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Friday, June 21, 2024

Fresh out of the kiln: the ceramic story of a colorful Colombian-born artist

The cat lover draws inspiration from Colombian-Palestinian heritage, women in her life

On the outskirts of Gainesville, the homogeneous blur of suburbia can tend to disguise the lives of those it houses. Take a couple of right turns, and you won’t miss the teal, eclectic home of Soraya Sus. 

At the footstep of her door, a painted, ceramic Hamsa symbol greets visitors, posted above an “I love cats” sign, among other hand-painted decor. The halls of her home are clad with preschool paintings and artwork, made over the years by her teenage daughters, Aaya and Elena Haddad. With every flick of a light switch, a cat’s geometric face peers from a painted cover. 

All the way from Cúcuta, Colombia, Sus has established herself as a multimedia artist and an English-to-Spanish translator in Gainesville since arriving in 2005. Covered roof to floor in color, the 52-year-old mother’s living space is a haven of art. In addition to pop-up markets and art galleries, Sus sells her art on her social media platforms through her brand Soraya Sus Ceramics.

Fridge magnets in the cozy kitchen appear sparse seated next to a chalkboard wall sprawled with etchings. If you have the pleasure of trying Sus’ homemade hibiscus tea, it will be served in a handmade mug, the handle of which is a cat's tail. Toward the back of her home, the raw materials of clay, glaze and puff paint are sprawled across her desk. Atop her self-created studio, photos of family string all around her desk and walls. On top of her printer sleeps Risa, her calico cat.  

“My interest in ceramics started since, maybe, I was like 13 or 12 years old when my mom took me to a class of decorating porcelain, and it was a very boring class,” she said. “But it caught my attention. I can paint on plates. I love that!”

Since then, her canvases have grown to mugs, plates, vases, jewelry, wall decor and more.

“My images are well-suited to the undulating clay surfaced by hand-forming pieces using traditional hand-building techniques of coil, pinch and slab construction,” she said. 

Sus’ clay pieces often don’t have clean edges and aren’t perfect in shape. 

“I really love the act of making something out of nothing with your hands,” she said. “I like people to see that they were handmade.”

She finds beauty in imperfection.

“At first glance, one might think that the pieces are imperfect or flawed, but I conclude that, like life, they are ‘flawed,’” she said.

Sus’ family-oriented art extends to the community as well. She volunteered at the Millhopper Branch library for six years, teaching kids about art and Spanish. 

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Seventy-eight-year-old Colleen Rand met Sus at a Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators meeting nearly a decade ago. The two clicked instantly, and described each other as almost like family.

“She has a very big heart,” Rand said. 

Rand owns over 30 pieces of Sus’ ceramics —– from mugs to jewelry.

“I'm always astounded with her creativity and her ability to connect with people everywhere,” she said.

Sus, a self-proclaimed whimsical artist, crossed a lot of bridges before her home started oozing with color and cats.

Her love for translation preceded her love of art. At 16, she picked up English through an exchange program at a Wisconsin high school. Her host family placed English signs all over the house, from the fridge to the chairs.

“I basically was pushed by my mom into an airplane against my will,” she joked. 

Upon her return to Cúcuta, Sus found herself limited to graduating with only a technical graphic design degree from her local university in 1993. She aspired for a professional degree it didn’t offer. For the next several years, she worked and became a certified interpreter and translator.

“That's what brings my bread and butter. Art has been on the side, but it's my passion, and I'm trying to make it my bread and butter,” she said. “Even if it doesn't bring the money, I don't care. I want to do it.”

Her mother was artistic and creative, she said. Her godmother was an interior designer who sold yarn and designed rugs. She credits this bloodline of influential women as her artistic influences.

“It’s a family affair,” she said. Not just the art, but the cat obsession, she added. “My godmother also had cats and I was always fascinated by cats.”

A tapestry she made with her godmother nearly 40 years ago hangs in her living room. Her father was also always supportive of her artistic ventures, she said.

Though she enjoyed working as a translator, her passion for art never died down. 

After discovering her alma mater offered professional degrees, she returned to her Fundación Universidad Jorge Tadeo de Bogotá to obtain a bachelor’s in graphic design. She graduated in 2000 and her thesis, she said, was an illustrated children’s book. 

Two weeks after arriving in Gainesville, Sus met her husband, Youssef Haddad, while crossing the street. The UF professor of Arabic language and linguistics can recall her distinct colorful stockings the first time he met her.

“I'm surrounded by three people who are very good painters and artists,” Haddad said. “It still amazes me, the three of them, how they can capture life in their work.”

Sus credits her daughters as the muses of many of her designs. Specifically, unicorns, which deviate from her typical cat motif. When repeatedly asked to choose her favorite art piece, she most often reached for one of her daughters’.

Yet, her ceramic creations crowd her studio; earthenware, darkstar and porcelain make up the majority. Any of her pieces can take one to three hours to initially sculpt and another eight to 20 hours to decorate, excluding drying time. She fires them in a friend’s kiln. 

“Clay keeps you humble,” she said.

After arriving in the States, she reconnected with clay through the Arts and Crafts Center at the J. Wayne Reitz Union. Through her membership, she met Gillian Keezer, former manager of the studio.

“Her decorative drawings on the pieces were originally inspired by her two daughters’ drawings. The images are quite lyrical,” Keezer said. “She has a painterly style using ceramic underglazes to decorate the pieces. I think her work is quite unique and a pleasure to use.”

Sus’ brand formally started between 2017 and 2018, with pieces showing in the Charlie Cummings Gallery. Since then, she has participated in several local pop-up markets and developed her brand on social media. Her pieces will soon be sold at the Auk Market, with prices ranging from $150 to $300.

“I have beautiful reviews that I have saved that say it [her art] brings them [customers] joy and makes them happy,” she said. 

One day, she’d love to open her own store. But for now, she continues to create unique pieces and inspire the next generation of artists.

“People have surely come to me and say, ‘I don’t know how to draw, I can’t draw,’” she said. “Oh yes, you can. You just have to lose the ‘I can’t,’” she said.

Contact Noor Sukkar at noorsukkar@ufl.edu. Follow her on Twitter @noorsukkarr

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Noor Sukkar

Noor Sukkar is a third-year journalism major with a minor in Arabic. When she’s not writing, she’s most likely talking to her cat or overwatering her plants.


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