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Art Sennett, holding a sculpture. Photo: Sarah Harris
Art Sennett, holding a sculpture. Photo: Sarah Harris

Art Sennett: Making magic with clay

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For 35 years, Art Sennett taught ceramics at SUNY Potsdam. He inspired generations of students to work with clay and create art. And he made a lot of his own pottery from raw materials he found in the North Country. Now, Art's retired. He spends his summers in Potsdam, and winters on an island off the coast of Georgia, where he teaches art classes.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

It’ s no surprise that Art’s house is full of, well, art.

There are big colorful canvases on the walls and something ceramic on every surface.

And most of it is work that Art and his wife Pat, who’s a painter, have made themselves.

Pears on the wall. Art says he loves the fruit's shape. Photo: Sarah Harris
Pears on the wall. Art says he loves the fruit's shape. Photo: Sarah Harris
Art is almost 80. He’s tall, with white hair, a mild-mannered guy. We walk into the kitchen, where dozens of teapots line the shelves.

"Well this teapot," Art explains, fiddling with the top, "yes ok, porcelain teapot with a copper red glaze and applique decoration sprigged on and fired at 2300 degrees."

Pears and monarch perched on gold base. Photo: Sarah Harris
Pears and monarch perched on gold base. Photo: Sarah Harris
Art shows me a round container affixed to the wall, two speckled clay pears sitting on top. He shows me a more sculptural piece with a gold base and a monarch butterfly.

Then, Art and I go to the room above his garage. 

It’s like a miniature art gallery - more vases and sculptures, more plates and platters.  

It’s dizzying, this vast body of work. But Art doesn’t make a big deal out of it. Get him talking about the craft of pottery, though, and he really lights up.

"It’s really a smooth plastic feeling," Art says. "I mean this is a very manipulative material. Here is a material essentially that has no form."

For Art, the early days of his career blend together with his family life. He and his wife, Pat, moved to Potsdam when their children were young. Art was teaching at SUNY Potsdam and going to graduate school in Rochester during the summer. He’d come back and try and put the techniques he’d learned into practice –but it wasn’t always easy.

"So Pat was busy at being a mom," Art recalls, smiling, "and tucking in at about 8:30 or 9 o’clock with the children. And then listening to me down in the basement with a homemade wheel, working until midnight, 1 o’clock, or whatever!"   

Art made this bowl in the '70s. There are crystals in the glaze. Photo: Sarah Harris
Art made this bowl in the '70s. There are crystals in the glaze. Photo: Sarah Harris
Back then, Art didn’t have much extra cash to spend on clay. So he started digging – literally – in his own back yard.

"So I needed to save money so I dug some clay. And thinking that I could just have a clay supply that was free."

Art ended up making a glaze that turned a deep olive color. And he started looking for clay all over the county.   

"By looking up old New York state surveys and business considerations, I found out that there were a couple of mines. One was in Pyrites, where they dug pyrite. And I got clay there and I got cobalt crystals and so on." 

Art brought that enthusiasm for clay into the classroom.

Mary Ann Evans owns Mare’s Wares pottery in Morristown. She was a student of Art’s in early 90s. .

"I remember very clearly the first moment that I saw him make a pot. And I was a smart aleck, and I bowed down and I go, 'you’re the magic man.' He made magic with clay and I wanted to emulate that. His shapes just had this feel to them – when you touched his pieces they touched you."

These days, Art’s retired. But he’s still making pots, always thinking up designs in his head. Art says pottery’s almost a state of being. 

"Well the first thing you have to do if you’re going to work on the wheel, you have to end up getting centered yourself. The development of a pot form, usually is— you’re really capturing a moment in time."

For Art, all those moments - those teapots and platters – have added up, into a lifetime of beautiful work.

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