Sylvia Hyman was an artist in love with her medium. She kept shaping clay into her nineties, stopping only in the final weeks of her life. When she died in December, Hyman left her friends with instructions designed to physically make her a part of her art form in a way that simply wasn’t possible during her life.
Ashes to Ashes
A few years ago, Hyman set the wheels in motion on a visit to her friend, colleague, and former studio assistant, Susan DeMay. Hyman explained that she wanted DeMay to make her burial urn, and she wanted her own ashes to be a part of the glaze.
Sylvia Hyman wanted her ashes to be held by pottery. But she also wanted them to become pottery.
Plenty of glaze recipes call for bone or ash, but the norm is cow bones or wood ash; DeMay said making the glaze with the remains of her mentor stirred up a lot of emotion. What’s more, the glazing process is messy; usually there are lots of splatters and drips that need cleaning. This time, she tried to make sure as little as possible needed to be washed away and rinsed down the drain.
Of course, glaze is only part of ceramic art. It’s the color, the finish.
Dust to Dust
Tom Turnbull went to Hyman’s memorial expecting nothing more than to pay his respects to an old friend. After the service, he was surprised when Hyman’s son approached with the news that Turnbull had been mentioned in her will. Minutes later, Turnbull took possession of a portion of Hyman’s remains.
Turnbull became friends with Sylvia Hyman about thirty years ago. At the time, he owned a ceramics supply business and she was one of his customers. He built a studio of his own in the late ‘90s and became a full time potter, but he still visited Hyman, talked with her about their craft, and, when he saw there was a need, he fixed her kiln.
Now, every time he prepares a new block of clay, Turnbull very carefully sprinkles a tiny amount of her ashes onto the wet earth. As he kneads and pounds to make the clay pliable, the two materials quickly mix and become indistinguishable.
Turnbull admires the way Hyman kept her own hands in clay until the end of her life and says he wants to keep adding her to his work as long as possible. According to his estimates, her remains will be in everything he sells for the next 10 to 15 years. That longevity of that effort seems all the more important as he thinks about her presence in the clay on his potting wheel. “I feel like she’s having the time of her life,” Turnbull says, “like she is just jazzed about this and enjoying this like you wouldn’t believe.”
So, who was Sylvia Hyman?
Hyman started out as a public school art teacher. She was more than a decade into that career when her school first received supplies for teaching students pottery. Hyman learned the craft in order to teach it–and fell in love with the medium during that process. By her forties, Hyman worked almost exclusively in clay.
Over her roughly five-decade-long career in ceramics, Hyman experimented with all sorts of forms, from jewelry to pots. Eventually, she became a master of tromp-l’oeil, or “fool-the-eye” sculpture. Hyman made incredibly realistic versions of everyday items like pads of paper, key rings, books or wooden berry baskets. Her work ended up in museums like the Smithsonian as well as private collections around the world. She received the Governor’s Arts Award and Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Her work became the subject of a coffee table book and a documentary film.
Meanwhile, Sylvia Hyman served as an advocate and evangelist for the arts. As a ceramics professor at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College, she trained the teachers who would go out and spread a love of art. Hyman founded the Tennessee Association of Craft Artist and helped organized its annual craft fairs in Centennial Park. She brought international ceramics symposiums to the state and made sure that plenty of that art, by skilled artisans from around the globe, ended up in the Tennessee State Museum’s collection.
It’s among that cache of art that the last of her instructions comes into play. Deep in the Tennessee State Museum’s basement, among the art from those symposiums, is a case Hyman made in the 1970s. That’s where the urn belongs–the one DeMay made with that special glaze.
First and Final Step: Museum Piece
Before she began her tromp-l’oeil work, Hyman experimented with making containers modeled after Etruscan funerary boxes. The one in the museum’s collection bears Sylvia’s own face and the inscription: “Sylvia Hyman, born 1917 USA, died ____.”
Curator Jim Hoobler was a good friend of Hyman’s. He helped her formulate the plan for what should be done with the heirlooms of her life as an artist. Her papers and notes are in the state archives now, her kiln and molds went to Cumberland University, and Hoobler says her urn will be placed in that box with a small ceremony this summer.
He doesn’t plan to add her death date to the inscription, though. After all, she’s going to last in the form of clay and glaze.