Juneau potter finds inspiration in Native art

Juneau Color

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

Twenty years ago, Sue Deems was a woman with time on her hands.

She had worked six years as a merchant after she and her husband, Richard, bought DeHart's marina and store in the late 1970s. But when the couple sold the store, she cast around for a hobby and found her calling in a big lump of clay.

"Just right from the beginning I loved it. It was just a great therapy," Deems said. "If you were down, it was a tension reliever. It was good exercise, and it was very creative."

Deems' hobby evolved into a passion, then a business. She makes a couple hundred porcelain vases, bowls and other objects each year and sells them at local gift shops and the public market.

Locals might recognize her distinctive designs, which she calls totemic inspired - ideas "borrowed" from Alaska Native art. She found her source of inspiration after attending an art class in Idaho.

"The instructor told me to go home and look at what was around me and try to use the creativity within reach of the area I was living," she said. "That's when I discovered the totemic design and an appreciation for Indian art."

Deems doesn't try to duplicate Native designs but her pieces suggest Native art. She has created about 15 molds for the designs, which include bear, bird and halibut motifs. The design elements are popped from the molds while still pliable and "inlaid" into the pieces. Sometimes she cuts holes around the designs for a lacy effect.

She also makes her own glazes - the "paint" used to decorate pottery - from scratch, a process she likens to following a cake recipe.

"It's cheaper and you have a much larger selection," Deems said. "I think it's fairly uncommon because it does take a lot of supplies. You have to have a lot of different things on hand to be able to do this."

Out of the 100 or so glazes she has made, Deems said she probably uses only 12. She layers up to five colors on each piece and has spent "an incredible amount of time" making the glazes and testing them for compatibility, she said.

The glaze "is very important - that's the make or break of the piece," Deems said. "The glaze has to have a personality of its own that will fit the personality of the pot that you've just made."

Deems spent five years learning the craft before she attempted a sale. Although the first one sold "incredibly fast," she worried Alaska Natives might take offense at her designs.

"I felt I was infringing on territory I shouldn't be in," Deems said.

One day an Alaska Native did dismiss her work.

"She said if I were an Indian she would buy all the pieces I had, but since I wasn't an Indian she couldn't buy any," she said.

However, Deems said most of her experiences have been positive, adding many Alaska Natives have bought her pottery. Those sales mean more to her than the others.

"It's an acceptance on their part, and that does make you feel good," Deems said.

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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