FITZWILLIAM — “Years ago, Susan Silverman was well on her way to a career with the U.S. Ski Team. Then she severely broke her leg and shattered her dreams.
But soon after, on a getaway to regroup, she discovered her true passion in ceramics —and found her real calling.
Today, she owns Five Wings Studio in Fitzwilliam, teaches fine arts at Franklin Pierce University, and is chairman of the visual and performing arts division. Equally devoted to community service, she’s a longtime member of the Fitzwilliam Board of Selectmen.
“I love it,” she said. “I love things that continue to be challenging and changing. They’re never the same. Every semester I have a new batch of students. And being an elected official is never dull. There are always new problems, new issues that we try to solve.”
Silverman, who is now in her 60s, holds a bachelor’s degree in studio art with highest honors from Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and a master’s degree in fine arts with a concentration in printmaking from UMass Amherst. At Franklin Pierce, she’s taught all levels and various techniques of ceramics and printmaking, as well as three-dimensional design, sculpture and Asian ink painting.
“I love teaching. And as it turns out, I’m pretty good at it,” she said.
For years, she’s studied and taught in various venues in New England and nationally, as well as in Japan, Scotland and Wales. An award-winning artist, she exhibits her work in invitational and juried shows in regional and out-of-state areas, such as Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto.
Along with that, she’s president of the newly formed faculty senate. And in 2006, she launched the Empty Bowls project at Franklin Pierce University, part of the international campaign to fight hunger.
Nathan Sullivan is assistant professor of fine arts at Franklin Pierce University. He and Silverman have been colleagues for the past five years.
“Susan is a wonderful person,” he said. “She’s a wonderful teacher. She’s very professional, very engaged with her students, and a joy to work with. She’s a very versatile artist. The fact that she’s a printmaker and also does ceramics is very unique. It’s a wonderful crossover.”
However, Silverman didn’t start out to be an artist. Growing up in Seattle, she had two passions, horses and skiing, which she learned at age 4. In her teens, she competed twice in the U.S. Ski Association Junior National Championships representing the Pacific Northwest Ski Association, and did well, she said.
After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the University of Colorado-Boulder to train with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association club for the U.S. Ski Team. A speed demon, she competed in downhill racing, slalom and grand slalom.
“We’d train in Vail and Aspen for six to eight weeks, then hit the circuit,” she said. “I did it for two years, then broke my leg badly. My career was over. Once my leg healed, I dropped out of college.”
Silverman had no idea what to do next. Her father suggested a trip to Europe with a quick stop first to visit family friends in Japan. She planned to be there for a couple of weeks, but became drawn to ceramics, and stayed nearly two years, becoming fluent in the language.
“Japan had the most amazing ceramic history in contemporary practice,” she said. “I studied pottery. There was so much there.”
In 1971, she returned to the United States. Soon after, with her first husband, she moved to New England, and to Fitzwilliam in 1979. The marriage didn’t last, but the couple had three children, now adults.
She founded Five Wings Studio in 1982, producing stoneware and porcelain functional ware, and created custom tile murals for homes. A juried member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, she exhibited in statewide juried shows, and also nationally. She taught classes and workshops there, and in numerous locations including Franklin Pierce College, Smith College, Sharon Arts Center, and Worcester Museum of Art.
In 1988, she first ran successfully for selectman. Four years later, in May 1992, she appeared as such on ABC’s Good Morning America during a live show on location on the Fitzwilliam Common, which was part of Good Morning America’s tour of New England. Re-elected on several occasions, she served continuously for a decade. During that time, she wed Terry Silverman, a professional potter who is the longtime chairman of the Fitzwilliam Planning Board. They’ve now been married for 20 years.
“Susan has always been interested in serving the community, and she’s always been an artist,” Terry Silverman said. “She raised her family being a production potter. That’s a feat in itself. She’s very accomplished in whatever she does. She’s usually the smartest person in the room. That’s an advantage she has over the rest of us.”
When her term expired in 1998, Silverman took a break. She applied to finish her college degree as an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College. She wanted to major in East Asian studies, but there was no program. When her adviser suggested a studio art degree, she balked.
“I’d already had a studio for 15 years. What more would I learn?,” she said. “I consulted with my oldest daughter, who’s an artist. She suggested I focus on printmaking. I thought it was boring — etchings you’d see in someone’s basement. But I signed up and fell in love with it big time.
“I’d had a long-term connection and commitment to clay, but as soon as I discovered printmaking, it was, ‘Wow, here’s a whole other world’.”
In 2000, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in studio art. She continued to teach various workshops and classes, ran again successfully for selectman, and enrolled at UMass Amherst for a master’s degree in fine arts, which she received in 2005.
A year later, Silverman, who was teaching a class at Franklin Pierce, was invited to fill a new position as a one-year visiting professor. It was renewed for a second year, then opened to a mandatory national search. She competed with hundreds of candidates, and after several rounds of interviews, prevailed.
“I felt like I earned the job,” she said. “It came along at a really good point in my studio life. I had done the show circuit for 20 years. It gets tiring. I was ready for a change. And I love to teach.”
“We have wonderful art majors right now,” she said. “I really enjoy my students and colleagues.”
Since 2008, she’s been employed as assistant professor of fine arts, and is now also chair of the visual and performing arts division. Last year, the university eliminated six degree programs, including the fine arts major, but still offers classes. Students who were in the midst of earning their degrees can finish by spring 2016.
For the past five years, Silverman’s exhibited her own work at the Prints of the Year Invitational at Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord. In January, she did a solo show at Franklin Pierce University. From June 26 through mid-September, she’ll display some pieces in the New Hampshire Potter’s Guild tribute show at the League of N.H. Craftsmen’s gallery in Concord to honor her teacher and friend, Gerry Williams, a renowned ceramic potter who died last August. He was New Hampshire’s first Artist Laureate, appointed in the late 1990s by then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, and in 2005 received New Hampshire’s Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure Award.
For nearly two decades, she attended his celebrated Phoenix Workshops for ceramic artists in Dunbarton, and subsequent annual reunions. He first introduced her to her longtime friends, Lisa Blackburn and John Hartom, the founders of the international Empty Bowls project to fight hunger. In 2006, she and her students created, painted and fired ceramic bowls, and started the first Empty Bowls luncheon at Franklin Pierce. In the past 10 years, they’ve raised $10,000 for local food pantries, and plan to continue the tradition in November.
For that, she received the 2010 Franklin Pierce President’s Good Stewardship Award, Campus Compact N.H. This year, she and her husband also donated ceramic bowls to the Fitzwilliam Community Church for an Empty Bowls event in town.
Among her other awards are the 2005 Blanche E. Coleman Award for printmaking from the Mellon Foundation, Boston. With the competitive cash prize, she purchased a large American French Tool etching press for her studio. In 2007, the Dean’s Fund, at what was then called Franklin Pierce College, gave her a grant to travel and study in China.
Additionally, she received a Whiting Foundation fellowship to further her printmaking studies. In spring 2013, she traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, and to Aberystwyth University in Wales to study nontoxic, “green” techniques to create intaglio prints and alternative printmaking methods with Andrew Baldwin, a noted Welsh printmaker and teacher.
Besides art and teaching, Silverman is committed to her town. After her 10-year stint on the board of selectmen, she continued to serve, returning to the board from 2001 to 2005, and 2009 to the present. She’s even lost a couple of elections. To date, she’s served with 10 different selectmen, and is a three-time board chairman, but not at present.
“I like to serve my community,” she said. “A lot of people think I’m in there because I’m on some kind of power trip. That’s not true. I’m there to serve my town, not my own agenda. That sounds corny, but that’s why I started and why I continue.”
Joan Knight, a longtime Fitzwilliam resident who now lives in Maine, is among the former selectmen with whom Silverman worked. The two sat on the board together for more than six years, and are also friends.
“Susan has a lot of historic knowledge and knows how government works,” said Knight. “She really tries to be fair. She has a great sense of humor and is a lot of fun. She’s very talented with a lot of skills. She has a real sense of family, and believes in the town of Fitzwilliam, and doing what’s best for it. That’s really all you can ask of someone — that they’re willing to work for the best.”
Recently, Silverman took on another duty. In March, residents voted unanimously by warrant article to empower the board of selectmen to represent the town in all matters related to Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct natural gas transmission pipeline. She now also represents Fitzwilliam on a municipal coalition made up of elected officials, town administrators and concerned citizens from 12 towns on the proposed route. The group meets regularly in Brookline.
“It’s been very helpful,” she said. “We discuss issues, ideas and strategy. Personally, I have yet to hear one good reason or benefit to Fitzwilliam or any other New Hampshire town that the building of this pipeline would bring.”
With the Franklin Pierce class of 2015 newly graduated, she’s now focused on teaching summer classes, and creating and exhibiting her art. And she doesn’t see retirement in the picture.
“I see myself working until I can’t work anymore — whether teaching or working in my studio,” she said.”