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creative:impact - Susanne Stephenson: 70+ years working in clay

Susanne Stephenson working in her ceramic studio.
Stephenson Ceramic Studio
Susanne Stephenson working in her ceramic studio.

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.
John Bommarito
89.1 WEMU
Creative Washtenaw CEO Deb Polich at the WEMU studio.


Susanne Stephenson in her ceramic studio.
Patti Smith
Susanne Stephenson in her ceramic studio.

Susanne G. Stephenson was born in 1935 in Canton, Ohio. She received her BFA degree (’57) from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and her MFA degree (’60 ) in Ceramics at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She has exhibited her work widely in the United States. Her work has been shown abroad at the AIC Members Exhibition, Riga, Latvia 06; World Ceramic Center, Korea 04; 4th International ceramic exhibition (’95), Mino, Japan; Fletcher Challenge (’92 & ’94), Auckland, New Zealand; and XXIII Concorso Internationale della Ceramica D’Arte (’65), Faenza, Italy. She was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Arts from Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan in 1992. Susanne Stephenson has participate in symposiums and /or workshops in China, Japan, Switzerland, Denmark and the Czech Republic. Susanne’s work is in many public and private collections including the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, Pa. and the Victoria and Albert, London. Susanne is Professor Emeritus from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Recent retrospectives: “Transfigurement I & II", Pewabic Pottery, Detroit, MI; (‘18); Dennos Museum, Traverse City, MI (’19); Marshall Fredericks Sculpture Museum, Saginaw Valley State University, MI. (’19).


Stephenson Ceramic Studio

Susanne Stephenson Biography

Stephenson Ceramic Studio on Facebook

Stephenson Ceramic Studio on Instagram


Deb Polich: Welcome to 89 one WEMU. This is creative:impact. And I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Thanks for tuning in. You know, in preparing for our guest today, artist and ceramicist Susanne Stephenson, the song lyric, "How do you catch a moonbeam in your hand?" was a constant loop in my head. Soon to mark her ninth decade, Suzanne's career impact and renown is local and worldwide. Telling her story in one creative:impact segment quickly turned into two. Today we meet Susanne, and then, next week, we're going to meet Patti Smith, who is part of a team archiving and documenting Susanne's artworks, sketches, notes, teaching methods, writings and other materials related to her career. Susanne, it's an honor to welcome you to WEMU here at EMU, where you spent many years teaching.

Susanne Stephenson: I'm glad to be here.

Deb Polich: Well, we are too. So, where to start? And perhaps the beginning is a very good place. Take us back to your earliest memories discovering your love for art.

Susanne Stephenson: My first memories? You mean of doing art at all?

Deb Polich: Yeah, when you kind of found that that was your thing.

Susanne Stephenson: Well, I don't know. I think I was very little, uh. Um. And I'm from Canton, Ohio. And I was at the art school there. And, I mean, I was taking piano lessons, and the teacher every time there was a concert, I would stop playing. I couldn't do it. And so, she said, "Well, why don't you try painting and drawing?" And that's what I started.

Deb Polich: Well, how fortunate we are that that was the direction you went. What about clay? When did you find out that that was your medium, the thing that you wanted to continue for the longest time?

Susanne Stephenson: Oh, in clay, well, clay is such a tactile thing.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Susanne Stephenson: And I taught art appreciation at Eastern for quite a while. And then. I started teaching ceramics. And I would teach classes to the non-art majors also and try to get them to do projects. It would have several answers to them too. So, they all wouldn't come out the same. And they enjoyed that because everyone had a project that didn't look the same. And it would give an interesting and creative dialog for discussion.

Deb Polich: Sure, sure, sure. So, you started your career in the early '60s, if I recall, after getting your MFA from Carnegie Mellon. It was a tough time for women to have any career, let alone an art career. Art careers are always difficult. How did you make that happen? How did you make a go of it? Did you have mentors?

Susanne Stephenson: Well, you know, I met my husband after Cranbrook, and you have to have a kind of a give-or-take when it comes to trying to teach and trying to do ceramics and trying to do this and that. You have to, I would say, practice any given day, which means you do a little for someone and they do some other things for you, which makes it sharing.

Deb Polich: Right, right, right. And you mentioned your husband. You guys have actually had a studio together, I understand, for quite many years. But you're also raising a family at the same time. So, there was a lot to take and teaching. There was a lot going on there all at once.

John Stephenson, Susanne Stephenson's husband.
Stephenson Ceramic Studio
John Stephenson, Susanne Stephenson's husband.

Susanne Stephenson: Yeah. That's why I mean. I have to figure out how to have helpers and share with them. They would, if you have a child and your husband is busy and you have to go to a meeting or whatever and there's something, you have somebody else that would come and help out and then you would share that. And you would help them. That's what I mean by practicing give-and-take.

Deb Polich: Right. Absolutely. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues with Susanne Stephenson, whose remarkable career as a ceramicist, artist and teacher spans decades. So, talk to us, if you would, about how you create a piece. I know there's a lot to it. But are you inspired by something in particular? Do you have an idea, or are you almost always doing something because somebody has asked you to do it?

Susanne Stephenson: Oh, you mean as far as my ceramic work?

Deb Polich: Correct. Your ceramic work in particular. Your ceramic work in particular.

Susanne Stephenson: Well, I've always been interested in just maybe something to do with my training both at Carnegie Mellon and as a student at Cranbrook. And so, color has been part of my talent. And so, I've written things about that and done a lot with it.

Deb Polich: You know, when a lot of people think about ceramic art, especially if you go to art fairs and otherwise, you're thinking often about functional work, whether it's a cup or a plate or a vase.

Susanne Stephenson: Yeah.

Deb Polich: Your work is not so representational. And I'm curious. What took you into that direction, if you can recall?

A collection of Susanne Stephenson's ceramics.
Rose Bogard
A collection of Susanne Stephenson's ceramics.

Susanne Stephenson: Well, I would say, I did some functional work. In fact, I have still some around. Lots of work. And I think I did that because I felt I needed to use some more. I needed to store things in and serve things in. And I saw that that was the way to do it was to have some functional work.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Susanne Stephenson: Even though mine had a little twist to it!

Deb Polich: And so, it does. So, we're going to talk next week with one of your team members, Patti Smith, who's helping you with a number of others to catalog and archive your work. What's important to you about archiving your work?

Susanne Stephenson: Well, I suppose it's so other people can see what came before. Does that make any sense?

Deb Polich: Absolutely, it does! And I would ask you though, as you're going through these pieces and you're sifting through everything, do you do like what I do when I'm cleaning out my basement? You find a photo, or you find an item and you just sit there, and you have memories flood back to you. Does that happen to you?

Susanne Stephenson: Yeah. It gives me interest in where did I get that idea. Was that in my travels? Was it in my backyard? Was it in my garden?

Deb Polich: Do you find things that you forget you even created?

Susanne Stephenson: Well, maybe some drawings or something or sketches that were hidden in a pot.

A collection of Susanne Stepheson's work.
Patti Smith
A collection of Susanne Stepheson's work.

Deb Polich: Right, right, right, right. I know I do that when I find some of my writings and go, "Gosh, I don't even remember doing that." But anyway, we're going to get into a little bit about your teaching at some point. You taught here at Eastern for a number of years. And I understand that your teaching methods are ones that are replicated throughout the world.

Susanne Stephenson: Well, I don't know. I have to say that because I taught both non majors and art majors, both ceramics and design in the ceramics studio, I had students from another country, say not Armenian, but....

Deb Polich: Folks from other countries.

Susanne Stephenson: And other cultures. I have women in my class were not allowed to draw certain emblems in their drawings or their designs. They couldn't use other objects. They weren't allowed. And so, I said, "Well, why don't you take your calligraphy and make it look like Islamic calligraphy?"

Deb Polich: So, you found ways to inspire them. Unfortunately, we have to wrap up, but yours is a lifetime that is very hard to pull down into ten minutes. But we thank you for being here on creative:impact and giving us a little bit, a little sliver, of your life in your career. And we look forward to learning more about the archives next week. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Susanne Stephenson: Thank you.

Deb Polich: That's Susanne Stephenson, who's working with a team to archive and document her 70-plus-year career as a renowned artisan and ceramicist. Find out more about Suzanne and her work at wemu dot org, then tune in next week to meet one of Susanne's archiving team members, Patti Smith. Find out more at WEMU dot org. Thanks for listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, and Mat Hopson is our producer. Please join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

If you'd like to a guest on creative:impact, email Deb Polich at deb.polich@creativewashtenaw.org.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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