Arts & Culture

Symbols of the sea

Susan Ellzey draws on her love of the sea to help her bring clay to life.

"I feel really connected to the sea," Ellzey said.

She enjoyed collecting seashells while walking on the beach and swimming in the ocean as a child growing up in Louisiana and Florida.

When she first visited Fripp Island with her husband, John McElrath, in 1989, neither had been to this part of the Lowcountry.

"It reminded me of Louisiana back in the 1950s and '60s when it was unspoiled ... just beautiful. I've always loved the beach, the sea where I enjoyed walking and swimming and I have enjoyed finding seashells and sea glass," Ellzey said.

Inspired by the ocean, she often uses seashells and coral to make impressions in her work. Her tools also include needles, nails and toothpicks. A double-pronged appetizer toothpick was used to form the fingers of her "Madonna and Child" sculpture.

"When I start looking at the clay, I start seeing a face or a figure. The form emerges; it is sort of a living, breathing entity," Ellzey said of some of the fish, sculptures, masks and figures she creates.

An exhibit of her latest works, "Sea and Symbols," is on display through Aug. 20 at the Beaufort Art Association's Gallery at 913 Bay St. in Beaufort. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Shortly after retiring from 31 years of teaching in 1996, Ellzey began working with clay. She works in her studio, an enclosed gazebo on Fripp Island where she has lived since 1990. Using no molds, she simply shapes her clay by hand.

Some of Ellzey's work requires layers upon layers of clay -- taking months to perfect. Saw dust -- which she blends with the clay -- also helps give her work an aged look. She uses a raku firing technique that includes fire, smoke and water immersion.

"It is very hard to fire raku with flat bases, and it can break in the middle of doing it," Ellzey said.

Her figures include seashells, stacked sculptures, as well as vessels that appear to be marked with fossil shells. There's also a series of mythological masks of women and children.

Some of her work is drawn from sketches she made of the work of famous artists, such as Henri Matisse.

Ellzey's work has become a way of mending her own body and is even more therapeutic after she overcame treatments for recent battles with breast cancer, as well as blood clots in her leg and both lungs.

"I feel like I'm really lucky to be here," Ellzey said.

She completed chemotherapy and radiation treatments as recent as May. Immersing herself in her work has been part of her healing.

"When I first started working with clay, I was the first one in the class and the last one to leave," she said. "I lose a sense of time when I work with it and I love it."