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Ceramic design in rich hues
Susan Steinberg's fired up about art

By Nancy Rogers

As a child, ceramics artist Susan Steinberg probably liked every crayon in the crayon box. At least that's what her work as an adult suggests.

Some of the bowls, plates, platters, pitchers and other ceramic pieces she paints virtually explode with color: fuchsia, lime green, saffron, poppy and periwinkle blue.

In stark contrast, other pieces are black and white. And yet others wear hues from a somber, earthen pallette: ocher, drab green, chocolate brown, mustard and rust.

A Danbury native and former art teacher, Steinberg, 35, now lives in Naugatuck. Steinberg has specialized in painting ceramic surfaces for the past two years and calls her business Ceramic Designs.

Seated near the back of Martin's, her father"s men's store on Danbury's Main Street Steinberg pushes a mass of curls from her face and says she first tried her hand at painting ceramic ware at the suggestion of a friend.

"She said I should try painting ceramic tiles, so I did. Then I gradually moved on to mugs and other ceramic pieces," Steinberg says pausing to explain that she does not cast her own green ware, or dry, unfired clay. "I buy it precast and work on it it a Middlebury studio called Artist Creations."

Steinberg paints her design directly onto the green ware with underglazes, a delicate process. Then the green ware is fired in a at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fired piece, referred to as bisque at this stage, is then covered with a glaze and refired. The over-glaze gives the piece a deep, glossy finish that is dishwasher- and microwave-safe, Steinberg says.

Prices range from $30 for a mug, to $60 to $65 for a plate, $160 for a pitcher and $200 for a vase.

Steinberg has created almost as many designs as the number of colors she uses. Flower motifs and dogs and cats are perennial favorites, she says, as are Steinberg's black and white studies: Portraits of a Boy and Portraits of a Girl.

Lovers of the Santa Fe or Southwestern look, however, might prefer Warriors, a design reminiscent of prehistoric cave drawings. Reduced to their simplest form and painted in rich earthen hues, the figures seem to race across their ceramic canvases as if fleeing an unknown danger.

Those who prefer more modern art are not left out Ever seen a ceramic lizard with a Matisse nude painted on his back" Steinberg's A la Matisse collection is that and more - mugs, pitchers, plates, platters and trivets all painted in a style that is clearly Matisse.

"I particularly like "View of Collioure and the Sea" and "Goldfish and Sculpture"." Steinberg says. "But I don"t copy them exactly; sometimes I even combine elements of one with those of another.

"I love Matisse, but I also like Turner, Sargent, Whistler, Klee, Gauguin, and sculptor Eva Hesse. I"m not facinated by current artists," she says.

An attractive, young, woman with azure-colored eyes and a mass of naturally curly hair she says she has hated most of her life, Steinberg sys she has never wanted to be anything other than an artist.

But she has to pay the bills. So after studying photography at the Rhode Island School of Design In Providence; illustration and ceramics at the California College of Arts and Crafts, in Oakland; Journalism and design Fullerton College in Fullerton, California, and earning a degree In fine arts from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, she decided to become an art teacher.

She earned her teaching certification from the University of Bridgeport in 1982, and then taught in school in California, Connecticut and in England, In 1991, however, she says she realized that during recessionary times art programs, are among the first to be cut.from school budgets.

So she returned to school, this time to Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where she earned certification to teach special education and a masters degree in school psychology.

"Soon after, I landed a job as a special education teacher at The Foundation School in Orange," she says. "I taught autistic, neurologically impaired, emotionally maladjusted, multi-handicapped and other children with a wide range of problems. And I hated it.

"I loved the children, but that was the problem. I couldn"t just sit back and teach. I was too involved with them as individuals. To be a successful teacher in that environment, you must be able to detached yourself and I couldn"t."

"Children with special problems need a great deal of structure. But being an artist I couldn't give it to them; my boundaries are too open. I did it for a year, but I just couldn"t keep it up. It was making me sick. "I still love teaching, though. Someday I'd like to teach design on fabric. I'd like to design jewelry. I"d like to paint utilitarian-type ceramic pieces for quaint restaurants - Bistro-type places. And I'd like to work with designers; I'd like them to show me a room and tell me to make a piece to go in it.

"But most of all, I hope to become successful enough to have my work recognized. I want to be known for own style and to eventually paint anything I want to without limits.

"Oh," she says almost in mid-sentence, "did I tell you about my job with "Hip Magazine"" Well, I do reviews for them. Mostly jazz musicians. I sketch them during their performances, then I interview them. I try to return on paper what they give out during the performances.

The magazine is published in Orange, Conn.

"I also paint portraits," she adds. "There"s a bunch of them upstairs if you want to see them."

She then leads the way up on and then another flight of stairs, stairs so narrow it seem they were designed for some clandestine purpose.<

Littered here and there with a glove, a sock, a plastic bag and a shoe, the stairs and spindled-railings are garishly painted in glossy shades of pink and purple, a reminder that the 125-year old building once served as Danbury's vaudeville theater.

The stairs finally open on to a dusty storage room containing dozens of Steinberg's portraits. "I have to warn you, some of these paintings are pretty bad" she says. "Especially the 3-D portraits made of a mixture of dirt, grass, wax and sticks. I did them 10 years ago and I still like them. Oh, here's Nancy and Ronnie (Reagan).

"The rest of the portraits, most of which are painted in oils, are of my former students, friends and mentors. They'd also be too bizarre to hang on a wall, unless you live in New York City," she adds. She lived In New York for a time but found it "too intense."

Bizarre" Perhaps. Unusual" Definitely. But the 3-by-5 foot portraits am also full of whimsy and fun. Take, for example, the, painting of a serious-looking young man with a green face, wearing a purple tie and painted against a magenta background.

Or a purple face with orange hair and a yellow background. And the piece de resistance - a portrait composed entirely of skin-colored Band-Aids.

Back downstairs Steinberg says the No. 1 thing, she wants her customers to walk away with after buying something she has made is happiness.

"I want them to feel the same, way. about the piece as I did when I painted, it"' she explains. "This is neat stuff,. You don't have to frame it, it's decorative ,and you can use it. It"s instant art."