Berkeley artist explores lifes mysteries in ceramics

On a recent weekend, Susan Duhan Felix went to the beach at Bodega Bay. But she didn’t go to work on her tan.

Felix, a Jewish artist who was appointed art ambassador by the Berkeley City Council, spent hours digging a hole in the sand, and then filling it with sawdust. She then buried some clay pieces in it, and built a fire. Then, she sat around and waited. And waited.

“Pit firing” is the name of the technique she uses to make her ceramic pieces look thousands of years old. The technique causes minimal color variation and leaves a rough finish.

Years ago, when Felix was experimenting with different finishing techniques, she was struck by the archeological finds she saw in Israel.

“I wanted to get a look of the old, ancient work, and pit firing is the way to do it,” she said. She has been using this process for decades now, and her work is displayed at numerous East Bay synagogues.

Felix has a solo show of her work, called “Wholly Grace,” at the Bade Museum at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley through Sept. 29.

With the pit firing process, artists can never be sure of how their work will come out.

“It’s a test of faith,” said Felix. “You have to totally surrender what you have to the pit and accept whatever it gives you; you don’t have that much control.”

In her latest pit firing, she had four objects for her current show and numerous others. She was concentrating so hard on the four for the show, and sure enough, they all came out fine, while everything else broke or cracked.

“It’s unbelievably challenging,” she said. “I keep getting cracks and things keep breaking.”

For Felix, who has mostly concentrated on making Jewish ritual items, this show is a departure in style. The Bade Museum has no pedestals or showcases upon which to place ritual items. Therefore she was asked to create a show of objects that could be hung on walls.

“That was a challenge, but it’s been very exciting,” said the 67-year-old artist.

At Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley, Felix has a sculpture with the Hebrew letters, “Yud Hay Vav Hay,” an alternate, holy name for God, on the wall. This is the type of piece she has in her show.

Some of the pieces are new works, and others come from broken shards of pottery that she had in her studio, waiting for such a purpose.

Felix explained that recently a number of her friends and family members have been enduring hardships, and she felt using broken pieces of clay represented that well.

“You see brokenness in these random clay chips, a symbolic broken world,” she said. “But people can be repaired and reunited with the world and the creator. That is the divine mystery in this ever-changing world.”

While there are no ritual objects in this show, almost every piece is Jewish in theme, said Felix, in that her collaborator Brenda Goldstein’s Hebrew calligraphy can be found on almost every piece. One is based on Psalm 30, which Felix said is one of her favorites.

“At night there are tears, but joy comes with the dawn,” she quoted.

Felix quoted another line from Psalm 30 that says “turn my mourning into dancing,” especially appropriate, since the diminutive Felix can often be found dancing up a storm at Chochmat HaLev on Friday nights.

“We’re living in a world with so much suffering and hard stuff going on,” she said. “There’s always this question of how you turn your mourning into dancing, how to live in the world we live in and keep an open heart, and see the joy in the world.”

All the broken pieces in the exhibit symbolize “the ability to experience joy and love, even when we see so much suffering, which is a pretty Jewish thing,” she said.

Felix said that while “grace” isn’t really a Jewish concept, she liked it as the title because it refers to that moment that she experiences at times, of “totally being in the present and realizing how perfect it is.”

She continued, “There is acceptance of the brokenness, and seeing that it can come together in a way that’s beautiful. That’s wholly grace; it’s a divine moment for me, getting a glimpse into the mystery.”

“Wholly Grace” can be seen through Sept. 29 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays or by appointment, (510) 841-1781 or [email protected]. The museum is at 1798 Scenic Ave., Berkeley. A reception will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, July 21 featuring poetry, flute and ocarina music and the Klezmer band Kugelplex.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."