LUMBERTON — Susan Gibson likes getting her hands dirty, making pottery, a hobby that is now a habit for her husband Shawn.
At their gallery space in Everything Under the Sky at 3435 Lackey St., clay pots with intricate cut-outs surround them as Shawn lists the benefits of pottery.
“It’s meditative,” he said. “It’s an escape.”
The two became a pair of potters after Susan, who took to the hobby in high school, pushed Shawn into the art form as a coping mechanism.
“When he came back from Afghanistan,” she said, “I think he was having such a hard time coping with reality. It was a good way for him to just forget and relieve his stress and memories of everything he did and saw.”
Shawn worked as a contract police officer in the country for four years, training SWAT teams and counter terrorism police. Visibly uncomfortable in talking about the experience, he describes the reality of returning home as going from “always having to be on guard” to suddenly having to “put on the brakes.”
His passion for pottery began when he accompanied Susan to her classes at Robeson Community College. Shawn, who wasn’t interested in actually making the pots on a wheel, would carve cut-out patterns for Susan’s pots — “skeletalizing” the pieces.
“I would put 80 hours into one piece, carved on three different levels to make it 3D. I would carve the surface, then halfway through, and then all the way through.”
The two, who display at events like pow wows and the Lumbee Homecoming, as well as festivals and horse shows, make up to 100 pieces a month.
They credit Jim Tripp, the pottery teacher at Robeson Community College, for teaching them innovative techniques, including alternative firing methods.
Shawn blends chemicals like Miracle Grow and ferichloride, and fires them in a kiln wrapped in aluminum foil. The result is turquoise creations with blasts of coral and red.
Susan says he can’t wait for the process to finish before peaking at how the chemicals are taking effect.
“Every time,” she says sarcastically.
While Shawn approaches the art as a mad scientist, constantly trying new techniques and methods, expanding on ways to carve the pieces and fire them, Susan’s approach is traditional. She makes wheel-thrown and hand-built pieces with detailed and elaborate glazing techniques.
The two say it has brought them closer together, and their conversation rallies back and forth like a tennis match, each depending on the other.
“I feel like we’re not only partners in life — we’re partners in business, and we’re partners in pottery,” Susan said. “We help each other, we criticize each other’s work.”
“We critique each other,” Shawn said as a way to correct his wife.
The self-described full-time potters call it a “productive escape” that relaxes them both. It has also caught on with their youngest daughter, 12-year-old Sabrina, who is with them every day at the gallery, learning photography, pottery and stain glass from other artists who rent space there.
Sabrina thinks it’s “cool” that her parents are into the arts, and goes quiet when asked what it’s like having her father around.
“I barely ever saw my family, ever,” Shawn said of his time working in law enforcement and then as a contract police officer. “I woke up before the sun and came home after the sun. Now I’m always home. I really didn’t know my family before. I missed out on a lot — almost seven years total I was gone.”
Shawn pulls out a carved pot, and points to a piece of clay slightly protruding from its side. He says “clay has memory.”
“If you push the side of that pot in by accident and then push it back into place, it remembers where it went the first time,” Shawn said. “So when you fire it, it will go where it went last.”
To get clay back to its original form, Shawn says you have to work with it — or as he puts it, “You’ve got to realign the molecules.”