2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER

2017 National Mature Media Award WINNER
The Creative Landscape of Aging Wins a NMMA Award!


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An Interview with BARBARA HANSELMAN: Claysmith Extraordinaire

                                                    photography by Linda Ann Miller

Barbara creates distinctly beautiful rattles with a keen awareness of its spiritual path in history. She teaches workshops that focus on hand building techniques to build both small and large design elements.

You are immersed in the world of clay now yet you had a previous life about 20 years before which was client driven in interior design. How does it feel to be in your passion mode and also be autonomous? Do you enjoy creating as well as teaching?

I have always been self-employed and somewhat autonomous but it wasn’t until my hands went into clay that I was able to overcome my fear of not having design clients to generate an income.  I soon realized that I could bring much of my interior and graphic design experience to clay but the opportunity to share my new found passion for clay with anyone interested was truly a bonus.  Looking back now it seems that teaching was simply the next logical step.

You have finely honed your hand building techniques to produce exceptional pieces. Do you ever work on the wheel to pursue a structural value that eludes hand building?

I never was drawn to the wheel; the potters I knew who worked on one were more production oriented, churning out mugs, bowls and covered casseroles.  It was never a dream of mine to produce functional pots.   When I became confident as a “Claysmith” (a name of my own invention since I didn’t consider myself a potter) my last thought was to enter the Strictly Functional Pottery National Show in Lancaster.  But when I finally realized the difference between production and function and did enter national venues like SFPN, my clay work was accepted and awarded.  As a result, I don’t feel that forming clay vessels on the wheel has a structural value which eludes hand building. 

Working with clay (whether hand building or throwing) is akin to learning to ride a bike – learn it, forget it, then just do it.  I collected the basic techniques of hand building in a relatively short period of time and had at least ten years worth of clay methodology in books, on tapes and in notebooks before beginning to master any of them and make them my own.  Practice is essential; learning to see and listening to the clay is an art unto itself.   I am reminded of a story about ceramics in college where the assignment was to make ‘the perfect pot’.  Half the class was told to make as many pots as they could, the other half was told to concentrate on just making one ‘perfect’ pot in a six week period.  You know which group ended up making the ‘perfect pots?’ – The group who made as many pots as they could.

Your clay rattles are very special and hold a spiritual presence. Can you talk about that?

Many cultures believe in Healing RATTLES and their capacity to dispel illness & dis¬-ease.  These Rattles are credited with being able to awaken the human spirit, drive out negative energies and center personal focus.  My versions of these Rattles are hand formed and adorned with symbols of wellness; they are shaped to be grasped.  During times of despair, medical treatments or loneliness, the Rattle should be gently shaken to the beat of one’s heart. RATTLES do help us to ground; their sound is powerful & magical, producing an incomparable energy all their own.
All of my Rattles are “birthed” in the same way.  Once the basic shape is formed, I tenderly blow my own CHI (breath of life) inside, sealing the opening quickly closed with pursed lips. 

In developing beads or creating jewelry, the intellectual and artistic process would appear to be different than when you create a pot. For example, beads are individual elements that may be left as a singular piece of art or grouped thoughtfully and artistically as jewelry with/without other components. Do you approach this differently? Do you always plan the outcome?

Answering your last question first, I never plan the outcome of anything when it comes to clay.  I am just along for the ride and although I may suggest a direction or a turn, the clay always has the final say.

I love making Rattles and Beads in Clay because, individually, they have the capacity to become future artifacts from the era in which I live.  They are small and durable; able to remain perfect while much larger icons like clay pots are ravaged by time.  Yet in the present, my clay beads can have the same intrinsic value as a finely cut gemstone, cabochon or pearl which permits each one to ‘cross over’ into the artistic discipline of self adornment.   I just LOVE that!

How has your explorations of post firing surface design (glazes, textures, colors) changed your vision for your work?

Early on in my clay venture, I discovered I could go past the simple rolled out clay slab and make Clay Fabrics from these slabs.  This process allows me to focus on how my pieces will LOOK before I even know what they will be.  Making clay fabrics forced me to consider how different glazes would enhance the various engobes & stains I was applying, whether my engobes or terra sigillata even needed the addition of a glaze to look ‘finished’ and how  combining different clay bodies, textures and engobes at this beginning stage would make dealing with my future bisque-fired pieces a breeze.

Now at 66, what do you still want to achieve with your work in clay?

First I wanted to hand build with clay, eat off its river rock surface and drink from the empty spaces it defines.  I then wanted to hear the sound of clay as it moves to and fro within itself - so I make rattles.  Now I want a total “Clay Shibumi” where I am the adaptable turtle or the Bodhi leaf impressed in the beads’ surface; where I know the power of each single hand-formed bead touching my skin and absorbing my essence.  I want to be what the clay is saying as I wear it and fondle it (the way old Greek men stroke their worry beads).
So I strive to compose with the language of clay… Whether the clay becomes a pot, a rattle or a bead, it is its final ‘function’ which determines the process I use to seal its fate.  I value these processes far more than the physical manifestations I make in clay.  Embracing these processes makes it possible for me to ask “What if” and to build on the awareness of where my venture with clay has taken me.



  1. Most of the pottery and ceramics that I see for sale should more properly be classified as "arts and crafts" products (or just kitsch). Much Ms. Hanselman's work, in my estimation, would fall under the rubric of "fine art".

  2. Your work is exquisite Barbara. Enjoyed reading this interview with you ever so much.

  3. Master Claysmith I'd say. Wonderful Interview.