending openings, workshops, and lectures in person. If you stay visible in your creative community, your work will receive attention, too. I also promote my work closer to home by having an annual studio sale and attending a regional craft fair every year. To prepare for the studio sale, I send out a postcard to
everyone I know and give them a discount if they bring a friend, or if they wear a fancy outfit (my sale is always on Kentucky Derby Day!). I clean the house and studio, make some pies, and put a sign on the road to encourage passers- by. I also make sure I leave out a notebook for newcomers to leave their contact information for future sales. This is a great way to engage your community in the work you do. The people who attend my Spring Sale are mostly friends and neighbors, but the event has become an annual tradition and I really appreciate the support of my little neighborhood. The first few years you may not sell much, but it goes a long way toward building a loyal, year-round client base. Plus, you get a clean studio and leftover pie at the end! I have also been doing one craft fair per summer for the last 4 years as a way to test the waters in a new market. I choose an event in a town where I have no gallery representation, is within driving distance, and provides a fun atmosphere when I’m not working.
I have learned a great deal over the years about what works well at a fair and what doesn’t. Fairs are physically and emotionally exhausting, especially for ceramic artists. Schlepping your work to and from a fair is BACKBREAKING work. You can have a rogue wind that wrecks your tent and breaks your pots, or a weather event that keeps your patrons away. Spending 8 hours a day on your feet talking about your work gets tiresome even for the extroverts among us. Overall, most of my sales come through galleries and that is ideal for me. I like the personal interactions with customers at a fair or my studio sale but that is not a sustainable business model for me year-round.
What other hobbies/interests do you have to balance your studio life? Do any of your hobbies inform your work?
My husband and I love to cook and garden, which is a great way to spend time together. I keep a few chickens in our back yard (for egg production, pest control, and drawing purposes!) and I like trail running with our dogs. My most consuming personal interests are horses and knitting.
Like I said before, I have been a horse-crazy girl all my life and I know I am an artist because of horses. Early on, I made up for any horse deficits in my life by drawing them. Herds of horses filling notebooks, unicorns in the margins of my math homework, blueprints for my dream farm on brown paper bags. As I have grown up with horses, my knowledge of them has expanded and my ideas about them are more complex. Building a relationship of mutual trust with a half-ton prey animal is no small thing. I am currently working with a young horse, so this concept is on my mind every day. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.. She is learning to follow my direction and I am learning to give her confidence in my leadership. It is a new way of thinking about human/animal relationships that fascinates me and will continue to for years to come.
I learned to knit as a child and picked it back up when I graduated from college. It is a warm, dry, tactile, and portable craft that I can do when I travel or to unwind at night. The repetitive structure of the patterns appeals to me and feels similar to the carving I do on my pots.
Like ceramics, there is no end to what you can learn in knitting. Sweaters are my favorite thing to make—they are like making teapots. Each piece of the garment has to be well crafted and and integrated with the other parts in order for the finished piece to function properly.
An unexpected bonus of these two pastimes is meeting people, learning lessons, and stumbling upon ideas that I would never encounter in my studio life.
Finally, what advice can you give aspiring potters trying to make a living?
Learn all you can about what it takes to work in this field. Find a job or volunteer in a local gallery, museum, or art center. I spent seven years working in a small community art center where I not only taught ceramics, but learned about framing, hanging, lighting and shipping artwork; writing and tracking grants; fundraising, and outreach. I even learned about building pedestals and industrial carpet cleaning! I left that job with skills that I use every day in my own studio practice, and developed contacts with museums and galleries that gave a huge boost to my career as an independent artist. I also recommend reaching out to artists whose work or career path you admire. Most people are happy to share their story with you, and many would welcome you working alongside them in exchange for their knowledge and expertise. You never know if you don’t ask. The time I spent working in a local potter’s studio was a very different experience than my college education but was equally important.
To find out more about Sue and her work, please visit her website: