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All Fired Up

Two seniors share life and art

Story by Bates College April 22nd, 2016

Vase-to-vase encounters

Sasha Lennon and Natalie Silver admire each other’s honesty and self-confidence. They value each other’s advice. All told, they enjoy one of the great Bates friendships.

“It’s almost like we’re dating — we’re not dating,” laughs Silver, of Bennington, Vt., “but I think that we really match each other in a lot of ways, in terms of demeanor and values and the way we approach problems.”

And they are both ceramic artists — who, as a friend observed, “vibe off of each other” both in the pottery studio and outside of it. “Us working together is definitely something that really pushes both of our work, makes it a lot better,” says Lennon, of Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Silver and Lennon, sharing an Olin Arts Center studio with fellow art majors Stephanie Jones and Catie O’Toole, spent the year making pottery for the annual Senior Thesis Exhibition at the Bates College Museum of Art.

Here’s what it looked like.
Sasha Lennon, left, and Natalie Silver throwing pots.

'smush it and destroy it'

Lennon, Silver, and one of their two studiomates, Catie O’Toole, all make vases or variations on that form. Where they differ, first, is in decoration.

Working in porcelain, a difficult medium to start with, O’Toole makes decoration that “almost becomes part of the architecture of the pot,” explains Susan Dewsnap, head of Bates’ ceramics program and visiting assistant professor of art and visual culture. Using clay, both Lennon and Silver decorate the vessel surfaces. Lennon creates a sort of abstract pointillist technique with dots of clay. Silver’s floral imagery, says Dewsnap, has “more of a drawing quality.”

The three also span an attitudinal continuum. “Sasha has something I don’t often see in students, where she is carefree, but in the most positive way you could be carefree, in that it liberates her to try things,” says Dewsnap. “She’s willing to try things and not worry about the outcome.” O’Toole is at the other extreme, wanting control throughout the process.

“And Natalie is maybe somewhere in between,” Dewsnap says. Silver’s own take is a little different: “When things go wrong, I can’t come back from it. I’ll smush it and destroy it.”

Silver shapes the base of a vessel.
The door to the studio shared by studio art majors Jones, Silver, O'Toole, and Lennon.
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Video: Awake at the wheel

Silver shapes an exhibition pot. She’s a double major (in history), as is Lennon (in psychology).

'Calming and zen, but incredibly anxiety-provoking'

“Being a solo studio potter is very difficult, because there’s so much labor involved in ceramics,” says Dewsnap. “You know, if you’re drawing, you get a piece of paper and a pencil and you’re set. But we have many processes — you make the pots, trim the pots, make all the glazes and slips that get used on the pots. Everything gets fired twice.”

And every step has its own special way of breaking a potter’s heart. “There’s something really nice about clay having all these innate properties that you have to work within and respect,” Lennon says. “Sometimes it flows and happens ... but these different stages offer all kinds of opportunities for things to get messed up.

“Pottery is simultaneously very calming and Zen, but also incredibly anxiety-provoking and stressful at times.”

If you love it, let it go

“We have pretty similar ideas about the way we approach ceramics,” says Silver, “and by that I mean we both really like ceramics that are functional but that are also pieces of art. And that, in the ceramic world, is a bit of a controversial idea.”

“I think we are both focused on the surface of the pot in a way that some other artists in the field aren’t as comfortable with,” adds Lennon — “embracing abnormalities or inconsistencies or differences within the surface of the pot. The two of us are very, ‘Let the pot go in the direction it needs to or wants to go in.’”

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A lot of history together

Like Lennon and Silver, Dewsnap started at Bates in 2012. “This is my first teaching experience where these are students I had during their first years here and it was my first year here,” she says. “So I’ve seen the whole process go to fruition, which was really nice to have happen.”

“As a mentor, Susan has been instrumental in teaching us the different things that aren’t just throwing on the wheel,” says Silver. Lennon adds to that idea by noting that “ceramics is not only studying art, but also studying history, and chemistry, and contemporary culture and sociology. It’s an incredibly interdisciplinary field, though a lot of people don’t realize it or it doesn’t show in the work.”

Pots and ceramics are so embedded in the human story, says Lennon, that “there’s nothing you could do in a pot that doesn’t reference something that has been done in history. So when people look at your pots, that’s something they read, whether it’s conscious or unconscious.”

To make pottery that is successful and intentional, Lennon continues, “you have to know this enormous amount about what happened before you, and what you’re talking about when you’re making that pot. That’s something I never would have known had Susan not made that abundantly clear.”

The inside of the pot must be glazed too.
Lennon's hand is covered with glaze.
The color properties of the glaze won’t be apparent until the piece has been fired.
Glaze waterproofs the clay and imparts color, luminosity, and texture.
Silver checks in with Susan Dewsnap near the pottery studio in the Olin Arts Center.
The clay in the foreground is raw material for works like the vessels at rear.

body of work

“One thing that’s unique about pots, and the pots that we use in particular, is that we have an intimate relationship with them that we really don’t have with any other kind of art form,” says Dewsnap, an internationally known ceramicist.

“We touch them, pick them up, and even bring them to our mouths — those are such intimate kinds of experiences in our life, and there’s no other art that does that, so it’s very connected to the body. Even the whole making of pots is so connected to the body.”

Silver pushes a load of pottery toward the kiln room on the ground floor of the Olin Arts Center.

view to a kiln

“Ceramics is definitely a team effort,” says Silver. “Clay dries out really fast, so you’re kind of married to it. You can’t just leave for a couple of days. You have to be in here pretty much every day.”

She adds, “Loading kilns is physically hard, and a lot of work.”

The kiln in the Olin Arts Center is loaded and ready to fire.
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Silver and Dewsnap look on as Lennon closes the kiln.
Peering into the kiln to check the "witness" or pyrometric cones, which deform when the temperature hits a certain point.
Removable firebricks permit inspection of the kiln.
Lennon and Silver react as fellow ceramicist Catie O'Toole, center, checks a Lennon bowl.
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Cleanup. Pottery makes a mess, and Dewsnap stresses order and cleanliness to her students.

advise and consult

On April 5, the Tuesday before Friday night’s opening reception, the senior studio art majors are installing their work at the Bates Museum of Art. As always, Lennon and Silver are in close consultation as they arrange their vessels.

“We ask each other’s advice a lot about things in our lives,” Silver says. “‘Should I take this job?’ ‘Should I move in with my boyfriend?’ We often check with each other in that way.

“But we’re very honest with each other, so I feel like if Sasha disagrees with me, it doesn’t feel like it’s tension — it just feels like I’m getting a different opinion.”

Lennon counters, “I don’t think we’ve ever disagreed about anything.” Silver replies, ”I really think we haven’t.”

Silver offers ideas as Lennon arranges her vessels for display in the museum's ground-floor gallery.

opening up possibilities

Though there are three ceramicists in the Senior Thesis Exhibition, on display in the Museum until May 28, the nine other artists run the media from stop-motion animation to printmaking to drawing.

Especially at this point in their progress, it’s good for artists in different media to critique each other, Dewsnap points out. “Sometimes we get very narrow in what we expect of the work or see in the work, and then when you have someone in another field — all of a sudden, they ask you questions that you don’t often ask as a ceramicist, and it can open possibilities up that you never thought about.”

For example, thesis adviser Robert Feintuch, senior lecturer in the art and visual culture department and himself a prominent painter, “has a very different voice that he brings to ceramics,” Dewsnap says. Adds Silver, “He was able to give wonderful constructive criticism and help us shape this body of work that we’ve produced this year.”

Museum curator Bill Low, at right, and thesis exhibition adviser Robert Feintuch watch Lennon experiment with placement.
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Silver scrutinizes her vessels in the Upper Gallery.

Show Time

Before the opening of the Senior Thesis Exhibition on April 8, says Silver, the only people who had seen her and Lennon’s work were their fellow studio art majors, Dewsnap, and senior thesis advisers Feintuch and Associate Professor of Art and Visual Culture Pamela Johnson. “We didn’t get praise from them — not because they didn’t like it, but because they were helping us make it better, and they’d seen it so much.

”But people at the opening really liked it, and that was exciting and kind of a surprise.”

She says, “Something Sasha and Catie and I talked about before this show was, we just wanted people to walk away saying, ‘Wow, those three potters did a lot of hard work.’” Lennon adds, “I think we spent 30 hours a week in the studio.”

Lennon sticks on her nametag before the opening.

'Pure Joy'

“The opening was so much fun,“ Lennon says. “So many people came — I was blown away by all the support. It was pure joy.”

After Commencement, Silver is going back to Vermont to serve with the state Democratic Party through what’s shaping up as a grueling campaign. And Lennon heads to Ghana in October to start a 27-month Peace Corps commitment.

Neither path seems to afford much space for making art. And in fact, despite all the creative and physical energy they have lavished on ceramics at Bates, neither woman had given a lot of thought to pursuing it after graduation. But the enthusiasm that greeted their ceramics at the Senior Thesis Exhibition opening — not to mention all they learned from the work leading up to it — may have changed that.

“The opening was a realization that people like my work, and I really like making my work, and there is maybe an opportunity there,” says Lennon. “It’s something I never would have considered doing with my life. Now it’s on my radar screen.”

“I got asked a lot at the opening if I was going to do it after Bates,“ says Silver. “I really hope so.”

Silver's mother, Amelia Silver, left, and sister Caroline Myran, right, photograph Natalie with friends. Niece Eloise is in the stroller.
Nate Diplock '17 examines Lennon's work.
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Sasha and her mother Sara embrace at the opening.
Natalie and Sasha.
Footnote: Produced by the Bates Communications Office with photography by Phyllis Graber Jensen and text by Doug Hubley.