Susan Farrar Parrish is still bemused by the conversation she overheard two customers having shortly after she’d changed her pottery from dishware to artwork 13 years ago.
“I was in my studio at Artspace and I could hear them outside the door. One said to the other, ‘This is not the Susan Parrish we know.’ They even came in my studio and continued saying that with me there.”
However lacking in subtlety the women’s comments were, they were accurate.
“I completely left functional pottery behind,” said Parrish, 61. “It was liberating. It’s not that I don’t love functional pottery. But I’d made all the round pots I wanted to make.”
The lifelong artist, with a fine arts degree in painting and graphic design from Auburn University, discovered clay in 1973 at a class at Pullen Arts Center in Raleigh.
“It’s hard to say what hooked me – there was the clay itself and also seeing wonderful finished work by others.”
For two decades, she worked out of her home, first in Cary, then in Raleigh, and sold her wheel-thrown pottery at festivals and through galleries.
Her first “awakening,” as she describes it, came in 2000 after a clay workshop in New York and her move to Artspace, the studio and exhibition space in downtown Raleigh.
“I said, ‘Susan Parrish, you can make anything you want to make. I’d taken a painting class, and that reminded me how much I loved color. I started hand-building pieces and painting them with under-glazes. They became something totally different – one-of-a-kind art pieces.”
While not all her customers remained loyal, many did. Parrish attracted new fans as well, along with the attention of gallery owners, critics and editors, leading more than a dozen clay-focused books and magazine to mention her work.
Then in late 2008, she found herself at another crossroads. No longer content to simply make eye-catching pottery, Parrish wanted to convey her concern for the environment.
“My mother was dying, and I’m sure that played into it, being aware of my own mortality. Some of that is liberating,” she said. “Before, I’d always felt timid with my work, not wanting to express opinions.”
She woke up in the night with a jolt – “That’s when I get my best ideas” – and the inspiration to incorporate “found,” or used, objects in her work, a fitting way to honor the environment, she figured.
Since then, Parrish has poured her opinions into nearly every piece she’s created, starting with “Brainless Coral,” a sphere imbedded with a lifetime of discards, from beer bottles to electronic equipment and a denunciation of “all the stuff floating in the ocean.”
Her eco-oeuvre now includes sculptural teapots, clocks and lamps, some with wry environmental and political messages. Parrish still works with clay, hand building and firing the bases, but now she covers them with a grout-like substance to hold trinkets, trash, hardware and vintage housewares, such as sink drains, graters and spice tins.
“The surface is like a texture, but also like hide-and-seek, where you can look at one work 50 times and see pieces you didn’t see before. It really does engage people; they find things about their life and their history. I guess that’s why I like housewares; I can relate to them.”
Her environmental messages continue to morph, she said.
“They’re still in the background, but the excitement of the work has given them a whole new life. I love working the way I am now, where it’s kind of intuitive.”
As before, some followers have stuck with her and others have not, while national interest in her work has increased. New pieces have been featured in more than two dozen shows, including several out of state, with many curators noting her touches of humor. Last year, she won a prestigious national NICHE magazine award and was included in the book “Humor in Craft” by Brigitte Martin (Schiffer Publishing).
Another admirer is mixed-media artist Lisa Pearce, who teaches sculpture at Meredith College and invited Parrish to participate in a recent exhibit at the Raleigh women’s college.
“When I originally came to know Susan’s work, I saw and admired her whimsical teapots. Then, when I saw her almost mask-like forms embedded in found objects, I thought, how fearless of her to change to something more thought-provoking. Most artists would never attempt such a radical shift in their work,” she said. “They’re beautiful pieces – and look at the success she’s having with them.”
Parrish’s propensity for change begs the question of what’s next. Not much, she promised, other than finally building a detached studio at the home she shares with her husband near Lake Wheeler. She’ll eventually transition most of her work there.
“I’m having the time of my life. There’s so much room to grow just using found objects. That should be able to keep my interest.”
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