Loving the Cracks

June 17, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

IMG_0698A local lumber store lets Susan Duhan Felix scavenge sawdust from its floors and gather plywood remnants from its scrap heap for free. Her art goes like this: She digs deep holes in the sand at the beach. Into the holes go clay slabs, over which she sprinkles the sawdust along with salt and copper carbonate. In go combustibles, which she then ignites, letting the piles smolder for hours.

A creator of ritual objects, Felix never knows what she’ll take out of those pits. Exposed to extreme heat, salt creates white areas on the clay, sawdust creates black areas, copper carbonate creates red or pink. The shapes these colors will take on any given piece — blots, billows, speckles, streaks — are anyone’s guess, as is the texture of each finished piece. No two are alike. One might resemble human skin, the next a bullet-riddled wall. This is pit-firing, the earliest known mode of firing clay. Our primitive ancestors did it.

“Pit firing is a very amazing process because you have so little control over it,” says the award-winning ceramicist whose exhibition, “Mystery Made Manifest,” is currently on display at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. “You take a blank slab of clay. You make a big fire. What happens in that fire is completely unpredictable. In Hebrew, the word for ‘faith’ and the word for ‘art’ come from the same root. Pit firing is a test of faith.”IMG_0696

A devotee of both Buddhism and Jewish mysticism, she sees both reflected in her work. In the kabbalistic creation legend, God sent forth vessels filled with primordial light to illuminate the brand-new world. But the vessels broke enroute, scattering sparks, which rendered the world imperfect. According to the legend, humans must gather and nurture the sparks in order to fix the world. Working with fire and clay, Felix is surrounded by sparks and imperfection. As for Buddhism — unlike other art forms, pit firing allows no control and no do-overs. It’s all about random chance, and you get whatever you get. (In that sense, it also echoes the spirit of scavenging.)

Among her works are a series based on the idea of b’reishit or creation, another series of pieces all expressing the imprecation “Stay Amazed,” and another incorporating the Hebrew letters spelling Shaddai, one of the names for God which is affiliated with the word for “breast.”

She never discards a piece that breaks. Sometimes she glues its bits together. And sometimes she uses the bits to augment or create a new work.

IMG_0697“When my pieces break, I don’t say, ‘This is garbage’ and throw them away. I heal them,” Felix tells me. “I put them together and I put gold in the cracks, which is a Japanese tradition.” She paints the glue gold, or adds gold leaf. “Somebody else would have thrown them in the garbage. In my work, nothing is wasted. Everything that comes out of the pit, I use.”

Cracked-and-glued pieces hang boldly on the exhibition hall’s walls. “One of the things this show is about is loving the cracks,” Felix says, “and the idea of cracks bing the place where the light comes through.”

The scavenged scrapwood becomes backings and frames.IMG_0705

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