Election Section

Mending Shards, Mending Life: Susan Duhan Felix Exhibit Opens at Badé Museum By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet

Friday July 22, 2005

“The gallery floor is off limits, and there are no showcases, so they asked me to create 30 ceramic pieces that will hang on the walls!” 

We are standing in Susan Felix’s studio in the small basement garage of her home, surrounded by boxes, sawhorse tables, and unfinished walls, all covered by quarter-inch thick ceramic pieces, most of them about 8x12 inches in size, many patched together from broken shards, fired in cloudy colors, shot through with smoky black and metallic shimmers of gold and silver. 

Many feature Biblical quotations in neat, black Hebrew script emerging from the cloudy texture (“That smoky look comes from pit-firing with sawdust.”) Thirty of these pieces are now on exhibit at the Pacific School of Religion. 

Susan Duhan Felix was born in Queens, New York (she still has the accent to prove it) to a secular Jewish family, her father a doctor, her mother a Latin teacher. There were artists on both sides of her family, but her parents discouraged her from becoming an artist. 

“‘Artists are disappointed, bitter people,’ they told me. ‘No recognition, no money.’ So, when I went to Queens College, I majored in literature,” Felix said. “I read some poems in the college literary magazine, fell in love with them, and then fell in love with the poet. Morton was a graduating senior, on his way to the University of Connecticut to do graduate work and teach in Clinical Psychology. After a year, I joined him. We were married. I was 19.” 

After finishing her B.A. at the University of Connecticut, she took some art classes. 

“First I tried painting, but it was when I started working in clay that I felt at home. In 1961 Morton insisted I enter a piece in the New England Ceramic Show. I did, and won first prize!” She shrugs and rolls her eyes. “So—I guess that labeled me ‘artist’ and ‘art teacher.’” 

Daughter Lisa was born as the Vietnam War began, along with Susan’s interest in community activism. She helped found the first peace center in Providence.  

In retrospect, Susan credits two events with giving direction to her art. The first was her 1962 M.A. thesis. Her subject was T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” as a metaphor for the loss of sacred ritual in modern life. Four years later, in 1966, she made a ceramic menorah for a friend. When a local rabbi’s wife saw it, she asked Susan to make one for her, then one for each of her children. 

That year also brought a brief teaching stint in Mexico. Then Susan and Morton were drawn to Berkeley, where they settled permanently in 1967. 

Susan is best known here for her thirty-odd years of community art and social activism; the list of boards and commissions, titles and honors recognizing her efforts, is long and may be exemplified by one example. In the late seventies, she began working with UA Housing. 

“I was good at writing grants, and when I got a grant for the University Avenue Housing Co-op, they hired me as executive director,” she said. “We managed to create 122 units of housing for the homeless in Berkeley.” 

During all these years, how did she find time to devote to art? 

She laughs. “Working with clay evenings and weekends was what kept me sane! And since I had a small but steady salary from UA Housing, I was able to make ceramics without concern for whether they would sell. It seemed natural for me to turn toward sacred art, ritual objects. In some cases the object came to me first, and then I actually invented a ritual to go with it.”  

She shows me examples that don’t appear in the PSR exhibit (because they can’t be hung on a wall). Her “Blessing Bowl” is a receptacle for blessings by well-wishers on happy occasions. She also originated a candle-holder to be part of a girl’s baby-naming ceremony, then to be used in adulthood by the girl as she lights the Sabbath lamp. 

“Traditionally Jewish women don’t get to do much ritual, but they do light the Sabbath candles, and I wanted to emphasize that,” she said.  

Her “Miriam’s Cup” is a two-part vessel to be used for hand washing during a Passover Seder. The prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, led women in singing and dancing to celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea, which then drowned Pharaoh’s pursuing forces; Miriam is also credited with locating water during the long wanderings of her people. The Hebrew inscription on this “Miriam’s Cup” translates to “Rise up, oh well, respond to my song.” 

So, did the molding and firing of ritual objects lead Susan back to the religious observance her parents had rejected? 

“I’ve found two spiritual homes here in Berkeley, Chocmat HaLev (Jewish) and Spirit Rock (Buddhist).” 

Then she shows me the eight-piece set of deeply etched wall plaques symbolizing the Eight Noble Truths of Buddhism, hanging next to the five-piece set titled “Jacob’s Ladder.”  

These hang in the midst of more abstractly spiritual plaques dedicated to comforting individuals, inspired by friends who were ill or troubled, and given titles that suggest a mood, a hope, a shaft of light in darkness. Most of them bear a jagged, broken line down the middle or several across. Sometimes the line is emphasized with contrasting color. Marks of fusing broken plaques? 

“Yes, I made these from random shards, some old ones, some recently broken—you never know what will happen in pit-firing. To use them again, to patch them up, is symbolic for me of broken worlds, broken people that can be repaired and reunified, can make new wholes in the spirit of creative grace. That is why I’m calling the exhibit Wholly Grace, with the double pun on Wholly.” 

She smiles. “As for Grace, it’s a lovely, rich word. I’m not sure I can define it.”