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Sebastopol artist makes playful ceramics you can see

Suki Diamond is a serious artist but not all of her art is meant to be taken seriously.

This is apparent when you enter her Sebastopol studio and display gallery, an other-side of the-looking glass kind of place, where mugs and vases peer back at you with expressive faces, whimsical animals smile up from plates, precarious-appearing towers of what are faintly reminiscent of flying saucers loom out of the landscape and mysterious succulents spill out of ceramic pots perched on absurdly uneven stilts. Look down in the garden and you may see footprints - the soles of real shoes embedded in the ground.

Humorous and whimsical are words frequently used to describe Diamond’s distinctive style. But her work is also functional. It’s art designed not just to look at but to use, everything from table vases, platters and butter dishes to dog bowls and birdbaths for the backyard. “They’re happy,” she said of her ceramics and sculptures, which all seem to exude a personality of their own. “They’re kind of fun but they’re also practical. They’re useful. Like the everyday dishes that bring joy to your life.”

Diamond says she has regular buyers who put out her hand-painted ceramic plates at a dinner party and tell their guests, “Which animal do you think you are today?” and then invite them to go sit at the place setting with their animal.

Or there are the grown men who wax on boyishly about how much they love their special animal cereal bowl, an admission she finds “cute.”

But Diamond doesn’t want to be wedged into an artistic box. Her work can also show sophistication, like her ceramic lamps in earthy colors with shades made out of a wire mesh dipped in a paper pulp slurry that let off a jeweled glow.

Visitors can stop by her studio, gallery and garden at 1237 Bing Tree Way (sukidiamond.com) to see for themselves during the annual Art at the Source Open Studios event. Sponsored by The Sebastopol Center for the Arts, it runs two weekends: June 2-3 and June 9-10 (artatthesource.org).

The event is a chance to see and talk to artists in their working spaces, and maybe tote home a piece or two. Virtually every type of art is represented, from oil painting and sculpture to mixed media, jewelry, woodwork and mosaics. Diamond however, is among only a few who make functional art that can be put to work in the home or garden.

She works out of her garage and an attached sunroom, a space that accommodates her potter’s wheel and four kilns.

When she first moved to this home in the Bloomfield area years ago, she slowly began converting the backyard into a magical garden, where a walk-through reveals intriguing finds dotted among the flowering perennials. There are modernistic “totem poles” the height of a tall man, that are large ceramic discs stacked between poles of high-fired clay. For the birds there are birdbaths as you’ve never seen them - 30-inch wide bowls set on of a tripod of legs made of hand-formed ceramic beads. Not just for looks, the baths are designed with birds in mind, with shallow bowls for safe splashing and standing a secure three feet tall to be safely beyond the reach of prying paws.

She sees the garden as integral to the art.

“The garden is really a fun thing if you think of it as a quilt or a room where you walk from one space to another with different environments,” she said.

One one side she created an arbor with clematis running up the side and grape vines that provide a leafy shade with dangling fruit in the summer. Under that is a hammock. It’s her happy place.

“It was my fantasy,” she said, “and it came true.”

Diamond is now in the process of creating a tunnel out of hogwire arches that eventually will fill in and over with lavish white Sally Holmes climbing roses. In a back corner is a wheelbarrow garden - a collection of old wheelbarrows filled with bright annuals.

Diamond works in a traditional majolica technique, with color stains on a white background, Although most of her current work is in clay, she has worked in every artistic media.

She grew up steeped in art. Her parents met at the Chouinard Art Institute, a leading art school in Los Angeles that in the early 1960s merged into the California Institute of the Arts under the guidance of Walt Disney. Her father, a successful freelance illustrator whose work appeared in major magazines like Time and Life, also taught classes at the school. A young Diamond spent many happy hours as a child, where she got to “take classes” alongside the adults.

At 16, she started attending more formally. While she loved illustraton and painting, ceramics really captured her imagination. She studied under the master studio potters Otto and Vivika Heino, and after graduating from art school she setup shop in a big warehouse in Venice, where she rented out space and shared her enormous kiln with multiple kickwheels.

She moved north after having children, living first in Woodacre and later Santa Rosa, before moving to rural Sebastopol 18 years ago.

For years she had a popular niche with her animal plates, some with an almost primitive look, others delightfully cartoonish - armadillos, sheep, goats, lions, smiling dogs - which she sold through boutiques, gift shops, galleries and occasionally a big retailer like Macy’s in San Francisco.

Diamond is drawn to three dimensional art and produces endearing animals to hang on the wall. She makes pitchers, mugs and cookie jars with faces, and noses that actually protrude. Her slim, footed planting vessels that feature two panels fused together were inspired by her fascination with sewing.

“I like the idea of making forms from patterns. Like when you’re making clothes from a pattern, it’s all flat pieces. And then you can put them together and make them into something,” she said.

She believes there is something deeply satisfying about owning, living with and ultimately putting to use, real art, incorporating it into everyday life.

“Art is a treat,” she said. “It gives people pleasure to have something that somebody formed with their own hands. You think of a world without culture and art and drama and dance and movies. It would be a real different world.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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