Art Seen

How One Chicago Artist Transforms Functional Ceramics Into Protest Pieces For 'Nasty Women'

"I believe in the power of artwork ... as an agent of change and transformation."

Gang violence. Increased danger. Murder. 

These are just a few of the dark words that are currently so closely associated with Chicago. To say it's not true is a lie. If you're not living it, you're hearing stories or seeing it on the news — there's no way to block it out. Stories of innocent children killed in the line of gang fire, intended murder, and fatality numbers going up each weekend. This is the harsh reality. 

This, partnered with the racism and inequality that seems to be increasing across America, is reflecting hard on the diversity of Chicagoans. With a new administration creating — or seizing upon — a divide in our country, it's up to the bold and fearless to use their voices and talents to help unite us, resist the negativity, and prove that all normality hasn't been lost.

What many people don't see or hear about is the strength of people in the city who aren't giving up, who are taking the initiative to help educate and save Chicago. Henri Matisse once said, "Creativity takes courage." This four-part series will highlight just that — unique individuals and organizations who are bravely using art to inspire and to resist. 

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The 2016 presidential campaign brought on words and phrases that challenged the "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me" mantra that many of us learned as kids. They were intended to belittle people and groups, and leave them feeling helpless and insecure. These words ended up striking a chord with people who refused to be silenced by them. One of those people is Susan Messer-McBride

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Susan is a Chicago functional ceramic artist, teacher, and one of the millions who has been affected by the ever-present inequality of women in the United States. Susan's emotions in the past year alone have led her to take action — to turn her art into a message of strength, resilience, and protest. 

After a class with Molly Bishop — an artist in residence at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago where Susan also teaches — Susan's work with high-fire porcelain or B-clay, soda-fired functional ceramics shifted to low-fire earthenware ... a shift that would lead her to a great adventure of resistance art.

How does she use ceramics as resistance art, you ask? That's where her next chapter comes in.

"This clay body shift led me to carve and paint on my plates and other functional wares in a way I might never have done with porcelain," Susan says. "I began responding to my life, experiences, and politics in this new, low-fire body of work, and found myself protesting the candidacy, and subsequent election of Donald Trump through my artwork." This has led to her contribution to Nasty Women, a "global art movement that serves to demonstrate solidarity among artists who identify with being a Nasty Woman in the face of threats to roll back women's rights, individual rights, and abortion rights."

"The inaugural Nasty Women Exhibition was on January 12, 2017, in Queens N.Y. The organizers were artists and curators from New York who started planning the event two days after the election, and organized a show of over 600 pieces of artwork (artist priced $100 and under) raising over $40,000 for Planned Parenthood," Susan says. I sent in my Locker Room Talk plate that I had made out of anger and frustration over Trump's offensive 'pussy grabbing' comments aired before the election in late October."

Susan explains why she's so driven to make a difference with her art, saying, "As a former teacher and Peace Corps volunteer, I am compelled by the selfless act of time spent on people and giving. I am compelled to share this spirit where I can and where it is effective." 

The ceramics that Susan makes are a combination of heart, hands, and human emotions. She not only makes functional artwork, but, as mentioned, she shares her talent and passion by teaching. Her mission to impact and comfort with these pieces is being brought to life with the Nasty Women Exhibition — both the one in New York City and also its sister event on May 5, where Susan will use her voice through her art to be a part of Nasty Women Art Chicago.  

" I hope the ceramic pieces I make with my hands that come from my soul are useful and comforting to those who like and enjoy functional ceramics," she says. "I hope my teaching is a form of art, because it is a give and take of making and learning and sharing. I always hope to learn from students just as much as I might share as a teacher. In teaching or making art, my personal goal for my role is to be a facilitator."

Nasty Women Art Chicago is a one-night only event on May 5 from 5:30-10:30 p.m. at Moonlight Studios, 1446 West Kinzie Street in Chicago. All profits from the more than 350 12-inch-by-12-inch hangable works exhibited, hung, and sold that night go to Planned Parenthood of Illinois. Each piece of artwork is artist-made, donated, and priced between $25 and $200. Nasty Women Art Chicago believes in the idea of your art, your voice, your choice.

Keep up with Susan Messer-McBride on Facebook and Instagram.

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This is part 4 of a four-part series — check out other articles in the links below:

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