Temperatures are dropping and Thanksgiving is just a week away, meaning the holiday season is officially in full swing! When it’s time to deck the halls and decorate for Christmas, be sure to save a branch on your tree for Maymont. This season marks the second year of Maymont’s annual Christmas ornament, which is an annual, limited release in a series featuring local artists.
Starting today, November 14, the first 80 people to purchase a family membership will receive a complimentary ornament designed and hand-crafted by this year’s artist, Susan Gaible of Shockoe Bottom Clay. We stopped by Susan’s studio for a behind-the-scenes look at the ornament-making in action and to chat with her about RVA, what inspires her work and what she loves about Maymont.
How long have you lived in Richmond?
A long time! Thirty-eight years. I was relocated here by one of Richmond’s leading companies, met my husband and that was history!
What about living in Richmond inspires your work?
Richmond’s continuous transformation is exciting and inspires me. There are so many hidden jewels in this city and one-by-one they are being recognized, explored, expanded and protected.
The architecture, the skyline, the renovation and protection of our resources are all fodder for inspiration. Ideas are generated from the train station, the Victorians like the Dooley house, access to the museums, being able to see historic textiles and fabric and of course, Mother Nature.
My studio is in the middle of the city in Shockoe Bottom, but it offers so much more than urban living. It is not just the physical and geographic aspects but as the city shifts, so do the people. We are headed into very exciting times. That energy can be felt and generates a lot of enthusiasm and new ideas.
Nature has a huge influence on me. Having Maymont and the space offered by the city parks and others gives me the opportunity to enjoy the intricacies of Mother Nature. Access to the River is fantastic. The James River walk at Tredegar Iron Works opened in December of 2016 and instantly so many folks traveled it, me included. To have more access to nature, walk the bridge and experience the river and city from that vantage point encourages my creativity. I have the opportunity to look closely at a simple leaf or the complexity of a flower and then to look up and see the vast sky and the landscape. How can you not be inspired?
It doesn’t stop there for me. The food scene, the arts, and the innovations at the new breweries also spur my inspiration on. Inspiration comes from within and so many aspects of Richmond ignite that germ of creativity in me.
What’s your background? How did you get into what you do now? (And what do you call it?)
I have a business/marketing background but have always been tagged as having a creative approach to things. My experiences range from cooking schools and test kitchens to shopper marketing/brand marketing and research/technology.
I was raised in a very creative household. My parents were artists, as are some of my siblings. I explored ceramics after college and set it aside for my career. It’s difficult to ‘dabble’ in clay. You need a studio, kilns etc. To keep me connected to the creative process I worked in other mediums. I owe my reintroduction to ceramics to my youngest son. He is a glassblower and attended Alfred University, the #1 University in ceramics. He insisted on me giving him his first lesson in throwing. After 20+ years I could still center and create a vessel. I was hooked! I brought my husband with me. He is a ceramic artist too! My oldest son majored in environmental science and is a woodworker and photographer.
As I mentioned, ceramics means having a studio and I didn’t want a home studio. I wanted to share my business knowledge and work within a community of aspiring artists. So, Mark and I renovated a family building in Shockoe Bottom and offered nine studio spaces and gallery space to local ceramic artists. Our studios are now Shockoe Bottom Clay.
What does your creative process look like?
The type of project influences the creative process. Projects can be commissions or self-directed work. A commission has criteria that influence the creative process. Self-directed works is based on my own aspirations. Using the criteria, prototypes are developed.
Generally my ideas stem from nature, cooking or from textiles. I generate several ideas around the subject, narrow them down, and create a prototype. Often many prototypes are created to investigate different options in clay body, glazes, and finishing work. Notes are kept on the various elements for easy reproduction.
The steps in creating a ceramic prototype include building the vessel(s), waiting for it to be leather hard, trimming, let the clay dry, bisque firing, inspecting, glazing, high firing and again inspecting the results. Some projects are more complex and require finishing work. You repeat these steps until you are satisfied with the end result.
Once I am satisfied with the prototype a commission project is generally approved by the client before production. If it is a self-directed piece, the work is complete.
One of my favorite self-directed projects is my fig tray. My inspiration was my love for figs. I eat them fresh from the tree in our yard or create fig conserves to serve with goat cheese and toast. I like the supple, velvety nature of a fig leaf and created a tray with the impression. I tested various tray forms and finishes. I then created smaller matching bowls to hold the conserves. I gave them to friends; they loved them! I sold them in my gallery as a seasonal item.
Your friends are in town visiting – what’s their one must-see at Maymont?
I want my friends to experience the greatness of the estate. I recommend meandering up to the Dooley house, walking over to the Italian Rose Garden, down near the waterfall to the Japanese Garden. If there are kids in the group the Farm is a must-see adventure.
What’s your favorite feature at Maymont and why?
I would have to say the 100-acre campus is my favorite feature because the rolling hills with beautiful trees and walks sets the experience. Each of the individual centers has a very high interest to me and I couldn’t pick one over the other. Robins [Nature & Visitor] Center has a warm place in my heart. It opened in 1999 and my mother, a biologist, teacher and artist, inflicted with Alzheimer’s would enjoy her visits there. My family and children loved the Farm. I loved the Dooley house [Maymont Mansion] because we renovated an 1895 Italian Victorian home. The Japanese and Italian gardens are also high on the list because walking through them in the various seasons has always been inspiring.