Danny McSweeney: For the love of clay

Danny McSweeney is a master potter who received his education at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Shelves and cubbies line the walls, filled with bowls, cups, miniature animal sculptures and trinkets made from clay glazed in an array of red, blue, green and brown hues. A potter’s wheel faces the window with chairs small enough for toddlers. This is the pottery classroom of Danny McSweeney, a master potter who received his education at the Kansas City Art Institute. McSweeney has been teaching pottery for 17 years and now teaches at The Artists’ Loft School in Mount Pleasant.

“That’s what I love about teaching; I can show these kids all the things I didn’t know or have access to when I was a kid,” explained McSweeney, pausing to reflect on how he first discovered clay and his passion for it. Growing up on a river near Richmond, Virginia, McSweeney would play in the river digging up clay. He said he recalls making little vases out of river clay, drying them out in the sun, and then watching the rain return them to their amorphous origins. As a child, McSweeney said he knew nothing of kilns, scoring, glazing or even that his work could be permanent. Still, he knew that there was a difference between dirt and clay, and that “it was a lot of fun to make stuff out of it.”

Most of McSweeney’s work is functional, but he creates intricate sculptures when he wants to be more expressive. His work is currently sold in downtown Charleston at Nina Liu & Friends Gallery, at fairs and through commissions by word of mouth. According to McSweeney, he’s all about the process and not so much the finished piece. He enjoys sitting down at the wheel: “It’s relaxing, just going through the process of clay.”

Plucking a tall, crooked, brassy-brown cylinder from a shelf, he said, “This would be a typical piece of mine.” With accordion-like ridges, an olive green stem and red glaze pouring down from the top, this abstract piece of art doubles as a functional vase, urn or secret cookie jar.

One of McSweeney’s favorite works of art was a multi-piece project. He made a set of long, spiraling objects, and with the help of a friend and a truck, he transferred them to a swampy area along some back roads in Missouri. He strategically placed them so that the formations appeared to be growing out of the water. The road was often used by truckers; he chuckled as he recounted the story of one man who brought his wife to show her these mysterious “trunks.” He took pleasure in knowing that he had created a way for people who may not normally walk into an art gallery to experience something that kept them wondering. “Even if they didn’t know it, these people were experiencing art,” McSweeney said.

While many children of today become increasingly more interested and involved in technology, Danny teaches a back-to-basics, hands-on craft that he says helps children to develop patience, work ethic, motor skills and creativity while learning a classic and unique art form. This is especially true for the younger students. Growing up during an age when most things produce instant gratification, developing patience can be difficult. A finished piece requires hard work and can take up to a week or so. “It is hard for kids to wait that long for anything,” Danny explained. “They have to mold, wait for it to dry, put it in the kiln, then glaze and fire.”

The “Basics of Shapes” is the first lesson for beginner potters. By teaching students how to make spheres, slabs and coils, McSweeney gives students the tools to create what is in their imaginations. It’s especially fascinating to watch the younger students develop their motor skills. “They see a lump of clay and think, ‘I can’t do it,’ and I just keep telling them, ‘You can! You can do it. Keep trying!’ and eventually they get it. They make the sphere; they make the coil. And then their imagination kicks in and they make all kinds of stuff,” McSweeney said while gesturing at his student, Alex, who was making a “broken-down VW bus.”

McSweeney’s time not spent creating something or teaching is spent hiking, camping, geocaching with his wife, visiting the city marina, or fishing, swimming or sailing. After all, he lives on a sailboat with his two dogs.

McSweeney also teaches adults of all ages and holds Sunday evening pottery classes for families. He said the one thing he hopes his students will take away from his classes is “The love of clay – how great it is that you can do anything with it. Anything in your imagination you can make out of clay, you can make it come to life.”