BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
*Everyday Artist is original to BoHo Home (Vcevold Strekalovsky photo)
Each artist profiled in Everyday Artist has followed a unique path. We’ve interviewed a former dancer who seeks to capture nature’s dance in clay, as well as a painter who turned to clay after a career in art restoration.
Today’s featured artist, Syma, paved a whimsical pathway by yet another circuitous route: psychology, social work, and education. 
Syma has also graciously agreed to sponsor a giveaway for credit to spend in her Etsy shop. So read all about her journey, enjoy her magical creations, and find out how to win some of that magic to adorn your own boho home. Entry instructions follow the post.


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.

These projects have included colorful sculpted ceramic tiles, a fiberglass water fountain, cast concrete, and hand-cast brick sculpture.
The angel caryatid pictured here, I originally designed in clay. Then it was cast in concrete from my full-size paper templates to adorn a Huntington Avenue building in downtown Boston.
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Green Phoenix, shown here in entire and detail, is one of Syma’s Bottomless Vessels to Hold Change, meant to be a reminder that change and transformation cannot be contained. It’s done in smoke-fired clay with glazes and 24-karat gold leaf. (©Syma/Stephen Brayne photo)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
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!
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
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.

My first job after college was at Gracie Square Psychiatric Hospital in New York City as assistant director of recreation therapy, where they also used therapeutic art-making. My plan was to get a graduate degree in social work or go to one of the few schools for art therapy. I ended up taking graduate social work courses at Columbia University and studying drawing and sculpture at the Art Students League. From there, it was pure serendipity that altered my plan.
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Syma discovered her love for teaching in the late 1960s when she took a job at the Earl Kelley School, a private institution in New York City. “I discovered I loved teaching art because I had to experiment and explore whatever it was I was going to teach.” (Thomas Lee photo for the Hingham Journal)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
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)
I’m fortunate now to be a full-time artist and freelance educator and have led workshops at a number of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Asia Society Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design, all in New York, as well as the British Museum in London.
I also recently launched a series of family art-making workshops at my Brooklyn studio on Sunday afternoons. I’ve always been fascinated by the ways we learn, the ways we make meaning in our lives, the intersection of art and psychology, and the ways art-making seems to offer me a kind of meditative flow.
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Boston’s Symphony Road Townhouses for which Syma created personalized clay-tile pediments. (©Syma/Joan Devereaux photo)
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
A closeup of one of the art nouveau pediments Syma made for Symphony Road Townhouses—her first architectural commission. (©Syma/Gail Bryan photo)
Describe your daily art-making routine, along with your studio or workplace. 

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
LEFT: Syma works in her studio using her father’s dental tool to burnish the Wizard Bell to Summon the Positive Forces in the Universe. RIGHT: The finished product comes after kiln-firing, then smoke-firing, then adding gold leaf to the eyes and inside the hood of the cape. (©Syma/Ward Yoshimoto photos)
Where do your ideas come from? 
Drawing on my background in psychology and as a museum educator, I make art to respond to my life experiences, dreams and wishes. Ideas and images for architectural commissions come from researching the history and the mystery of the place and the people in a particular community, coupled with the vision of the architect or interior designer.
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
“My faux Greek black-figure vessels start with painted, amorphous shapes that relate in some intuitive way to each other,” Syma says. “But unlike ancient Greek potters who used images from well-known myths, my images are from stories yet to be told. The details are drawn and incised in a playful, meditative state. In the case of these wine coolers, the stories might become more elaborate as dinner guests sip on the chilled wine.” (©Syma/James Dee photo)

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.  

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
TOP LEFT: Homage to Columbus Circle, terracotta clay with under-glaze, wire, and 24-karat gold leaf.
TOP RIGHT: Liberty Leading the New York Muses, terracotta clay with under-glaze, 24-karat gold leaf,
and encaustic transfers.
BOTTOM: Detail of Liberty Leading the New York Muses. (©Syma)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
WildeBeads necklace, available in Syma’s Etsy Shop, under-glazed terracotta beads on satin cord. (©Syma/Cary Wolinsky photo)
The project was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, and it also stalled every time we ran out of funds. It was partially funded by a grant from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, administered by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, but I had to learn how to be a fundraiser, too!
Amazing advisers appeared and assisted, and an i-Movie trailer template allowed me to hold an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign. You can view our original fundraising one-minute video infomercial on Vimeo. Fractured Atlas stepped in as fiscal sponsor to enable ongoing fundraising to cover still unpaid expenses. Donations are still being accepted.
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Syma prepares for the ribbon-cutting at the Smith Housing community center on New York’s lower east side. Senior residents created the memory tiles on either side, while Syma created the tile frieze representing their wishes across the top. Tile coaster reproductions were also made as a fundraiser. (©Syma)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
LEFT: Three Women and a Gilded Tongued Serpent is from Syma’s Muse Charger Series, done in terracotta, under-glazed, and accented with 24-karat gold leaf. (©Syma/James Dee photo) RIGHT: The newest charger in the series, Smokey-Jo, is smoke-fired clay with glaze and 24-karat gold leaf. Both chargers reside in private collections, but printed reproductions are available as ceramic coasters in Syma’s Etsy shop. (©Syma/Ward Yoshimoto photo)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Astarte: A Treasure Box for Promises collected the written promises of viewers, which were inserted through the mouth, irretrievable in the same way a promise once made cannot be called back. The piece is thrown and altered terracotta clay. Two tinted resin reproductions, as well as the original pictured here, now reside in private collections. (©Syma/Baskin Photography)

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!

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
LEFT: Syma works in her studio to perfect the water flow of a garden fountain commission she whimsically named Pounce de Lion. RIGHT: She works on site in Acton, MA, to install the lion’s whiskers. The client wanted the water to flow from the lion’s mouth and the eyes to be separate, on a back wall, visually lined up from the site line of his center kitchen window. Syma used her Maine coon cat as her model for the mouth of the fountain. (©Syma)
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Landscape architect David Durrant designed the gardens Pounce de Lion presides over and was the one who brought Syma in on the project. Robert Shure at Skylight Studios in Woburn, MA, served as technical adviser and fabricator. His studio made rubber molds of Syma’s clay lion face and eyes, and reproduced it as a tinted fiberglass water feature. (©Syma)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Apples and Oranges is a custom fireplace surround Syma created for the upstate New York home of writers John Pielmeier and Irene O’Garden. It was created to illustrate a poem Irene wrote about her marriage to John. The closeup shows detail of the upper right tile on the surround. (©Syma/James Dee photos)

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.

BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Pan is done in smoke-fired clay with glaze and feathers, currently in a private collection.
(©Syma/Baskin Photography)

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:

Assume no thing. 
Expect even less. 
But trust that it will work. 
BoHoHome.com @bohosusan SymaStudios.com
Guardian for a River Wall, done in hand-cast and altered brick clay for a private home in London. (©Syma/Krz Mazeika photo)

Want more?

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.

For more boho home decor inspiration, follow my blog with Bloglovin or get to-your-inbox updates with one of the email subscriptions listed in the sidebar, just below the welcome.

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.

Good luck!!

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