Inspiring teacher lead to a career in art

Our Town for Aug. 10.

A childhood story told during elementary school has captured Susan Clay-Smith’s imagination and passion for years.

As one of two artists highlighting the August show in the Smithers Art Gallery, Clay-Smith’s clay pieces are arranged to wow gallery goers, in conjunction with Kaaren Soby’s brightly coloured paintings.

“I was always interested right from the time I was a little kid,” Clay-Smith said of her joy of working with clay.

And that initial interest was fired up by her high school art teacher, Robert Bateman. An incredible artist, back when he was teaching he was just as incredible passing along his passion, and his techniques, to the school kids in her hometown of Burlington, Ontario.

“He was an amazing teacher,” Clay-Smith said.

A geography major in university, he’d done an incredible amount of traveling, she said, especially through Africa, where he and a friend went along on a Land Rover.

“He had an incredible slide collection and lots of interesting stories,” Clay-Smith said.

These experiences and stories captivated the imaginations of his students, she said, making them all the more better for it.

“He gave all his students really good exposure to art history as well, he just invested a lot in his teaching,” she said. “He was a good teacher.”

From there she was off to the Sheridan College School of Craft and Design in Mississauga, having made the decision to follow her dreams of becoming a professional artist.

There, she learned a number of different techniques and mediums, including fabrics, metal work, woodworking,  and furniture-making.

“That got me started,” Clay-Smith said.

Clay, however, has always remained her favourite, though she couldn’t really tell you why she was drawn to it in her school years.

“I know now what I like is that clay is a very malleable, versatile material,” she said. “It’s got a lot of things about it that you can take in so many different directions. It’s different from other art forms.”

For one, it’s not so immediate. First you shape the clay, which she either does by throwing the material on the wheel or hand building, then you add the intricate designs, then you fire it. After that comes glazing.

After all those steps, what you had in your mind’s eye may not be what was produced.  Sometimes it’s just off the mark, other times it’s just that much better for it; you really don’t know until it’s done what it is you’ve created.

“You hope to heck it’s going to look great at the end,” Clay-Smith said. “There is a lot of things that can go on between making it and firing it that make it unpredictable, so it’s interesting to work in.”

Now with her own studio in her home here in Smithers, where she’s called home since the 70’s.

She finds her inspiration in a number of places, she said.  Sometimes, it’s the material itself that will tell you what to create, be it a bowl, fountain, decorative piece or something else.

“It’s endless with the things you can do,” she said.