Fraser potter brings history, art together

By: Nico Rubello | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published December 7, 2011

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FRASER — It started with tragic news.

Susan Bertolini-Fox’s mother, Irene Bertolini, had breast cancer.

But she wasn’t done living yet. Feeling inspired by a pottery display at Greenfield Village, the mother-daughter duo signed up for a pottery class together at Oakland Community College.

“She was a very positive woman and wanted to do something new,” Bertolini-Fox recalled of her mother, who overcame her diagnosis to live another 12 years before passing away in 1995. But pottery, it turned out, had a much longer impact.

The two women’s styles differed.

“She was more creative than I was, and she was more willing to be artistic,” said Bertolini-Fox, of Fraser. “I’m more of a production potter. I want my mugs to look similar.”

Bertolini-Fox was one of 135 entrepreneurial artists who sold their all-clay creations at the 36th annual Potters Market from Dec. 2-4 in Madison Heights.

It was at Oakland Community College that the then-28-year-old Susan Bertolini-Fox later said she learned the importance of quality production pottery, a passion she still pursues at the age of 56.

In 1995, Bertolini-Fox found her niche in making slipware. With roots in the ancient Chinese dynasties, slipware pottery is produced by pouring liquid clay, or “slip,” over red clay, decorating and molding it. Her favorite method of decoration is called feather trailing, in which she draws parallel lines using different colored slip, and then lightly runs the pointed quill of a goose feather perpendicularly over the lines to created a waved effect.

After the piece dries, she molds it, heats it for several hours, applies a clear glaze and heats it again. All told, the process typically takes more than a day to complete.

She sells most her masterfully crafted ceramic bowls, plates, platters, mugs, garden bells and music boxes online, either through her website, www.feathertrail.com, or through Etsy.com, the largest marketplace on the Web for craft-based businesses.

For her, the business isn’t at all about turning a profit. In fact, she’s not even sure if she’s breaking even. It’s mostly a way of paying for her hobby, she said. The real satisfaction comes from being able to make something few other potters are making.

“I can make all the other stuff, and I do. I want to sell something that nobody else is working on,” she said.

By now, the Fraser resident has produced thousands of items — far too many to estimate. Her practiced hand can make as many as 20 or 30 pieces in a day. You can find them, in various stages of drying, alongside the shelves of clay, glazes and coloring chemicals in her basement-turned-art-studio.

The slipware technique persisted on a wide scale during the Middle Ages, and by the late 17th century, American colonialists were bringing slipware with them from Europe. At Charles Towne Landing in South Carolina — the first permanent European settlement in the Carolina province — archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of shards of slipware pottery from the colonial period.

This year, Bertolini-Fox was commissioned by the historic park to recreate several platters, plates and mugs by using dimensions and photographs of pottery shards. Starting at the end of January, her creations, authentic to the time period, will be on display at the historic park to give visitors a look at what such pieces would have looked like.

Bertolini-Fox said, for her, it is an honor and an enjoyable challenge to create something the same way it had been done in the past, though at least she doesn’t have to make the clay from scratch.

“We were very happy with the work she did,” said David Jones, chief archeologist for the South Carolina State Park system. “The whole purpose was to take these small bits of pottery and bring them to life for people to see, and that’s exactly what she did.”

She continues to work on the project.

Before retiring last year, Bertolini-Fox employed her passions in the classroom as an elementary school teacher at Van Dyke Public Schools.

Angela Wright, a friend and former Van Dyke principal who worked with Bertolini-Fox from 1989 to 2010, said she always made her classroom “homey” for her students, bringing back pottery and other artifacts from her vacations to give them a firsthand view of history.

At Lincoln, Little and Kennedy elementary schools, she taught pottery making for her social studies classes. The students were happy to learn the ancient techniques. The pottery made in the classes was sold annually at the Christmas shop, paying for field trips to such places as the Monroe Historical Museum.

At home, Bertolini-Fox found support in her late husband, John Fox.

Today, her family, especially her two daughters, Agatha and Hillary Fox, continue to be her biggest fans.

Having grown up around pottery all her life, it was natural for Agatha Fox take it up on her own. For Fox, each piece of slipware pottery is a symbol of home.

“I can’t live without it,” said Fox of her mother’s pottery. “I take the best ones, and I keep them.”

More information about Bertolini-Fox’s work can be found at www.feathertrail.com.

 

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