Susan Raber Bray: On exhibit at Edgewater Gallery
MIDDLEBURY — When you see one of Susan Raber Bray’s sculptures on display at Edgewater Gallery, it instantly grabs your attention. The effortlessness of her forms paradoxes the meticulous technique used to create them. Her primitive animals and their rustic appearance act as a vessel for the viewer to connect with their own personal memories and emotions prompted by the pieces.
Susan has perfected her forms over years of working hard at her craft. Her successful career however, started from a unique introduction into the world of pottery.
Still in college, Susan remembers going on a date with her boyfriend of the time to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. While roaming around the historical reenactment museum, she stumbled into the potter’s studio. “I remember being so taken by the man at the wheel.” She was intrigued by how the clay could go from being soft and malleable on the wheel to hard and durable after being fired. On the way home that day, Susan remembers going into a bookstore to find a how to book on ceramics and pointing at the cover and telling her boyfriend, “I am going to do that.”
And that is what she immediately began to do. A few ceramics courses later, Susan found herself in search of an apprenticeship. In the states, Susan struggled to find someone who would take her, because she explained, “the majority of apprenticeships at the time were going to men.” However, she found her opportunity when visiting her brother who was at medical school in Brussels. Her sister-in-law called the consulate to get the numbers of all the best studios in Belgium, and with a little negotiating was able to persuade one of the top ceramicists in the world, Mirko Orlandini to take Susan in as an apprentice for two years.
Having just completed a three-month advanced pottery course in California, Susan felt confident with her skills until she began working beside Mirko. “I realized I knew nothing working with him.” Here she was, sitting next to an incredibly talented potter, trying to learn as much as she could, but fumbling with even his most basic forms. Everyday she would sit with her wheel right next to his and try to watch his technique as closely as possible. “The only French I knew were the few phrases I could remember from high school, so we would play a version of charades to try to communicate with one another.”
For the first six months, Susan remembers coming into work every morning to see that Mirko had already destroyed all her pieces from the day before. He would always leave one piece untouched for her arrival only to point out what she did wrong before destroying that one as well. She never was defeated by this, explaining that “I just kept telling myself that I had to suffer to be an artist and this was just my period of suffering.”
Susan finally began to master Mirko’s forms. She remembers how excited Mirko was the first time she created a piece to his satisfaction; “he lifted me up and twirled me around the studio, he was so excited.”
From then on, she began to master every form he made. Mirko ended up breaking his back while she was there, so for months he could not work and she was producing most of the works for his studio. “People were blown away when they realized that the little American girl was the one creating the pottery they were buying from [Mirko’s] studio.”
When the apprenticeship was finally over, it was hard for Susan to leave Brussels. Coming back to the states, Susan was secure in her skills and technique, but it was hard for her to start to develop her own style after having worked in Mirko’s for so long. She was given the advice to slow down, produce less, and instead exert more energy into being inspired and exploring her own creative process.
And with this advice, Susan created one of her most memorable collections. Inspired by her pet dove, Joey, the show consisted of pastels of the views she imagined Joey seeing and archetypal bird sculptures. People responded well to the collection and connected with the birds. Susan loved that her own personal story was not needed for people to understand her works. Susan’s animals throughout her collections find success in their ability to resonate with many people and cultures that have symbolic or personal connections to the animals she creates.
“The way I connect to the universe, the divine, or whatever it is, is through my work.” Susan’s pieces are a result of career of hard work, amazing mentors, and an undeniable passion for what she does.