CERAMIC ARTIST SYMA
*Everyday Artist is original to BoHo Home (Vcevold Strekalovsky photo)
Tell us about your art.
In collaboration with architects and industry fabricators, I make low-relief panels for the built environment, installed onto exterior facades and inside walls of both public and private spaces.
My more personal studio artworks are primarily made of clay with mixed media and 24-karat gold leaf embellishment, intended for use (or imagined use) in a personal ceremony or celebration.
In a third strand of my studio practice, I’ve developed a line of small works, some in numbered editions, available in my online shop.
|A numbered edition of Magical Bells to Summon Extra Momentum When the Bull is Grabbed by the Horns are porcelain with 24-karat gold leaf horns. Each bell comes with a “bull balls” clanger and instructions foruse. (©Syma/James Dee photo)|
How did you get started making art?
My mother tells me that as a child I often made fantasy forms with mud in the backyard. I would then pound my mud creations with her copper-bottomed frying pan, reporting that I wanted to get the shiny gold onto my art work. With a view to that same end, nearly a half-century later, I use 24-karat gold leaf and store-bought mud. Results are much better now!
|Smoked Little Pots of Gold are made of burnished, smoke-fired white earthenware clay and lined with 24-karat gold leaf and can hold a tealight candle. (©Syma/James Dee photo)|
Was clay always your focus, or did you work in other art forms previously?
I keep coming back to clay as my artistic focus. It allows me to draw, paint, sculpt, and transfer images onto it and from it. I’ve also loved working in other art forms: photography, simple film-making, metal sculpture, collage, assemblage, print-making, drawing on paper, and even viewer-activated installations.
How have non-art careers or jobs influenced your art?
Growing up, I was encouraged to consider art-making as an avocation rather than a vocation. So although I continued to draw and make art, I stopped taking art courses in high school. In college I majored in psychology with a double minor in sociology and art.
In 1966 I worked part time as assistant to the art teacher at the Earl Kelley School, a small private school in NYC, and it was a fantastic introduction to teaching. I eventually became the art teacher there and also taught social studies and creative writing. I discovered I loved teaching art because I had to experiment and explore whatever it was I was going to teach. I’ve been taking workshops, teaching workshops, and exploring materials and methods ever since.
|Syma demonstrates how to make a mono print on paper from a clay tile used as the printing plate while artist-in-residence at the Arts District, Breckenridge, Colo. (Iris Bedford Peterson photo)|
|Bowl to Catch TearDrops is smoke-fired clay with glaze and 24-karat gold leaf. Although the original is in the collection of the artist, other one-of-a-kind variations are available. (©Syma/James Dee photo)|
How did you get started doing architectural commissions?
The South Shore Art Center, Cohasset, MA, exhibited sculpted clay tile friezes created by my students at a Cohasset public school. After seeing these tiles, local architect Vcevold Strekalovsky asked if I’d be interested in creating some terracotta clay tile panels for the outside of a building he was working on—townhomes in Boston.
At first I said no because I was busy creating some vessels and wall works for a solo exhibition at the Art Complex Museum in Duxbury, MA. But he tapped me on the head and then on each shoulder with his roll of architectural blueprints—I felt like I was being knighted!—and urged me to think it over before I gave him my final answer. My answer did become a YES. That was the first of a number of collaborations with an architect and with industry. It has been an honor as well as an exciting challenge.
Boston’s Symphony Road Townhouses for which Syma created personalized clay-tile pediments. (©Syma/Joan Devereaux photo)
|A closeup of one of the art nouveau pediments Syma made for Symphony Road Townhouses—her first architectural commission. (©Syma/Gail Bryan photo)|
Working as a freelance museum educator means that every day is unique. On the best of days, I might lead one or two school group programs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art galleries, then work until early evening in my studio, which is part of Treasure Island Art Studios in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn.
More than 100 artists work there in individual and shared studio spaces. I have a solo space with access to a ceramics arena with kilns and special equipment for working with clay. We also have a roof deck where I can smoke-fire my clay work in a Weber grill. I’m so grateful to be part of this vibrant, encouraging artist community.
For my personal studio works, and in general, my imagination is ignited by ancient artifacts and magical belief systems of early cultures. I think it was actually a trip to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh when I was in second grade that I first became fascinated with artifacts from ancient cultures. I remember being intrigued by the idea that a reclining abstracted figure with a large open mouth could also be a magical serving vessel. The idea that an artwork might be decorative and also serve a real or imagined “magical” purpose is still deeply interesting to me.
How long does it take you to complete a piece?
Small, one-of-a-kind ceramic necklaces might take as little as an hour or two. A collaborative public art project I spearheaded, called Memories and Wishes, took more than four years from the grant-writing stage to a ribbon-cutting celebration held in March of this year.
|WildeBeads necklace, available in Syma’s Etsy Shop, under-glazed terracotta beads on satin cord. (©Syma/Cary Wolinsky photo)|
What’s your favorite piece or installation you’ve created?
That’s a moving target. Right now my top three are: the recently installed Memories and Wishes project; Madonna of the Rockies II: If Wishes Had Wings…, created for an invitational mosaic show at the Fuller Craft Museum in the Boston area and recently exhibited in the Recycle Show at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC) galleries in Red Hook, Brooklyn; and Smokey-Jo, the newest in my series of muse chargers. Each of these three yielded surprises during their creation. I had to stretch to experiment and research how to do something I didn’t know how to do but seemed important for manifesting an idea that was a mere essence.
How has your art changed over time?
I seem to work in series and cycles, often recycling back to previous new beginnings. I’m in the process now of reorganizing my studio to make space for new works, my family art workshops, and small group adult workshops. In the process I’m finding early works and unfinished works that could be jumping off points for some changes.
Do you ever get blocked?
YES! I’ve been artistically blocked and road-blocked, meaning that sometimes I feel like my ideas for art are stuck and sometimes it seems as if there are too many obstacles in the way of me getting to my studio. I’m still learning and relearning how to deal with both of these, trying to remember that playing is the thing, hence my slogan, MudPies R the Answer!
In addition to hugs and laughter with family and friends, some things that help me with blocks include movies, theater, reading fiction, journal writing, time with friends and family, visiting museums and galleries, drawing and doodling, asking for help, and meditation.
Roadblocks in the way of me getting to the studio may just need to be bulldozed!
How do you market your work? What’s worked best for you?
Different strategies have worked at different times, and I’m always open to new possibilities. Right now I have a lot of artwork in my studio and in my home I’d like to send out into the world. I’ve sold my studio work at local street fairs, juried craft fairs, craft shops, museum and gallery exhibitions, my online Etsy shop, from Facebook posts, and to visitors to my home or studio workspace.
Commissions for architectural spaces have come from word-of-mouth, lunchtime presentations to architectural firms, and as a result of press coverage of a completed project.
What or whom has influenced you the most in your work?
Major influences on my work have come from many artists, including Picasso, Andy Warhol, an ancient Greek potter named Exekias; from being in a beautiful environment; and from surviving with my young daughter a fire that destroyed our home and my studio years ago.
I love looking at what I consider to be good artwork. A recent visit to the Whitney Museum reminded me that any artwork I have a strong reaction to is food for my muses and encourages me to be brave and bold.
I’ve had many favorite teachers. Though I’m not an art school graduate, I‘ve taken many workshops and also learned from individuals who might at first glance seem unlikely guides. For example, at a school where I was artist-in-residence, a custodian repairing floor tiles in the hallway taught me a new method of clay tile-making. He also gave me some tips critical for shaping my first brick sculpture.
|Pan is done in smoke-fired clay with glaze and feathers, currently in a private collection.
Any advice you’d give an aspiring artist?
I’d tell an aspiring artist to follow whatever sparks your curiosity. I’d recommend reading fiction and non-fiction. I’d say to keep making art—no matter what! Dream up what you want to do and then figure out how to do it. Don’t get stuck by not yet knowing the how. Experiment and talk with people. For me, help has often come from unexpected sources.
I might also quote what I write on the gift tags for my collection of small works:
|Guardian for a River Wall, done in hand-cast and altered brick clay for a private home in London. (©Syma/Krz Mazeika photo)|
You can see more of Syma’s work in her Etsy shop, on her website, or by following her on Instagram. If you live in the greater New York area and are interested in her Sunday afternoon family workshops, you’ll find more info and a registration link HERE.
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And don’t forget our GIVEAWAY: Enter to win $75 credit to spend in Syma’s Etsy shop!
Browse Syma’s Etsy shop and/or her website, then return to this post on BoHo Home and tell us in the comments what you liked best. Don’t forget to leave contact information so we can get in touch if you’re the lucky winner.
Entries will be accepted through Monday, July 18, and the winner determined in a blind drawing.