Susy O’Donnell’s Historic Pottery

by Cindy Steele

Susy O’Donnell has a passion for pottery. She says the rhythm of the work “settles” her. She likens the process to baking or starting a garden and enjoys bringing the clay through the various stages of texture, color, and smell.

Her redware pieces start out hand-thrown on the wheel and are left to dry to a leathery state before they are coated with a cream-colored slip, a liquid clay. The designs are sketched on the surface, then the coating is scratched off with a sgraffito tool to expose the red clay underneath. When the clay is rock hard the decoration is painted on. The works are moved to the kiln for a bisque firing, are glazed, and then return to the kiln for a final bake.

O’Donnell was introduced to pottery in the late 1980s when she audited some ceramics classes at Indiana University and mentored under a potter from the Bloomington Potter’s Coop. She also took classes from Carolyn Mullet, attended workshops, and visited museums including the Philadelphia Museum of Art that houses a fine collection of redware.

Gerard and Deb Davis of Davis Fine Art approached O’Donnell in 1999 about making some “new” historic pottery for their museum/shop that was located at the north end of Nashville. She researched the Davis’s antique collection and the photos of early Brown County pottery. Susan Snyder, of Italiana Pottery, helped refine her technique on creating the layout, and painting the designs. About a year later she also made items for the Carter’s Artists Colony Inn’s gift shop and for the restaurant’s tables.

The redware designs were created in the spirit of the early Brown County potters Helen and Walter Griffiths. The Griffiths started making pottery when Walter lost his engineering job during the Depression of the 1930s. Brown County pottery was a fixture in Nashville for more than 20 years at the Old Bartley House on Van Buren and Franklin Streets. They had a mini-factory and showroom there, but also sold their goods out of the Nashville House’s gift shop—Brown County Folks Shop—where Spears Pottery is located today. Their work was sold in Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Chicago, and New York just a year after the business began. You can see a collection of the Griffiths’s pottery next to the fireplace at the Brown County Library.

O’Donnell’s redware pottery, always evolving, presently includes many forms such as: bowls, dinnerware, canister sets, casserole dishes, sculptures, and other items. Like the Griffiths, she uses nature themes that appeal to visitors as a type of keepsake for a stay in Brown County. The motifs are seasonal with dogwood and flower patterns for spring, birds and bees for summer, persimmons and acorns in the fall, and deer, holly, or pine cones for winter.

She is proud to be continuing the tradition of the early potters and is interested in the area’s unique art heritage. She recently made figurines of Ada Shulz, one of the early artists of the Brown County Art Gallery. She used the well-known Frank Hohenberger photo of Shulz holding a chicken and basket standing next to the Brown County character known as Grandma Barnes as inspiration.

Her pottery is currently for sale at the Brown County Art Guild, at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site, and Madeline’s. You can also find her work at the annual Local Clay Potter’s Guild show held at Bloomington’s Convention Center every November.