The Lone Ranger Goes to Pot in Susan Folwell's Pop Art Pottery

The Lone Ranger Goes to Pot in Susan Folwell's Pop Art Pottery

Lee Allen

"We’re a family operation, the fourth generation of pottery makers,” says Susan Folwell.  “As a multi-generational artisan group, I believe we are the largest artisan family in North America with just about everyone in the group involved in some form of artwork.”

Susan, who lives by the mantra "Where there is clay, there is hope," is the daughter of Jody Folwell, referred to as "the matriarch of the avant garde native pottery movement."  Other artistic family members range from her grandmother Rose Naranjo to her niece, Kaa Folwell who joins Susan as part of a new generation of Native American artists pushing to re-define traditional art forms in a fusion of traditional materials with unorthodox textures, shapes, and designs.

“We’re a family of creators and coming from the Santa Clara Pueblo where everyone makes pottery, you do too," Susan says. "Growing up, I went to art school to be a painter, but family is a big influence and watching others make pottery makes you want to join them.  Like families with doctors and lawyers, you get nudged into it by your parents, aunts and uncles, and almost don’t get a choice.”

Even her choice of style was somewhat preordained, given the influence of her mother’s unique creations.  “I wanted to follow in her footsteps, to go with the flow, but also develop my own signature of funky and eclectic, keeping traditional roots, but adding my own flavor like variations on a theme.

“You need to make your own path with your own ideas.  I love traditional pottery with its smooth surfaces, but I also like to break out and experiment with texture in conjunction with contemporary ideas, techniques, and materials -- whatever grabs my fancy.  You just do what you need to do to feel good about what you produce.  I’m not sure my art qualifies as sophisticated, but it’s experimental and challenging.”

Some of her one-of-a-kind productions come in concert with a hobby of her husband's: Andrew Higgins (who is Arizona State Museum Curator of Collections) often roams Southwester deserts in search of things left behind in nature.  Higgins brings home rustic metals, can lids, old bottles -- treasures of the Northern Sonoran desert -- and Folwell incorporates them into her creations, such as a rust-covered canteen encased in hardened clay (which was a real method of repairing worn-out canteens). 

The clay she and her family members use is dug on the Santa Clara Pueblo and then brought back to her studio in Tucson.  “It’s authentic.  I bring it home to process it in the traditional way.  I dig the pot ash as well and mix it with my feet,” she says.  “Even though our creations are very contemporary, I still believe firmly in keeping with tradition as we have for generations.”

Authenticity is also expressed in ideas she has included in her Keeping A Dream journal, first writing about the dreams, then putting them into artwork, frequently with an animal theme.  She also likes to work with concepts taken from tourist tales of the Fred Harvey period.  “There’s so much food for thought from that era, ideas that allow for a lot of whimsy.”

Folwell blends her love of clay with a catharsis of spirit as coil by coil, each piece is brought to life and form becomes a canvas for design -- carved, etched or painted into the clay.  When finished, she has created a moment of herself in clay with her personal expression finding a voice in her art.

American Indian Art magazine described Susan's work as “like reading a book as each piece must be turned, examined, and viewed from different angles to understand the whole story.” 

Folwell has been breaking barriers throughout her career, and thereby earned an industry reputation as a beacon of growth in Native Art, with prize-winning entries at Santa Fe Indian Market as well as competition at Heard Museum in Phoenix and at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.  Samples of her work can be found in galleries in New Mexico and Arizona in addition to permanent collections in the Museum of Art and Design in New York and other facilities in Washington, DC, Denver, and Kansas City.

Where she goes in the future, even she doesn’t know.  “I’ll include tradition, but I’m not afraid of artistic self-expression.  That’s a formula for success for me and I’ll stick with it because one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor and beauty is still in the eye of the beholder.  It’s gratifying when you can express yourself and still have your efforts well-received by the public.

“Art is such a wonderful thing -- wonderful as well as frequently frustrating -- but at the end of the day it’s great to have a piece of yourself out there in the world.”

Photos used for this gallery come from the artists' official site,

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