Wild Clay with Susan Bostwick and Alleen Betzenhauser

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Mississipian-style bowl of native clay by Susan Bostwick. Photo by C.A. Tibbets.
Most of us have daily contact with ceramics, but few contemplate the history of the craft. You may not have given much thought to the vessels used in your daily life, but Susan Bostwick, a local, award-winning ceramic artist has a different view. She recently told me, "With my own work, I think a lot about all the stuff we humans have, that we own, that we make. How easy it is to get stuff! And then I feel a responsibility as a maker, that I'm adding more. Here's more stuff! ... I spend a lot of time thinking when I'm making, I think about the iconography, the imagery ancient people used. What is my iconography, why am I using these images, is there some importance? " It is no surprise to learn that she extends this thoughtful approach to other aspects of her artistic practice.

I recently interviewed Susan and Dr. Alleen Betzenhauser to discuss their fruitful collaboration featuring projects with local clays. Alleen is the Field Station Coordinator with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at theAmerican Bottom Field Station in Fairview Heights. Her current focus is elucidating the purpose of enigmatic forms of ancient ceramic vessels found in the St. Louis area, and she is now also working with Susan, learning how to be a potter.

The two met at Schlafly’s “Art Outside” art festival where Alleen was drawn to Susan's work. Alleen recalls, "I saw Susan's tent with those lovely trowels with the (pot) sherds in them. I thought, 'Well, I'm an archaeologist, I like trowels'..." The two started talking and their conversation turned from trowels, to clay and making pots. Alleen has an ongoing interest in a type of clay called Madison County Shale and the functional items native people made from it. As she described the unique attributes of the vessels, Susan became intrigued and suggested that the two travel around Madison County (IL), dig clay samples and try to make pots.

Susan describes their first adventure; "I think no one really wants to go dig clay...it's hard work! So, Al (Alleen) showed up one day - it was really hot - and we started by walking along the bike trail. I had seen one wall (of clay) that looked great, so we shimmied down the ravine, of course unprepared! I loaded my shirt with clay (she mimes scooping a pile of clay into the front of her shirt) and then we're clambering back up, just as some cyclist goes by. Here comes this old woman, covered with mud. Ha! I was saying to him, 'It's ok, everything is ok'." Both women laugh and insist that, in spite of this comical beginning, working together the past two and a half years has had an important influence on their professional lives.

Examples of Madison County Shale. Photo courtesy Rob Rohe, Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

The impetus of the project was the search for Madison County Shale, an elusive type of clay used to make a unique form of pottery. The clay fires to a pinkish color and is distinctive to the uplands of Madison County and points farther north. It was only used for about 150 years right before Cahokia became dominant around 1000 years ago. Archeologists estimate that during the time Madison County Shale was in use, each community had their own potters, making ceramics with local clay. Once Cahokia was established, it became an important cultural center, with specialist artisans, distributing ceramics throughout the region.

To date, Susan and Alleen have found and tested over 10 types of clay from around the county, creating a variety of pottery samples, but none is identical to those seen from the archeological record. Despite their lack of success finding the target clay, both artist and archeologist maintain enthusiasm about their progress. In the beginning, they explain they were having so much fun, they were just going with the flow, collecting clay, then making and firing pots

Native clay samples test-fired in an electric kiln. Photo by C.A. Tibbets.

After some early successes, Alleen suggested Susan meet some of her friends (also archeologists) who were participating in a field school at Cahokia Mounds State Park. Susan went for a visit, and after chatting during an excavation, said it seemed evident to her that field study students should have some experience making something. "I asked if they would like that, and they came out here (to her Edwardsville studio) one evening. I already had clay from Calhoun County and, fast and furious, we made pots, dried them while we ate dinner, then burnished and decorated them."

Everyone considered the experience a success, and this led Susan and Alleen to consider new ways to share their growing knowledge with the community. They hosted a tent display during Archeology Day at Cahokia Mounds, where people could work with clay and make basic pots. Last fall, they offered a four week workshop at Susan's Edwardsville studio, educating others in how to obtain local clay, form pots and use simple, backyard firing techniques. Because a number of participants were local art teachers, Susan and Alleen are hopeful the skills, along with a greater appreciation of Cahokia,will spread.

Firing pots in a backyard bonfire at Susan's Edwardsville studio. Photo by C.A.Tibbets.

They also worked with an experimental archaeology class at Washington University, recreating a type of vessel called stumpware. Susan described the experience, "It was a riot! It was fun! As you (Alleen) were talking about stumpware, they (the students) saw the image on the screen, and man, they're just making, they just dove right in! Most of them never worked with clay before. The clay had so much grit, large chunks of rock, actually, the walls were really thick, and I had doubts. I was saying to them, if they (the pots) don't make it through (the firing), it's ok, it's going to be ok... and damn if their pots didn't all turn out".

Although the goal of recreating a Madison County Shale vessel remains paramount, the process of trial and error has led to artistic breakthroughs. For example, Alleen describes trying to figure out what medium ancient people used to burnish pots; someone had suggested deer tallow. "I asked a co-worker who is a hunter to save me some fat. I rendered it in a Crockpot. I used it to burnish a pot, but it wasn't great for that. When I fired it, it didn't have the sheen I wanted, but Susan used it as a resist and it worked beautifully. Susan says, "Oh, it was fabulous! ... You just paint it on, it dries fast, then you paint over it. Then it (the fat) melts away in the fire. It's beautiful".

Susan and Alleen are still working with the different clays, assessing how easy - or difficult- it is to work with each type, comparing attributes from both an artistic and archaeological perspective. They change tempers (grit or bits of broken pot mixed into the clay), surface treatments and shapes. Alleen says the pots she makes are inspired by those of the past. "I look at an example and try to recreate it - I'm trying to learn how pots might have been made. When I get stuck, I can reassess and do this or that to make it go a certain way". She describes one of the frustrations of working with ancient ceramics, "We analyzed millions of sherds and tens of thousands of parts of pots, but rarely do we get enough of it to see what the whole pot looked like. Mostly we're dealing with pieces. To actually have one (a complete pot) that I've made, that looks kind of like it, is so helpful".

At this point the discussion turned to the ceramics that have inspired both women. Susan pulls out a variety of archaeology books about Mississippian ceramics edited by Alleen and we three pour over beautiful and inspirational images. One of the cooking pots is enormous - over two feet tall. Susan exclaims, "The walls are so thin! I think about that wide open form, and I wonder, how did they do that? This is just stunning". As we sit there studying the pictures, we are all drawn into the world of fascinating surface decorations, animal imagery, and intriguing shapes. There is an elegance and power to these ancient vessels which is difficult to ignore.

Re-creation of a faceless water bottle Alleen Betaenhauser.

Susan explained that in most educational settings as a potter, a student will have a primitive pottery experience. The basic process includes finding some clay in the field, making pots and firing with sawdust or a bonfire. Collaborating with Alleen has given her new perspective. "Immediately in working with Al, it's like this idea of primitive - just put that away! There is nothing primitive about these people or their techniques... She has shown me pots that just blew me away... One of the things that drew me to pottery was the history of women as potters. Until the (potter's) wheel hit the scene... it was women. Yeah! Women made the pots, it was a community effort and I loved that. It's so labor intensive - digging, prepping, making, firing."

Alleen adds what she's learned, "Susan has taught me so much about making pots, especially the handwork. I was very uptight about making a pot 'right.' After working with Susan it is much more relaxing. In terms of learning how people made pots in the past, this gives a more well rounded view of how people were living in the past. I like the embodied experience of making pots,.. I don't think I'm getting into the mind of the ancient potter, but sharing similar experiences gives me a better idea what life was like".

In addition to their professional growth, the public outreach component of the project excites both artist and archaeologist. Alleen explains that using arts and pottery to expose people to archaeology is a useful method to help local residents value the area's cultural resources. "We want to teach people about the history... this area is so unique! Not only Cahokia, but East St. Louis, all the mounds destroyed on the St. Louis side (during settlement), Monroe county, Chesterfield... There were about 50 mounds in East St. Louis before people came in and leveled them all. It just wasn't valued and there were no laws protecting them. If someone can make and hold a pot, that's a much better connection than looking at a broken piece of pottery".

Susan chimes in, "We want to give everyone the skills to recognize the resources beneath their feet. In a pottery class, people may go to the local ceramic supply store and buy their materials, but if they know that, oh my gosh, clay is everywhere! Clay is right here, and it has been used for thousands of years to make things - wonderful things!"
If you are interested in learning about making pottery inspired by the Mississippian culture, Susan and Alleen are hosting another workshop, Wild Clay & Ancient Technologies, this April. The workshop will take place over four Monday evening sessions (April 8, 15, 22 and 29) at Susan's Edwardsville studio. The fee is $175 and all materials are included. For more information, contact Susan at sbost330@gmail.com.
Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.


Anonymous said…
Great article and great insights. Love what Susan and Alleen are doing and how they are sharing their discoveries. Dion2