In partnership with Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery, Canvas will take a behind-the-scenes look at artists from various disciplines over the spring semester.
In this first installment of the series, staff writer Sarah McQuillan met with artist Susan Filley to discuss the life, loves, career and craft of a ceramics specialist.
Not many people love Chapel Hill as much as ceramicist Susan Filley does. In fact, not many people are much like Susan Filley at all.
Despite her incredible talent for ceramics and success as a professional artist, Filley did not consider art seriously until college.
“I never planned on being a professional artist. It was never something I saw as a realistic way to make a living,” she said.
After growing up in Chapel Hill, Filley moved north to attend college in Indiana, focusing her studies on biology and other sciences. However, she said this focus slowly shifted to ceramics after she took a pottery class that would ultimately change the course of her professional and personal life.
“I was always artistic,” Filley said. “ I love to draw and stuff, but to make something that was also functional — that’s what made pottery more interesting to me.”
Filley described how her work has evolved over the years, most notably how it changed after she had her two kids. She said the practical utility of pottery that initially attracted her to the art form eventually waned, replaced by aesthetic utility.
“Up until I had kids I was very idealistic, I was a go-getter, I loved to do everything, I loved to make everything in my garden, I liked to build. I liked to make everything myself and do everything myself,” she said. “And then I had kids and my life ramped up and was so busy. And my cooking was a daily, hourly requirement as opposed to something fun I got to do on a Friday night with a few friends.”
Filley’s intense interest in various arts and sciences is evident in her work as well. These interests, specifically in ornithology and botany, manifest themselves in an entire collection of work based on birds as well as plant and flower designs in several of her other pieces.
“I love colors and I also studied geology, and one of the things I love about pottery is looking at it as a mineral and understanding the geology of what’s going on with the clay and in the kiln,” Filley said. “I wish I was out there studying science and knowing that world as much as I know my current world.”
Teals, deep midnight blues, greens and khakis comprise the beautiful color palette of her current body of work, which fills the front corner of the FRANK gallery.
“Really my work is about beauty, and it took me a long time but I have a very strong sense of design and form and I have a lot of passion for beautiful design elements and line quality,” she said.
Filley practices her craft in a studio beside her house. There, she said she often enjoys the company of her two dogs, both of whom she describes as funny-looking poodle mixes, as well as the narration of whatever audio book she currently listens to.
“I’ve listened to hundreds and hundreds of books, and some of them are terrible and some of them are good, but it’s this treat because I’m working in my studio and I’m listening to something and learning something that I don’t know anything about,” she said. “I listen to a lot of history, or science, or how to make a better business. I listen to novels, I listen to crap, I listen to things I’m politically opposed to.”
Filley said she spends up to 15 hours at a time working in her studio, and stressed the fact that being an artist is by no means an easy or relaxing job.
“People say to me ‘Oh, you’re so lucky you get to work as an artist and you get to go to your studio and that must be so centering and balancing and everything,'’’ Filley said. “And I go, ‘Well why don’t you join me one night when its 4 a.m. and I’m firing the kiln and its freezing cold outside and I have a deadline tomorrow."
Despite the intense labor and long hours spent making pottery, the pay is minimal. Additionally, the space for an art studio and the equipment needed to make it a working one are not cheap. In order to offset some of the costs of her studio, as well as fund her children’s educations, Filley also sells real estate.
Although she said the decision to become a real estate agent was difficult at first, Filley now enjoys it and often maintains lasting friendships with her clients. Her unique skillset also makes her a helpful person to have in a variety of situations.
“I’m artistic," she said. "I’ve got really good visuals, I’ve got construction skills, I can do spreadsheets, detail work, science work, math, drawings. I can help people plan their home, I can help figure out if their septic tank is working. I multitask. I like challenges.”
Filley faced plenty of challenges during her art career, especially at the beginning, and she said failure occurs over and over again. She said the important thing is to not remain discouraged but rather to stay excited about working.
“I look back and think wow I did things I never dreamed I would do,” Filley said. “I’ve run my own gallery, started a school, helped start FRANK, I’ve gotten to travel. I do something that I love. I wake up on Saturday morning and I get to go to my studio and I’m excited.”
Although she grew up and now lives and works in Chapel Hill, Filley previously travelled all over the country and world for her art. In the early days of her career she participated in numerous events in order to network and cultivate a reputation in the art community.
“I’ve done craft fairs, wholesale, retail, art galleries, national nonprofits. I’ve helped start this nonprofit [FRANK gallery]. I have a lot of experience now,” Filley said. “For ten years I worked for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. It’s a really big art organization and I got involved on the board and I became president.”
Filley, working as a full-time studio potter, served as the first NCECA president from a field other than academia, and was urged to take the position after initially declining it on the basis of feeling as though she did not meet the qualifications.
“I realized it was about a lot more than just the academic side of it,” she explained. “About 1/3 of the members are students, so it started as a lot of college professors getting together and figuring out how to better educate and how to share their resources and make the field stronger.”
The NCECA gained status as an international organization, which resulted in Filley gaining the status of world traveler.
“I represented the United States and I traveled to China, Korea and Norway for conferences,” she said. “That was wonderful and exciting and those things never would have happened if I wasn’t so willing to say I really, really want to shoot for the highest and I want to work with the best artists I can work with.”
Filley also opened her own studio and gallery in downtown Charleston, S.C., which remains successful today. She offered classes and taught at her studio in Charleston, and also at various art schools and community colleges throughout the United States. However, no matter where she goes Filley said the relationships she forms make all the difference.
“Some of the best times have been dependent on the people I’m surrounded with,” she said. “So it’s not just about travel, it’s very much about community."
Community also serves as a key ideal and component of Filley’s more recent work in Chapel Hill, especially in FRANK gallery.
“We invite the best artists we can, but we also celebrate the best local artists we can find,” she said. “I’m from this town and I wanted to see a better art gallery, a better focused place for the arts in Chapel Hill, and I felt like I had some of the skills needed to help with that.”
Filley also stressed the importance of supporting all local businesses around the Chapel Hill and Carrboro areas in order to preserve the unique and charming spots that shape the area’s character.
“To me it’s a political statement that I care about," she said. "If you don’t support the businesses on Franklin Street and in Carrboro and everybody just goes to Southpoint Mall, then after a while all you have is those same 100 stores that are in every mall everywhere in the country.”
Filley said she hopes to see more students visit FRANK and emphasized the importance of community support toward the nonprofit organization. Between FRANK, real estate and crafting pieces for individual customers and gallery exhibits alike, Filley said she will keep busy with her work, just as she prefers.
“I think what I love is striving for excellence-- hoping to learn more or be better. I think that’s the nature of who I am: I like to do things with excitement and enthusiasm,” she said. “And I love hanging out with my dogs in my studio and listening to books. That’s as good as it gets.”
If the culture of Chapel Hill centers on striving for excellence— whether academic, athletic or artistic — then Susan Filley not only supports the culture, but profoundly shapes it.
Note from writer:
On my walk to interview Susan Filley at FRANK gallery, I imagined I would be meeting a pleasantly quirky, talented ceramics artist wearing clogs, clay-stained clothes and the eccentrically curly hair that only an artist could pull off. While half of this preconceived notion was accurate (the pleasant quirkiness, talent and clogs), the woman I met left me awestruck. Not only with the breadth of her personal and professional accomplishments, but also with her constant desire to continue learning, evolving and achieving.
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