Having been raised in upstate New York, Bennington, Vermont, was just a stone’s throw away and home to Bennington Pottery––a requisite destination on my day trips to the area. Though my husband, Mark Nepo, and I owned just a few handmade mugs when we relocated to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2002, I had an abiding appreciation for those handmade pots. New to the area and feeling isolated while working from home as a freelance writer, I decided to take a ceramics class, hoping to learn a new skill and meet people. Little did I know then how much that decision would change the course of my life. I soon felt a calling to the material, and over the years, I’ve devoted more and more space in my life for it. Today, I teach at the same art center where I took my first ceramics class, and I have my own pottery studio just fifty feet from our home. Our cupboards now overflow with assorted handmade pots from various makers, each piece having its own personality.

The handmade pots we own have become like friends. Even if I’ve never met the maker, I feel a sense of that person when I interact with the pot. New things keep being revealed over time and through continued use. It’s like having an ongoing conversation with both the object and the maker. In the end, there’s a life force in pottery made by hand that simply can’t be communicated with commercial wares.

At each step of the making process, I’m thinking about how someone might interact with the finished piece. Utilizing a variety of wheel thrown and hand building techniques, I alter my red earthenware forms to create shapes that convey movement and softness. Scalloped edges and undulating rims invite the eye to travel across each piece. I use a thin white slip (liquid clay) as the background for my surface decorations, then apply layers of colored slips portraying flowers and branches that wrap around the rims of bowls and feet of plates. I love seeing the dark clay body peeking through the layers, the clay always having a voice in the final product.

I believe that pottery made by hand with thoughtfulness and care can elevate simple day-to-day moments we might otherwise take for granted, like sitting quietly with a cup of coffee or serving a meal to beloved friends. At this time of social distancing, items made by hand can still provide a direct human connection. When interacting with my pots, you’ll find evidence of this: my fingerprint visible somewhere on the surface, the way I considered the lip on a mug or the comfort of a handle, the expressive quality of a brushstroke. Through such considerations, I hope my pottery will serve as an invitation to slow down, to drop into the present moment more fully, to begin a conversation with the piece.

To see my recent feature show at the Charlie Cummings Gallery, click here.

Photo credit: Charlie Cummings Gallery


  • Susan McHenry

    Studio Potter, Educator, Art Writer

    Empty Vessel Pottery

    Susan McHenry is a red earthenware studio potter who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with her husband, Mark Nepo, and their dog, Zuzu. She enjoys making functional pots for everyday use, and believes pottery crafted by hand with thoughtfulness and care can elevate simple, everyday moments. Born and raised in upstate New York, Susan received her MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College in 1999. She teaches ceramics at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is a freelance feature writer for Ceramics Monthly. To learn more about Susan, visit emptyvesselpottery.com.