Part 1: May 27, 1997, with George Hofmann and Patricia Kerr Ross, Carefree, Arizona.
TAPE ONE, SIDE ONE
GH: This conversation is with Susan Peterson, ceramic artist, educator and author, being taped in Carefree, Arizona on May 27, 1997. The interviewers are George Hofmann and Patricia Kerr Ross.
Susan, you’ve spoken in the past about your birthplace in Kansas and your upbringing as the daughter of an educator. Was art a part of your background there?
SP: Yes, George, it was.
GH: Can you tell us about that?
SP: My mother was a painter, but my mother grew up in Dodge City, Kansas, on a ranch, and her father was a big cattle rancher, and she was one of nine kids, and all the others were brothers. So when she needed to go to school, he decided that he shouldn’t keep her out there on the ranch in a country school, so he moved to McPherson, which was a pretty good sized town, but not the biggest town in Kansas, and he became the first Ford dealer in the state of Kansas. And my mother went to the so called Academy, which was the high school at the Brethren College. But she was always interested in painting. So a man named Birger Sandzin, who was one of those Swedes who came to start Cranbrook, but he didn’t stay at Cranbrook, he went down to the Swedish community in Lindsburg, Kansas, and he became a well known painter in the middle of the United States, and even today he’s still collected. You’ve seen some of his prints in my bathroom.
SP: But Birger Sandzin was a well known painter when he came to the United States. Anyway, my mother heard about this painter, and her father allowed her to travel from McPherson to Lindsburg when she was in junior and senior high school, and she studied with Birger Sandzin. These are two of my mother’s paintings, and the ones above the fireplace in the dining room are hers, and much more like Sandzin, those over the fireplace.
GH: I admired them.
SP: So my mother was a painter, and she went to Chicago Art Institute when she was 16, which again, if she hadn’t had this wonderful father herself, she would never have been allowed to do such a thing. But she did, so she studied there and she went to college after that, at McPherson College. But she was 3 to 4 years in Chicago. Then when she came back to McPherson, she managed a bookstore. A guy named Carl Smalley had a famous small press in the Midwest. He was one of the early small presses, and he had a book and decorative art shop in McPherson, and also his little press was in McPherson. So she managed that for him for a while until she married my father. Then they moved to Grand Island in Nebraska because my father was going to take a new job as principal there. I happened to be born in Kansas because I was born on a summer vacation in July, 1925. So I grew up…my mother was painting all the time at home. And she never painted professionally. She belonged to a sketch club, and my father, who took the first doctorate in the state of Nebraska, he ultimately got his doctorate from Stanford. As I told you, he went to John Dewey and Terman and Whitehead at Columbia. He did two years on his doctorate there, and then Terman moved to Stanford, and so my father went with Terman because he was so interested in the IQ tests that Terman was developing. So he ended up going to Stanford when I was a little girl. We used to go every summer from Nebraska to Palo Alto, and at Palo Alto there happened to be a wonderful children’s program that my mother found in drawing, painting, play acting, this kind of thing. So while I was 9 10 11 12, which is about when my father was working at Stanford, I took more drawing and painting, I mean from really professional teachers, and also play acting, and then…
GH: And ceramics was part of that?
SP: No, never had clay. I was a painter. I was a painting major in college. When my father got his doctorate, then he…because he was a very good secondary school educator, and he was picked up by Washington, DC, he was on those panels and programs in Washington, and he became a summer session teacher at different universities every summer in the Ed department, sub graduate students taking their PhDs in education. So every summer, from the time I was in let’s say the ninth grade, we were on some university campus. So on every university campus, my mother enrolled in painting class and me, too. My father was able to enroll this little kid in a university painting class because he was teaching there. So I’ve been at the University of Wyoming, Montana, Wisconsin, one summer he taught at Harvard and he didn’t take us. So we didn’t get there.
GH: That’s all right, they didn’t have painting.
SP: And at Columbia, Missouri, Boulder, Colorado. So I had painting in all those different places, and by the time I was in high school, of course I was a college preparatory student, but I took painting. I had a very good painting teacher in high school, and I won the National Scholastic Magazine…you know, in those days they had a competition that was…there was only one. They gave one scholarship, one full tuition, board and room, four year scholarship to Carnegie Institute, and I won it in the nation. And my father, educator that he was, go to an art school? He wanted to be sure he was right, so he wrote to people like Grant Wood, etc.. He wrote to painters that were at least not so well known they might not answer his letter, but he wrote to good people and almost to a man of course, they were all men the answer was, none of them had had a college education, and they all said they wished they’d had a college education. And they recommended that he not send me to art school, they send me to college. So I gave up the full tuition, board and room to Carnegie, as it was called then, later it was called Carnegie Mellon. And I was very sad because I was excited about doing that. So then we had to look for a college that had a good art department, and I’m graduating in 1943, so the war is on, and no young men. My father wanted me to go to the University of Kansas, which did have a good art department, and he sent me down there to a sorority house. We had dates with sixteen year old boys, etc., because that’s all that was left, and I never really liked…I don’t know why, but I never liked the thought of co ed education. I really don’t know why. So I also looked at Syracuse because it had a good art department at that time; Wisconsin, where I’d been to summer school, had a pretty good art department; Aaron Bohrad and people like that. But when all was said and done, and a Monticello College, Alton, Illinois, rep came to the high school, and I talked to him, and there was a very good painter there at that school. It was a women’s college, very good painter there, and so I chose to go. I went to Monticello, which was only a two year…it was a prep school and a junior college. So I got an AA degree. I was only there one year because in my senior year my father said to me, now you’ve taken solids all along, and you now have enough credits this was at the end of the first semester he said, you now have enough credits, and I’m sending you to college so that you’ll…I’m going to get you your first year while you’re still in high school, because I have your brother to educate and in those days his pay was $4 5,000 a year, you know, nothing, so that my father never owned a house until my mother’s parents died and left a little cash, and they could buy where he always rented. So there just wasn’t enough money. He said, we have to get you this first year so that you’ll go through college really in three years. So I bussed to Hastings. Hastings, Nebraska had a little college, a Presbyterian school, very good school, and every morning I got on the bus with the ordinance workers and the cigar smokers and so forth and went to Hastings and stayed there all day, and came home at night, and went to summer session as well, and finished the whole year. So I was only at Monticello one year. That painting teacher was one of the best I ever had. He was really good. So it helped me a lot to have been there. Then I went to Mills College. My last two years, Mills College in Oakland. I was a junior transfer. And there was Roy Partridge. Roy Partridge was head of the department, and William Gaw, who was quite a well known West Coast painter. So I had Roy Partridge, who was a Kandinsky design type in terms of his own flatwork, but he was an etcher really, so I had print making and I had his design classes. Claire Falkenstein was there. Claire had just come out of the Bauhaus and the stuff over there in Germany, and Alfred Neumayer, another German refugee, who was a fantastic art historian, my education was excellent at Mills. Puccenelli was the sculptor, Dong Kingman taught water color. So I was a painting major, but at Mills, you had to fulfill certain things, and one thing you had to do was take one semester of ceramics. So the last semester of my senior year, I’m sitting in Carlton Ball’s ceramic class, and Carlton Ball was a charismatic, fantastic, beautiful guy who had taught himself, he’d been a Glen Lukens student at USC. Glen Lukens, who I later replaced at USC, Glen Lukens was…he went to the desert, he picked up agates and amethysts and funny stones, and he ground them up in a mortar and pestle and he made glazes out of them. He was very well known in this country for his development of color, but it was all from indigenous rocks that he picked up in the desert and made glazes out of. He didn’t know from nothing. And he never allowed anybody to glaze. He squirted the glaze on, or applied it, for the student. He said, what do you want? He hardly ever allowed anybody to do anything. So that was Carlton Balls’ basic education. When he came to Mills, which he did in 1939, he saw pictures of potter’s wheels in books, in European books, and he constructed a potter’s wheel (interruption) So Carlton had built a potter’s wheel just by looking at books, and in 1939 the Worlds Fair at Treasure Island, Carlton went over there to demonstrate wheel throwing. He didn’t know anything about wheel throwing, but he had his potters wheel and he always told me, the observers were at least 100 yards away, so they couldn’t see whether he did good or bad, and he worked all summer demonstrating at Treasure Island, and then came back and began to teach throwing at Mills. The first potters wheel west of the Mississippi was F. Carlton Ball. Even UCLA didn’t have one. And UCLA had had a ceramic program for a long time. Certainly Glen Lukens never threw on a potters wheel. He was a hand builder, coil builder. Well, so sitting next to Carlton Ball on the ground was Maria Martinez demonstrating Indian pottery making, Carlton told me. So I arrive at Mills in 1943…no, 1944, because I had graduated from Monticello. So I arrived in 1944, so he got a lot of potterâ€™s wheels in the studio, and he had a salt kiln at that time, and he had gas kilns, but he didn’t know how to fire above cone 07, which is, you know, 1700 degrees Centigrade…Fahrenheit. Very, very, very low, using high fire clay. But nobody out here knew anything (interruption) so Carlton didn’t know anything about high fire. But he knew how to throw. And so I had a ceramic class the last semester my senior year, and I was smitten with this clay. But I was now graduating. I won the Ella Pierce Traveling Award, and I went to Europe because you had to go to Europe with that. So my first trip to Europe was in 1946, right after the war, and everyplace I went was bombed out, but that’s another story. Then when I graduated, I also, besides winning that, I won a full tuition, board and room fellowship for my masters degree at Mills, and I intended to do that because my father said he couldn’t put me through graduate school, he had to put my kid brother in Carlton, and he always told me that I was going to have to earn my own graduate program. So I got this fellowship, and then one day in walked a beautiful man from Hawaii, who was named John Fox, and he was a new president. He had come from Connecticut, he was the new president for Punahou School, the only college, preparatory school in the islands, founded by missionaries years ago, which the army engineers had taken over during the war, so they had had no school during the war. They were supposed to take over the University of Hawaii, but they came to Punahou first, and that’s what they took over instead. So he came and he interviewed potential teachers. Now, Mills didn’t have an education program and they didn’t have any kind of teaching program, but my father had said, if you’re going to be a painter, you’ll never make a living, and so you’ve got to do something that will enable you to teach, and I want you to take the teaching program through the State of California, which I did, and I practice taught while I was at Mills, so I had a secondary school credential when I graduated, but given by the State of California, not by the college. And so when this guy John Fox first landed on this California coast, the first place he came to was Mills, and he said to the president he wanted to interview young teaching candidates, or teacher candidates for his school, and the president said well, we don’t teach that here, you know, we don’t have that. And apparently John Fox got very upset and said, a college, and you don’t have education? He said, well, I have a few girls who are taking early childhood programs. They could teach elementary. And I have one girl who’s taking a credential from the state. So Fox said he wanted to interview us. So I was called out of a “Biological Basis of Human Behavior” class. I was dissecting a frog, and I was told to go get my heels and a suit on and arrive at the president’s office, and I did, and the long and short of this story is: this man, John Fox, had been given a room by the president, and he set up, took photographs, 20 by 24 photographs, all around the room, of the moon and the palm trees and the ocean, and the Hawaiian Islands as they looked in those days. And I was quite smitten. But I didn’t…he offered me the job right then and there, of the art teacher in the junior and senior academy, and I said, I have to think about it. And he said, come over to the St. Francis tonight and have dinner. And so I said okay. And lo and behold, he had said that to one of the elementary people, one of the early childhood people. We didn’t know each other, but we met at the door going in and out of the interview. And he’d invited her over to the St. Francis, but I called up my father and I said, I’m thinking about going to Hawaii next year. What?? And then he said…but my father never said no, and so he said, when I told him what the opportunity was, he said, I never thought anyone should teach without a masters degree. So he said, those are my words, now make your own decision. So we went over to have dinner at the St. Francis, and the funny thing about that story, which is slightly interesting but not necessarily to your document, we’re sitting in the patent leather bar have you ever been in the St. Francis Hotel?
SP: It has a black patent leather bar. This guy, John Fox, has beautiful gray hair, gorgeous blue eyes, a handsome, handsome man, and here are these two little 21 year olds sitting next to him, and she was very blond, and I was very dark, and he called us his black and white Scotties. You know, he drank Scotch. So we’re sitting in the bar in one of the padded patent leather…and over at the bar stool is sitting a man who sends a note over to John Fox saying, could he join us? And John Fox he didn’t show us the note, but he read the note, and then he said to the two of us, he said, I’m going to have the man come over here to join us. He said, I do not want you to tell him that I’m a Punahou president. You tell him I’m with Hawaiian Pines, and you are just my friends. So over to this table comes this man, and he buys us a round of drinks there, and then he’s snapping his fingers, and pretty soon we’re ushered into an enormous room with a huge table all set with sterling and china, and he puts us down, and the first thing we get is a lot of sort of hors-dâ€™oeurvre courses being brought in by red coated people with their hands like this holding the silver trays, and then he had pretty soon an orchestra of chairs. And who was this man? This man was J. Paul Getty, which we did not understand until very much later that evening. And finally when Barbara and I look at our watches we had lock out in those days so all of a sudden we’re already locked out, we can’t get back into Mills, and Mr. Getty says, give me the name of your housemother each of us lived in two different houses so he called the housemothers and said he was sending us back in his limousine and would they please open the doors? Well, needless to say, both of us signed on and we went to Hawaii.
GH: Did you?
SP: Absolutely. So that was a really fantastic experience. It was the first year after the war, and Fox was putting this school back together. He had come from Connecticut. Nobody…he hired 50 teachers from the mainland. It wasn’t a state then, and we all came from God knows where. We didn’t know anything about Hawaii.
GH: This was Honolulu?
SP: This was Honolulu. But this is a very prestigious school even today. But then it was the only school where kids could go who wanted to go to college, and you had all these wealthy families in Hawaii, plus you had the whole of the military system. So the missionaries had founded Punahou for their little white kids to go to school, and they had a quota on Hawaiians and Orientals 10%. So the bulk of Punahou students were white. And then you had some Orientals and some full blooded Hawaiians. So pardon me, I started…I mean, they’d had no art. The school had had no art. So Fox decided that they should have art. So I had to build these rooms in the junior academy and the senior academy for art, which again is another story, trying to work with Japanese workers who didn’t understand English, neither did I, and I’m 21 years old, just out of college. But we got the rooms built, and I started looking around for clay in the islands, and it’s full of clay. But nobody ever did clay, as no islanders ever did clay because they all used gourds and wood. So there’s no history of clay there, and there wasn’t any at the University of Hawaii. I met John Kelly, he was another etcher, the head of the art department at the University of Hawaii. I tried to talk him into starting a ceramic department. If he had done that, I would have stayed. But life was so good in the islands. I mean, you had breakfast dates, morning break dates, lunch dates, tea dates, cocktail dates, tea dance dates, dinner dates, the sub mariners were still living in the Royal Hawaiian. The Navy was there, the Army, I mean it was just glorious. When we all got there on the Lurline, you know, we all went over on the big boat because there weren’t any airplanes in those days, and Dr. Fox took us up to the house for lunch before we began school in the next week, and he gave a little speech after he introduced all of us. He said, this is the Hawaiian Islands, and I want you to understand that you won’t be able to teach anything on Monday because everybody’s just coming back from the weekend and they all have houses somewhere on the other side of the island or whatever. They’ll have been gone for the weekend, and you can’t teach anything on Friday because they’ll all be going for the weekend, getting ready to go for the weekend. So if you’re going to teach anything at all, it has to be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, because in the afternoon they’re getting ready to go to the beach, and school was out at 2:00 in the afternoon. And in those days Punahou sat up on a hill above Waikiki, and you could have rolled down that hill and hit Waikiki because it was green grass and flowers, none of the houses and the hotels. And there were 3 hotels on Waikiki, the Alamolana, the Halenkulani and the Royal. That’s all that was on Waikiki. So Waikiki was sand, hibiscus, flowers, green grass. I mean, in those days it was really something. So we were going to teach only Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning, right. And we were going to get out of school at 2:00 in the afternoon, and nobody could wear shoes. Nobody wore shoes. So I taught painting and drawing to these high school kids. I decided that it was so beautiful, and I wanted to learn something about the islands, that we should take a field trip every week. Since we couldn’t learn on Friday, why not take a field trip on Friday? So I talked to the kids first off about taking a sketching trip, and they could bring picnic lunch, and we’d walk somewhere. There were so many places to go waterfalls, and valleys and mountains, all the stuff you could sketch. So the first Friday we planned for the next week. The first Friday while I’m getting ready to get the kids out the front door (Punahou was a campus, many buildings that’s why the army engineers thought it was the University of Hawaii when they passed by) and so out in front of my building was this long line of black limousines, and out of the limos came these little white coated women with their picnic baskets and the drivers. The mothers had sent the limos with the picnic baskets, and they were going to drive us to wherever we wanted to go. So for the rest of the year, every Friday…
GH: You did this…
SP: And John Fox, who wanted us to learn about Hawaii, Elolani Luahini was the only full blooded Hawaiian dancer in the islands. He had us take hula from her and brought her every day. Somebody Buck, Dr. Buck, was the big archaeologist at the Bishop Museum. He came and gave us lessons in Hawaii’s history. We were bussed all over everywhere with a guide telling us, this is this, this is that. So I decided life was just too damn good. When I couldn’t talk John Kelly into a ceramic class at the university, I said, I have to go home, this is too good. If I stay here one more year, I’ll never do anything. All I’ll be is a beach bum and I’ll marry one of the…I had already had three or four proposals, one of which was the captain of the Sea Dog Submarine, who later became the admiral of the first nuclear sub. I read about it in Time Magazine. But anyway, I came home. I couldn’t talk Kelly into the ceramic class, because now I wanted to study ceramics. My folks I hadn’t been home for a long time my father had moved from Grand Island, Nebraska, to Kansas, to Wichita, to become the so called director of secondary education, and he built umpteen schools, something like 45 schools, because Wichita was the fastest growing, with Boeing, Cessna, all of those airplane factories, plus the airports that the B17s and 29s took off from, so that Wichita grew in those days very fast, and my father built a lot of new schools elementary, junior high and senior high because he was director of secondary education for the whole place. My mother hadn’t seen me for quite a while, so they asked if I would come home, and at that time the Wichita Art Association was very well known in the center of the USA. It was run by a woman named Maude Schallenberger, who was a decorator in town. She was a lot like the lady who started…Adelaide Rubinheuer who started the Syracuse exhibition, the Syracuse ceramics exhibition. So the Syracuse ceramic exhibition and the Wichita decorative arts and ceramics exhibition were the two oldest competitive craft exhibitions in this country, if I could use that “dirty” word, crafts. And my mother and dad were members of the Art Association. They had a big museum and they had lots of doings, and she ran a school. But she didn’t have ceramics. So my father went to her and he said, how would she like to have a ceramics class developed by his daughter, who would not charge her anything, and who would just come home to stay for a spell, and needed something to do, because I said I won’t come home to Wichita and just sit there. So if you can find me something to do, I’d be glad to come home for a year until I can get into graduate school. So I came home, and I began this ceramic department for Maude Schallenberger with my lousy little one semester of ceramics under my belt. I didn’t know from nothing. But Mrs. Schallenberger said to me, I’m giving you my right hand, because you’re going to need him, and he was a postmaster who got off work at 2:00 in the afternoon, and he was a carpenter as well. He could build things. So we built the wheels, Jack Farrow and I built these wheels and I ordered a kiln from the Denver Fire Clay Company, and she gave us a five room bungalow. On her big property was a little house, so we made our ceramic program in that little house, and we prospected clay in Kansas. This guy knew where he thought there was clay and we went in a big truck and washtubs and we dug it and we brought it back and we processed it, and I made glazes, called up Carlton Ball and found out what…because Carlton didn’t ever let us make glazes either, just like Glen Lukens hadn’t. But he did give me some recipes. And I used volcanic ash, Kansas is full of volcanic ash. So we just did hunt and peck, and that was my first ceramic department. Actually I stayed there a year and a half because I was trying to get into Alfred. I forgot to say that after I was at Punahou, Carlton Ball wrote me a letter and said that he had been able to persuade the glaze technologist from Alfred to come to Mills in the summer of 1947 to teach a class, because Carlton knew he didn’t know anything about glaze. So he said I should come back for that summer session. So I did come back for that summer session, prior to going to Wichita. So I had taken glaze technology from Clarence Merritt, one of two glaze technologist in the United States. The other one was on the West Coast at Gladden McBell Corporation. So I got the only A in the class. Mr. Merritt had never been west of Alfred, I don’t think. We took him on all kinds of trips, in Chinatown, and he had a wonderful time. And people like the Naztlers were in my class, people like Edith and Brian Heath who had already a pottery thing, Heath Pottery, and I mean, people came out of the woodwork to be in this class because nobody on the West Coast…and Laura Andresen, who was the professor at UCLA, sent four of her graduate students up to learn to throw that summer so they could go back and teach her, because Carlton was the only one who threw on a potters wheel west of the Mississippi. So that summer session was important because when I started applying to Alfred, I applied to Alfred University to the head of the…Alfred is a College of Ceramics. So they have brick making and glaze technology and glass technology, and heavy clay products, and esoteric outer space materials, only they didn’t then but now they do, but they had a materials area, and they had design. So I applied to the design area, and I got back this letter from Charles Harder, the head of the department, the head of that whole section, and he said the West Coast doesn’t have any ceramics, I don’t know how he knew that but he knew that. I didn’t know that yet. The West Coast has no ceramics, and Carlton Ball certainly doesn’t know anything, and you’ve only had one semester, and you cannot come here to graduate school. You can only come here if you start as a freshman and go through our four year course. So of course, I’m writing to Clarence Merritt. In his class I got the A, I thought he’d remember me, and he did, and he sent me a telegram back. It just said, “Come.” So I packed my little fur coat and my high heeled shoes. I had no idea where Alfred was, and my steamer trunk full of clothes, and I took off for Hornel, New York. Nobody told me there was no way to get to Alfred from Hornel, New York, right? So I’m standing in the little wooden train station in Hornel, and the station master says, I don’t know how you get to Alfred. There’s no taxi. And I had this steamer trunk, and there turned out to be a woman with a big dog sitting in the station. Why she was, I don’t know. She was sitting there. And I think she had brought something to be freighted, which was why she was sitting there, and she said, you’re from Wichita. She said, I’m from Wichita, and she said, I’m at the craft school. The School of American Craftsmen at that moment was located in Alfred, New York. Mrs. Webb from the American Craft Council in New York and Frank Lloyd Wright’s daughter, Mrs. Cartwright, together had founded the School for American Craftsmen, first at Cornell. They were thrown out of there, and the second place they went was Alfred, and of course eventually, two years later, they were thrown out of there, and they ended up at Rochester, where it is now, at RIT. But this woman was a student at the craft school, and she was from Wichita. So she said to me, I have a truck, we’ll put your trunk on my truck and I’ll take you to Alfred. So she did. She told me meanwhile that there was no place to live in Alfred for graduate students. The only dorms at the college were for undergraduates, and you had to have an apartment or you had to get a room. Alfred being a town of 300 Seventh Day Baptists, they didn’t want any smoking, drinking students in their houses. So it was very difficult to get a room, and she said, where are you going to stay? I said, I don’t know. I didn’t know from nothing, because Harder told me not to come. The other guy said come. So I had come. I had no information about anything. So she keeps my trunk on her truck, and she drops me in the middle of this one block town. You know, it’s one block long. She drops me. And as I’m getting out of this truck and walking a few steps, I see a vision, a woman standing on the street, who is my ex dean from Mills College. My ex dean of women from Mills College, Dean Geen is walking on the street of Alfred, and she is now the dean of women at Alfred University. And she said, Susan Harnly, how did you get here? I said, Dean Geen, how did you get here? And she said, what are you doing? I told her. She said, well, you have to come home with me because there’s no place for you to stay. So I’ll take you home with me. So I slept on her couch for about three nights while she called everybody in town to see if I could get a room. But meanwhile, I’m going to the ceramic college to register, and Mr. Harder has a little office there, and I walked in, in my high heels and my fur coat. It’s January, I’m coming mid semester, and he takes one look at me and when he hears my name, he said, I told you not to come. Get out of here. So I go over to Clarence Merritt. Merritt says, don’t worry. Merritt had an appointment between the engineering college and the design part of the college, so Merritt talked then to Dean Scholes, who was the most famous guy in glass in this country at that time. He was the dean of the ceramic college. So Merritt put me in there, and so I began my ceramic training behind the 8 ball, and as a graduate student, we had no classes, you just had numbers of credits with Daniel Rhodes, Charles Harder, Marion Fosdick, who was the ceramics sculptor, and Royal Frazier, who was the model and mold plaster guy. So you had numbers of units with these people. You went to them for crits and for direction as to what you were to do, and we all worked, hardly ever slept, 18 20 hour days, day in and day out, never took a vacation. At the end of the semester, I’m failed in every course, and so of course I’m out. Now, what I had watched Harder do as the head, as the semester wore on, he would come and he would put a hand on somebody’s shoulder. We all learned to be scared shitless about the hand on the shoulder, because that meant you would leave tomorrow. Your work was not measuring up. I never got a hand on the shoulder. I got this, you had some kind of a card at the end of the term that said how you’ve done in these areas with these units. So I had no credit, no units of credit for this semester, and I had saved my money, I had only…Mrs. Schallenberger did pay me, $45 a week I got for teaching there. So I had saved this money, and I was able to pay for two years of graduate school, and that’s all I could do. So now I’ve lost one whole semester of credit. But then I was ballsy enough finally to go to Dean Scholes, and I sat down and I said, I have worked here all day every day, 18 hours. I have not done no work, I don’t deserve these grades. Mr. Harder wants me out, and this is his way to do it, so that somehow this would be a more legal process than…I told Scholes about putting the hand on the shoulder and why hadn’t he done that some time in the middle of the semester? I said, now it’s too late for me. I don’t have enough money to go to Columbia or to go somewhere else for the graduate program. So Scholes intervened, and that’s how I stayed at Alfred. I was the only woman in the class. Charles Harder hated women, and he did say to me more than once, all you’ll do is get married and have babies, you’ll never do anything else. Eventually he had leukemia and he was really dying, and he did die within a few years after I graduated. But I married at Alfred, Jack Peterson, a ceramic engineer, and we went to California, because he took a job in California.
GH: But Alfred was the center of ceramic (inaudible)
SP: Yes, and my husband had gone there before the war for ceramic engineering because his father had looked up in some kind of career book what were the best careers with the least amount of people and ceramic engineering turned up, so he ended up in ceramic engineering at Alfred before the war, and had come back after the war. So he was doing his BS in engineering while I was doing my graduate work, but we were married in Ripley, New York, and then we went to California that summer, as soon as we graduated in June.
GH: Was that 1948?
SP: It was the summer of 1950. But we returned to Alfred the next year, 1951, to visit everybody. At that time I had dinner with the Harders, Charles Harder and his wife, and he said to me, you know, Susan, he said, you wrote perhaps the best thesis I’ve seen in this school. And I tell, I was just…and it was so nice of him, who hated women as much as he did, to say that to me. That was just really great. And then when I got to California, I had my first child at the end of 1950, and so I didn’t work that year, 1950 1, but then I was really pretty stir crazy, so about when the kid was 3 months old, I said to Jack Peterson, I can’t stand it, I don’t want to take care of this baby, I want somebody else to take care of the baby, and I want to go to work, and we had been graduated at Alfred as ceramic designers. That’s what we were. We learned all industrial design processes, we could go to Lenox, Castleton, and most of us did, or Corning or whatever. So I started walking around…
GH: So ceramic instruction was really not a part of the academic situation at that time?
SP: No. At that time, you see, it was on the East Coast to a certain extent, because Syracuse had had for a long time…
SP: …a department, and Rutgers had had for a long time a department, Alfred, of course, and there was no state university of New York in those days. So that’s…
GH: When was the State University founded?
PR: 1948. (inaudible)
SP: Yes, but they hadn’t built any kind of campuses yet, because…
SP: Yes, because none of those…now all of those state universities have ceramic departments, but then they didn’t exist.
SP: So that’s why the State of New York…
SP: … had state colleges on the campuses of private universities. Alfred was a private university with the state college of ceramics. Cornell was a private university with the state hotel school, or the Ag school or whatever they had.
SP: And that’s what New York did. But still there were ceramic departments up and down the East Coast, and Ohio University had one almost as old as Alfred. Alfred is 100 years old, and Ohio, within a few years, I think Alfred was first and Ohio was second, and still Ohio gives a PH.D. in ceramics. It’s the only graduate…that kind of graduate program in the country. But the West Coast, we have to remember, the East Coast was founded by the Pilgrims, and they all came from Europe, and Europe had Joe Wedgewood, 1760, discovering porcelain, not until 1760, when the Chinese had had it since BC. But the Europeans did have porcelain, and a long history of stoneware as well as urbanware, and they settled the East Coast. So those people came, the ceramic people came, and there was ceramics up and down the East Coast and over to Ohio, a huge area around Columbus. West of the Mississippi, next to nothing, because what were we? Indians and Mexicans, Hispanics, and they all worked by hand, pre Columbian style, or Indian style. There was, however, this great amount of clay and talc, and when Gladding McBell, which was the largest, most diversified ceramic plant in the world, was based in California, and had been founded in…I don’t know, early 1800s. And they discovered the old Egyptian clay talc mixture. See, all Egyptian pastes, all those blue hippopotamuses, etc., are so called Egyptian paste, which is a talc and clay kind of body with feldspar, or with glass, but so Gladding McBell…somebody, the glaze technologist I said was the only other famous one besides Clarence Merritt, so this Gladding McBell had patented, developed and patented a clay talc body that fired at low fire cone 04, would ring like a piece of porcelain, and yet was 15% absorption, was still urbanware, did not warp, didn’t get vitreous, but glazed, would hold water, so could be dinnerware, so they had made…they patented, they were allowed to patent that clay body. So for years Gladding McBell was very important in the Whitewares industry, in the pottery industry, and eventually they made fine china as well, but because you had that enormous…they had 7 8 plants all over California, and I don’t know whether that’s what it was, or what caused clay to be…maybe it was the manufacture of the prepared…they allowed a manufacturer to prepare this clay body for the elementary and junior and senior high schools, so that in southern California, there was clay in the elementary, in the junior, in the senior high schools.
SP: But in higher education, only UCLA and Scripps College and…
SP: And Fullerton College, because a guy named Rick Pedersen, who was another Glen Lukens student, had gone out to Fullerton and made a department there, so there were three institutions of higher education teaching ceramics, and maybe there were 45 colleges and universities in LA or the surrounding area. There was lots of educational opportunity there, but not in clay. So when I started, I ran around to these plants trying to be a designer, and they laugh in your face. We take shrinkage size smaller, you know, we take somebody else’s plate and we make a mold of it, and then we cast it, and it’s a shrinkage size smaller than that one over there, and then we decorate it with a new pattern, but we don’t need designers. So finally I realized I’m not going to be hired by a company as a designer, so then I start my rounds again, and I say, I want to be a worker, I want to work in pottery. So one guy, when I went to one pottery, he came out. You fill out the application you handed in to a fellow in a cage, and he takes it somewhere, and you’re sitting out here like you’re a day laborer, and pretty soon a man comes out in a suit and tie, and he said, you’re from Alfred? I said, uh huh. And he said, well, come into my office. I thought, oh, I’m going to get a design job. He’s going to hire me for design. He said, what can you do? Can you do everything, can you cast, can you mix glazes, can you make engobes? They did engobe glaze decorations. Can you fire kilns? I said yes, I can do all those things. He said, fine, you’re the vacation replacement. So I went to work in this pottery.
GH: Filling in for people who…
SP: Filling in for the week or two week people who went on vacation.
GH: (inaudible) interesting.
SP: I learned more there. Of course, I couldn’t have learned it had I not been to Alfred, but I often said, I learned more there. Of course, you learn more on the job.
SP: I mean, how it’s really done, how you really have to make that slip to cast in those molds, and how you really have to get them apart. I mean, I learned a lot. So it was invaluable to me, that time that I worked there. Meanwhile, I brought all my stuff from Alfred, my pots and all, and now as yet I don’t have a kiln, so the first big exhibition comes up in Pomona, at the state fair, which Millard Sheets and Rick Pedersen had been having a big art exhibition at that fair for some years. So I enter my some pieces from Alfred, and I get this call from the head of the school system, the art supervisor in the city system, and he wants to meet me and talk to me, he wants me to be a teacher, high school teacher. And I have the credentials.
GH: The city of?
SP: In the City of Los Angeles. And there you have to take a test to get into the…I passed highest on the test, and they offered me a job. Meanwhile, I decided if I’m going to be a high school teacher, which I didn’t want to be, I better look around and see if there was…the City of LA was fraught with crime even then. So it wasn’t exactly the place that you might want. Beverly Hills was its own system, and Whittier was its own system, Pasadena, outlying areas, so I began to interview outside of LA, and I took a job at Whittier Union High School, the largest high school in the State of California, 5,000 students, but pardon me, it had a ceramic department in its own bungalow, and a big kiln. I mean, it was a very well equipped place, so I took that job, but that summer…so I took the job, we moved to Whittier, to a house, and my husband built me a kiln, so that was my first studio. But I had now entered this exhibition, and I get this call from Nelbert Chouinard at Chouinard Art Institute, asking me to come to see her. So I went to see her. Nelbert Chouinard had had an art school since 1917. As she said, she built it with her dead husband’s war widow’s pension from World War I. Archipenko, Lionel Feininger, I mean, you name them, they all taught there. She had a wonderful, wonderful art school. This was a woman whose socks were down around…whose stockings were down around her ankles, who wore brown Oxfords, whose skirt never had the right hem, who wore these worn out sweaters. I mean, you couldn’t believe this woman had built this art school. But she had, and now the GIs were coming back from the war, and her fine art school was just not going to be great for the GIs. She had to have a vocation of some sort. She had chosen industrial design, and she brought Hudson Roysher, who was a student of Arthur Poolâ€™s, the big designer from Syracuse, and Hud Roysher was teaching industrial design at one of the…UCLA or somewhere. So she had brought him for one year to teach industrial design, but he wanted equipment that was going to cost a fortune, and she didn’t have it, so she let him go at the end of the year, and now it’s my turn. She wants me to come and build ceramics. Because we had 400 small potteries in the Los Angeles area, it was an appropriate decision. We would be able to train people who could go out and get jobs in these areas. And we had Gladding McBell, the largest, most diversified ceramic plant in the world with headquarters in LA. So I said, because my father had always told me, never break a contract, and the other thing he had told me was, you should always stay in your contract two years. It looks strange if you should leave before one year. So I said to Nelbert, I cannot come now, I cannot break my contract at Whittier because I’ve signed it already, and we’ve moved to Whittier, and I have to teach this year, but I will come in the summer. If you can wait, I will begin it in the summer. So she said, all right. But it was on account of those pots from Alfred, because nobody had ever seen stoneware and porcelain pieces hand made. All they’d ever seen was what I made at…that yellow piece on the middle shelf, and that pea green piece, those are two Carlton Ball, Mills College pieces, low fire, bright color, porous urbanware, and nobody had ever seen the kind of work that I learned to do in Alfred. So my pieces stuck out like a sore thumb, and she noticed them, and she liked them, and she…that’s how I got to Chouinard Art Institute. So in the summer, as soon as school was out at Whittier…
GH: This is about 1953?
SP: This would have been 1951 I worked in the pottery. It would have been 1952 that I went, so it would be 1953 that I went to Chouinard, or 1952. It must have been 1952, yes. Probably 1951 I went to Whittier in the fall, so it would be 1952, the summer of, that I was at Chouinard. And she said to me, this was downtown Los Angeles, 7th and Grand View, and she had bought the old telephone company building. It wasn’t an art school.
GH: Yes, I’ve seen pictures of it.
SP: So she said to me, now, Susan, I never know from day to day whether I will have enough money to pay my bills. So she said, I want you to…I wanted to build a kiln like I’d seen and fired at Alfred, you know, on the ground, out of bricks. She said, you have to make a kiln that we can put a wench under and in the middle of the night a truck can come and carry it away if I’m going to be displaced the next day. So she said, no, you can’t build a kiln on the ground. You have to be able to get under it. And really, if she hadn’t said that, that’s what made me design and build the first high temperature, updraft kilns known to man, although that’s the ancient way that the Greeks fired and the Chinese, everybody, fired with the fire on the bottom, and the stuff here, but the normal way and the European way and the Eastern way is that the fire goes in from the side, or the front and the back, and it waddles around inside, and then it moves to a hole in the back, and up a stack which, believe me, takes 2 3 4 times longer than putting the fire underneath them here, and having it come up around and go out a hole at the top. Well, so if it hadn’t been for Nelbert, I never would have done that. I mean, it’s funny how things really fall into place. So at this time I had to find someone who would build such a kiln because I couldn’t do it. It had to be encased in metal, it had to have something around it so that you could literally pick it up and put it on the truck in the middle of the night, so my husband is a ceramic engineer, so already we belong to the Southern California American Ceramic Society, and we went there at least every month to some big meeting. So I began to look for a kiln builder at these meetings, and I found a guy named Mike Kalen who was an Alfred ceramic engineer graduate, who built kilns. And so I told him what I needed, and again we fell into it. The kiln I have down there right now was built by him. So the upshot of that was we put in two big kilns, the first high temperature so called periodic kilns west of the Mississippi River, at Chouinard Art Institute, in the back, so the truck could come up. And I began…
GH: Do you think they’re still there?
SP: No, do you know where they are now? Those kilns…because Chouinard doesn’t exist. Chouinard, Nelbert, eventually did get so broke that she couldn’t keep the school, and she came to me. I was the only woman there, so she came to me to talk a little about her problems, and she said, you know, when Disney started out, she said, I had an art school, and Walt couldn’t hire. He had developed animation, but he couldn’t hire any artists, there weren’t any artists to hire. So he came to me. He was hiring off the street and trying to train them, and he found he just couldn’t do it, so he came to Nelbert in the early 17 18 19 20s, something like that, when she was first beginning, and he asked her if she…he said, I have no money, but if you will take these people that I’ve hired and train them, whenever I have money, and whenever you need help, so she said to me, should I call Walt? She said, I’m going to lose the school. She’d had an embezzler as a financial manager, and she’d been stolen blind, and she owed all kinds of bills. She said, I’m going to lose the school. But she said, you know, I don’t want Walt Disney in here. I don’t want that kind of thing here. I said, but Nelbert, if you have no choice, you better call Walt. So she did call Walt, and Walt came down and Walt got Price Waterhouse or somebody in there, did the audit, he paid the bills, and he sent his right hand whose name was Mickey, to be there every day, and this right hand, Nelbert gave him an office next to her office, and he said, I’m going to stay as long as necessary to get your finances in hand, and then I’ll be gone. And of course they were. He was gone, and Walt never bothered her at all. Fortunately for me, it was right at that time that the USC dean came to me and asked me to come to USC.
GH: Which is?
SP: That was in 1955. I said to Nelbert, they really want me to go over here and be at USC, and I said, I don’t want to leave you, you’ve been very good to me, I like it here, a wonderful school. She said, Susan, my school is a fine arts school. I can never give you a whole degree program. You will still only be an elective to all the other things that we offer. I said, I know, but I like all those other people. She said, take the job. She said, I don’t know how long I’ll be here. I don’t know anything about it. You take the job at the university because it’s got some tenure. He was giving me the tenure and the professorship to build the program. She said, go there. So I went there. What really happened was that Disney put her on track, and then for the next couple of years it worked out fine, and then Nelbert went up to her Arrowhead house, fell off the porch, broke her neck, and Walt Disney dropped dead. Now, before he dropped dead, he had made in his will, and he had asked Nelbert, he wanted to build Nelbert a school, and he had wanted to build it at Valencia, which is where his ranch was. But Valencia is about 100 miles from LA, and Nelbert said, no art school should be in the boonies, it has to be in the middle of town where everybody can see the exhibitions and our work can be seen. So he also owned Olive Hill, where the big Frank Lloyd Wright Olive Hill house is. He owned that hill. So he was going to build her school right there, it’s in the middle of Hollywood. Would have been fantastic. But in his will, all he said was 50% of his estate went to Chouinard.
GH: My God.
SP: 50%, that’s all he put, because he didn’t expect to drop dead. So she dies and he dies.
GH: Oh my God.
SP: Now, the board…I’m at SC. But the board at Chouinard, which had never functioned really in her time, but was made of rich people in LA, they now come together and they have half of Walt Disney’s estate. And so they say to each other, we can build the best art school in the world. So they fired every member of the Chouinard, every blooming person, and those people of course went to court, and they made a suit against the board, and they did not win. The board could do anything it wanted there. So the board set out to build a school. They brought…I forget their names, but they brought famous people who were not so famous to me, therefore I didn’t think they were very famous, but this was a lay board that knew not a God damn thing about art, and they brought who they thought…and maybe you know the story of Cal Arts, but in the beginning it floundered.
SP: I mean, the people ran around nude, jumped in and out of the fountains. I mean, so in the beginning…and they built it at Valencia on the Disney estate because it didn’t cost them any money for the property, and they made their school called California Institute of the Arts and Chouinard. And that lasted about one year. They shortly dropped the Chouinard, and that’s Cal Arts today. So I had just got out by the grace of God,…
GH: You were lucky.
SP: … and that woman, Marge Schallenberger helped me so much in Wichita by allowing me to start that dumb ceramic department, but what I learned there was a whole lot, as well as I learned so much in that pottery when I worked in LA in the pottery, my background at Alfred University, and then this woman, Nelbert Chouinard, who gave me my head, I could do anything I wanted there and build the department the way I want it. I mean, equip it the way I want it and all. John Mason was my first assistant.
GH: This is at USC?
SP: No, this is at Chouinard during the summer of 1952, as I’m building, getting the equipment, and by the way, I put in a plaster wheel, I put in a jigger wheel, I do everything for industrial ceramic design as well as ceramic art, my potters wheels and my hand building and my sculpture stands, etc. So I’m equipping the place. We didn’t have class that summer. We were getting the place ready, building the kilns, etc. So over into my room at the back of the school walks this funny, bald, young man. He never had any hair. He says, I hear you’re building a ceramic department. John always talked like that. So I said, yes. So he said, before he had even come into the room, he said, don’t you need an assistant? Well, I never thought about an assistant. I always do the work myself. In Wichita I did all the work. We mixed the clay by hand after we dug it, and so I think a minute, and I say, well, maybe I should have an assistant. So I took John by the hand I remember it so well as if it were yesterday and we walked into Nelbert’s office hand in hand, and I say, Mrs. Chouinard, I think I need an assistant. And here he is. I’d never seen John from Adam, I didn’t know what he knew or anything, and Mrs. Chouinard looks at me and she said, well, I think maybe you do. And John said, I don’t have any money. She said, but you want to go to school, right? He said, yes, I want to learn ceramics. So it turns out he had been across the way at Otis Art Institute, which had been there already, as Nelbert had been there already, across MacArthur Park from each other. He’d been over there, and there was a guy named Wayne Long who taught ceramics there with a one cubic foot, electric kiln, low temperature, one cubic foot electric kiln, and Wayne Long himself made angels. I don’t know if you ever saw Wayne Long’s angels. John, he was born in Nebraska, St. Labore, somewhere near Grand Island, and he had grown up in Nevada. His parents had moved from Nebraska to a farm in Nevada, and he had evidently always known he wanted to work in clay. How or why…so he had come to California to Otis Art Institute, where he was an assistant because he had no money. So he was assisting Wayne. But he broke off with that and came to Chouinard. So we started together in the fall, and…
GH: Did he go to USC with you?
SP: No, because he finished his…Nelbert didn’t have academic degrees. She only had certificates. So at the end of three years I was there three years so when I was going to USC, he didn’t care about a college degree. All he had wanted to know was how to do this work. So when I left, he left, but he needed a job. He had gotten a certificate. He got his certificate from Chouinard, and he needed a job, and Vernon kiln, because now my husband was a very good ceramic engineer, knew everybody in town. So we knew all the people in the big plants as well as the little plants, and Vernon was the second largest dinnerware producer. I can’t remember if that was USC or just the West Coast, but they were a very big dinnerware house, and they’d never had a designer either, but by now I knew the president of that company, and I went to him, and I said, I have a very talented young man here, and John had learned all he learned about jigger wheel and plaster model and mold, so he knew the process. So I said to this guy, I think it would be good, you know, if you had a designer, and if you could hire this young man. So they did. So he worked at Vernon Kiln for two years, earning enough money to build his first kiln and get his first studio, because he literally had absolutely zilch, and he told me once that the story has come back to me many times, back to him many times what I said, that he lived on bouillon cubes. And it was true, he did. Once he invited me to dinner. He lived in a little room. He had absolutely no furniture. We sat on the floor, and he served me a bowl of bouillon cubes and water. And for a lot of the time he didn’t have enough money. Now, I didn’t know that in the beginning with him, or I could have taken him home with me. I only had one kid at that time, but I mean, we had a house. But I didn’t know anything, and John would never tell you, of course, never. So John doesn’t like that story that he lived on bouillon cubes. But he really did…