Susan Peterson dies at 83; ceramics artist studied Native American potters

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Susan Peterson, a ceramics artist, educator and writer who revealed the lives and techniques of Native American women potters of the Southwest to a broader American audience, has died. She was 83.

Peterson died March 26 at her home in Scottsdale, Ariz., after a long illness, her family said.

As head of the ceramics department at USC starting in the 1950s, Peterson led summer sessions at the university-sponsored Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts in the San Jacinto Mountains. In the early 1970s, she won a federal grant to bring influential Native American potters from Arizona and New Mexico to Idyllwild to demonstrate their craft.


Among the artists Peterson hosted were Maria Martinez, the well-known potter based at San Ildefonso Pueblo in northern New Mexico who had gained fame for her polished black-on-black pieces; Fred Kabotie, a Hopi painter and silversmith; Lucy M. Lewis, an innovative potter from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico; and Blue Corn, another female potter from San Ildefonso.

Peterson had been visiting the potters in their native settings for decades, but she realized that their work had never been fully documented. In 1977, she wrote “The Living Tradition of Maria Martinez,” a lavishly illustrated book that detailed the artist’s daily life with her extended family and their spiritual practices and the process of collecting clay and making, firing and using the pots.

Martinez’s gleaming obsidian-like wares had long been prized by collectors for their distinctive black sheen -- the result of dried horse manure added during the firing process -- and the graceful shapes formed by coiling clay by hand, not on a potter’s wheel. But Peterson helped show how Martinez raised her craft to an art form.

In 1978, Peterson curated an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery called “Maria Martinez: Five Generations of Potters” and wrote the accompanying exhibition catalog.

Peterson continued studying Native American pottery, writing the definitive biography “Lucy M. Lewis: American Indian Potter” (1984). Another book, “Pottery by American Indian Women: The Legacy of Generations,” served as the exhibition catalog for a 1997 show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., that Peterson curated.

Influenced by British studio potter Bernard Leach, Peterson wrote her first book on his Japanese associate, “Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work” (1974). Two of her works, “The Craft and Art of Clay” (1992) and “Working with Clay” (1998), are commonly used as textbooks.


“Her books are very significant,” Diana Pardue, curator of collections at the Heard Museum of Native Cultures and Art in Phoenix, told The Times last week. “She featured Native American artists along with other artists from America and other countries, and she placed them in a mainstream context instead of isolating them and putting them in a niche.”

Despite her extensive study of the American Indian women, Peterson said she always felt like an outsider.

“I am sure I will never be ‘let in’ to understand everything about these unique people, no matter how many more years I know them as friends and artists,” she wrote in 1997.

She was born Susan Annette Harnly on July 21, 1925, in McPherson, Kan., and grew up in Grand Island, Neb. Her father, Paul, was a school administrator and her mother, Iva, was a painter and homemaker. Peterson reminisced years later about summer driving trips to California, when her family would stop at the Indian pueblos to see the native crafts.

A painter as a young girl, Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946 at Mills College in Oakland, where she studied under influential potter Carlton Ball. She earned a master of fine arts in ceramics in 1950 at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where she learned about glazes and raw materials while gaining a technical background in engineering and industrial design.

She moved to Los Angeles with her husband, Jack L. Peterson, a ceramics engineer she met at Alfred, and in 1952 landed a job teaching ceramics at the Chouinard Art Institute. At Chouinard, which later became the California Institute of the Arts, and then at USC beginning in 1955, Peterson built studios equipped with high-temperature firing kilns and potter’s wheels, all at the leading edge of the available technology.


Her early ceramics students included Ken Price and John Mason, who became important figures in the contemporary art world.

“What’s hard to realize at this stage is how little information was available,” Mason said last week. “It was very rare to find somebody who had any real historical perspective and knowledge of the mechanics -- even a potter’s wheel, and how to throw.”

In the late 1960s, Peterson reached an audience beyond university art students with her half-hour demonstration television program “Wheels, Kilns and Clay,” which aired on KNXT-TV Channel 2 and KCET-TV Channel 28.

In 1972, she was hired to start a ceramics program at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and she remained there until 1994. She also directed the Clayworks Studio Workshop in New York City and set up the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, Tenn.

Throughout her career, Peterson traveled extensively, lecturing about ceramics and its developmental history and studying ceramic folk art throughout the world.

Curious about every facet of the creative process, she often spent weeks or months observing how an artist lived and worked.


“She wanted people to understand indigenous art, whether it was Japanese or American Indian artists,” said her oldest daughter, Jill Hoddick. “She wanted to make sure these art forms weren’t lost.”

Peterson is survived by three children from her first marriage, which ended in divorce: Hoddick, who teaches costume design at the University of Portland in Oregon; Jan Peterson, an artist and teacher in Scottsdale; and Taag Peterson, an artist and home designer/builder in Missoula, Mont. She also had seven grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled for May 9 at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus, where her archives are held. Donations in Peterson’s name may be made to Arizona State University Art Museum, P.O. Box 872911, Tempe, AZ 86287, attention Peter Held, curator of ceramics.