July 22, 2005
Mending Shards, Mending Life: Susan Duhan Felix Exhibit Opens at Badť
Museum By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet "The gallery floor is
off limits, and there are no showcases, so they asked me to create 30
ceramic pieces that will hang on the walls!"
We are standing in Susan Felix's studio in the small basement garage
of her home, surrounded by boxes, sawhorse tables, and unfinished
walls, all covered by quarter-inch thick ceramic pieces, most of them
about 8x12 inches in size, many patched together from broken shards,
fired in cloudy colors, shot through with smoky black and metallic
shimmers of gold and silver.
Many feature Biblical quotations in neat, black Hebrew script
emerging from the cloudy texture ("That smoky look comes from pit-
firing with sawdust.") Thirty of these pieces are now on exhibit at
the Pacific School of Religion. Susan Duhan Felix was born in Queens,
New York (she still has the accent to prove it) to a secular Jewish
family, her father a doctor, her mother a Latin teacher. There were
artists on both sides of her family, but her parents discouraged her
from becoming an artist.
"`Artists are disappointed, bitter people,' they told me. `No
recognition, no money.' So, when I went to Queens College, I majored
in literature," Felix said. "I read some poems in the college
literary magazine, fell in love with them, and then fell in love with
the poet. Morton was a graduating senior, on his way to the
University of Connecticut to do graduate work and teach in Clinical
Psychology. After a year, I joined him. We were married. I was 19."
After finishing her B.A. at the University of Connecticut, she took
some art classes. "First I tried painting, but it was when I started
working in clay that I felt at home. In 1961 Morton insisted I enter
a piece in the New England Ceramic Show. I did, and won first prize!"
She shrugs and rolls her eyes. "SoóI guess that labeled me `artist'
and `art teacher.'"
Daughter Lisa was born as the Vietnam War began, along with Susan's
interest in community activism. She helped found the first peace
center in Providence. In retrospect, Susan credits two events with
giving direction to her art. The first was her 1962 M.A. thesis. Her
subject was T. S. Eliot's "Wasteland" as a metaphor for the loss of
sacred ritual in modern life. Four years later, in 1966, she made a
ceramic menorah for a friend. When a local rabbi's wife saw it, she
asked Susan to make one for her, then one for each of her children.
That year also brought a brief teaching stint in Mexico. Then Susan
and Morton were drawn to Berkeley, where they settled permanently in
Susan is best known here for her thirty-odd years of community art
and social activism; the list of boards and commissions, titles and
honors recognizing her efforts, is long and may be exemplified by one
example. In the late seventies, she began working with UA Housing. "I
was good at writing grants, and when I got a grant for the University
Avenue Housing Co-op, they hired me as executive director," she
said. "We managed to create 122 units of housing for the homeless in
During all these years, how did she find time to devote to art? She
laughs. "Working with clay evenings and weekends was what kept me
sane! And since I had a small but steady salary from UA Housing, I
was able to make ceramics without concern for whether they would
sell. It seemed natural for me to turn toward sacred art, ritual
objects. In some cases the object came to me first, and then I
actually invented a ritual to go with it." She shows me examples that
don't appear in the PSR exhibit (because they can't be hung on a
wall). Her "Blessing Bowl" is a receptacle for blessings by well-
wishers on happy occasions. She also originated a candle-holder to be
part of a girl's baby-naming ceremony, then to be used in adulthood
by the girl as she lights the Sabbath lamp.
"Traditionally Jewish women don't get to do much ritual, but they do
light the Sabbath candles, and I wanted to emphasize that," she said.
Her "Miriam's Cup" is a two-part vessel to be used for hand washing
during a Passover Seder. The prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and
Aaron, led women in singing and dancing to celebrate the crossing of
the Red Sea, which then drowned Pharaoh's pursuing forces; Miriam is
also credited with locating water during the long wanderings of her
people. The Hebrew inscription on this "Miriam's Cup" translates
to "Rise up, oh well, respond to my song."
So, did the molding and firing of ritual objects lead Susan back to
the religious observance her parents had rejected? "I've found two
spiritual homes here in Berkeley, Chocmat HaLev (Jewish) and Spirit
Rock (Buddhist)." Then she shows me the eight-piece set of deeply
etched wall plaques symbolizing the Eight Noble Truths of Buddhism,
hanging next to the five-piece set titled "Jacob's Ladder."
These hang in the midst of more abstractly spiritual plaques
dedicated to comforting individuals, inspired by friends who were ill
or troubled, and given titles that suggest a mood, a hope, a shaft of
light in darkness. Most of them bear a jagged, broken line down the
middle or several across. Sometimes the line is emphasized with
contrasting color. Marks of fusing broken plaques?
"Yes, I made these from random shards, some old ones, some recently
brokenóyou never know what will happen in pit-firing. To use them
again, to patch them up, is symbolic for me of broken worlds, broken
people that can be repaired and reunified, can make new wholes in the
spirit of creative grace. That is why I'm calling the exhibit Wholly
Grace, with the double pun on Wholly."
She smiles. "As for Grace, it's a lovely, rich word. I'm not sure I
can define it."