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Finding Purpose in Clay

MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner

Ceramist Jim Sudal’s botanical-themed art celebrates the beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades | Photography by Mark Faulkner

Life is a series of defining moments, of propitious periods of time that shape and change us. The ancient Greeks had a term for it: “kairos”—when you meet the right person or when the thing that was destined to happen at that exact instant occurs. For artist Jim Sudal, that moment came in 2008.

“I had recently opened my gallery and bought a big house nearby with a studio, and I was selling as much artwork as I could make. Then things started to go bad,” he recalls. “The economy collapsed; I ended a relationship; and I was left with a big house, a big mortgage and gallery rent. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.”

Paralyzed by the prospect of losing everything, Sudal would head to his gallery each morning and, not working or even opening the store to customers, simply sit on the floor in a state of depression. One day, not knowing why, he decided to unlock the door, and in walked Paradise Valley resident and noted art collector Carol Ann Mackay, who at the time was helping a friend decorate her house. The homeowner was Lonnie Ali, wife of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali.

For three years, Mackay and Ali had been looking for something to hang above the couple’s fireplace. It needed to be “bold and beautiful,” according to Mackay, and balance out a vivid Andy Warhol painting of Muhammad that was displayed on the opposing wall.

Nine months and 400 working hours later, Sudal presented the Alis with a massive 5-foot-square, 325-pound stoneware mural of flowering prickly pear cacti. The pistils and stamen of its two golden-hued blooms are made up of hundreds of intricate butterflies and bees, a tribute to the fighter’s famous quote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

1. The 14″-square “Blooming Saguaro” high-relief tile showcases the blossoms of the Valley’s defining cactus. It is crafted of terra-cotta clay with a matte black background. 2. While he’s renowned for his ceramics embellished with Sonoran Desert botanicals, artist Jim Sudal also creates pieces that feature tropical flora, such as this 3′-square Magnolia mural. “Years ago, when I first opened my studio, an interior designer from Florida came in and asked me if I could do something that related to the South,” he recalls. “Clients just love this design.” 3. When he first starting working with clay, Sudal used a khaki-colored stoneware. He later moved on to his signature red clay and, more recently, black.  “Blooming Aloe,” hand-thrown black stoneware, 14″H by 8″ in diameter. 4. This 5′-square hand-sculpted prickly pear mural was commissioned by Lonnie Ali as a birthday gift for her husband, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. It hangs on a marble-faced fireplace in their living room. Steel spikes serve as the spines. The center of each flower comprises hundreds of tiny butterflies and bees, an homage to the prizefighter.

Sudal remembers, “That project gave me something to focus on when I was at such a low point in my life. It made me feel as though I could accomplish anything. I call it my Sistine Chapel piece.”

For Ali, the news that her commission reawakened the ceramist’s joy of his craft comes as no surprise. “God used my husband as an instrument, and I think that because this piece was more for Muhammad
than it was for me, Jim felt that inspiration. The intersection of he and Muhammad was probably meant to be, to bring him up at that particular point in time.

“The mural is beautiful,” she adds, noting that it still hangs in her home. “It’s timeless. It’s one of those pieces that will be passed down through the generations.”

1. Sudal has been throwing pottery for more than two decades. “I’ve been doing this for so many years that my hands know the way; I can meditate and often do when I’m on the wheel,” he says. 2. “Murals are my real passion,” says Sudal. In his studio, which is in the back room of his gallery, he creates a template out of cardboard for a 5′ in diameter “Amazing Agave” mural. 3. After the template is perfected, Sudal hand-sculpts each segment out of clay. Here, the leaves of the agave mural are drying in preparation for firing. Once they’re removed from they kiln, they will be glazed, refired and bonded together with grout.

That’s high praise for the Connecticut-born artist who, as a teenager, became enamored with the desert and its native flora during a trip to the Grand Canyon State.

After graduating from high school, Sudal moved to Tucson and studied business at the University of Arizona. During his senior year, he took an elective course in ceramics and fell in love with clay and the wheel. “There was an absolute connection,” he recalls. “The feel of a lump of wet, cool clay is very sensual to the touch. But the greater sensation is more in my mind and heart than just my fingertips. Sometimes I can close my eyes and see the endless energy of creative freedom and its possibilities unfold before me.”

A master’s degree from Thunderbird School of Global Management and a stint at Intel in California’s Silicon Valley followed, but the desert had taken hold and didn’t let go. “I discovered that corporate life—and anywhere outside of Arizona—wasn’t for me. I just missed everything about the Valley,” he says. Two years to the day after leaving the state, he returned, with no job and no idea of what to do.

“The feel of a lump of wet, cool clay is very sensual to the touch.”

-Jim Sudal, ceramist
A completed “Amazing Agave” mural with serrated edges. 4' in diameter.

“I always loved Desert Botanical Garden and the plants, so when I heard that DBG was looking for someone to do some marketing, I thought that it would be a great place where I could collect myself for a while,” Sudal says. During his seven-year tenure, he would spend his free time at a ceramics facility in downtown Phoenix. He began throwing plates, vases and mugs—simple terra-cotta hued pieces adorned with bold details of agaves, yuccas, aloes, saguaros and other indigenous flora that he would sell at the garden’s gift shop.

“Jim really understands the desert and its plants,” says Ken Schutz, executive director of DBG. “While his designs aren’t literal representations, they speak to the inner truth of each species.”

In 1997, the artist decided to step out on his own and, in 2006, he opened his own gallery in a historic building in Old Town Scottsdale.

Whether it’s a small tabletop item or a large wall mural, Sudal’s creations have a definitive style. Each species featured is reduced to its essentials. The sculptural rosette of an agave; the fleshy, razor-sharp leaves of an aloe; the rounded masses of prickly pears—the subjects are lovingly presented without fuss or excess embellishment. “The essence is there without the detail,” notes Schutz.

The colors vary from the artist’s trademark muted blues and soft greens seen on his thrown pottery to the vivid, high-gloss reds, whites, yellow and even metallic pewter found in his murals. The base of red or black stoneware clay plays a predominate role in the final look. “I like to use glazes that are translucent as opposed to opaque because the natural beauty of the clay shows through,” Sudal explains. “It’s rare that I’ll completely cover a piece of pottery.”

While Sudal often includes desert wildlife, such as hummingbirds, Gambel’s quail and jackrabbits, in his work, plants remain the backbone of his designs. “Their shapes and colors just kind of cemented themselves in my mind and my heart. I do a few birds and things like that, but the botanicals are what draw me in,” he says, adding, “I get my best ideas when I’m gardening or hiking.”

A hand-sculpted “Agave in Bloom” mural, crafted of stoneware clay and glazed in a matte black finish, hangs on the exterior wall of a home in DC Ranch. 5'H by 2.5'W

His signature motif is the agave. From large rosette murals to vases and planters sporting side views of the plant’s spiky leaves, even dishware in the shape of a single leaf, the ornamental succulent has endured as a recurring theme since the beginning. “One of my most popular pieces early on was an agave bowl. It’s a classic design that has always stayed with me. You’ll always see an agave of some form in my murals and pretty much everything I do. Even my logo is an agave.

“I’ve always been intrigued by the story of its life,” the artist continues. “Agaves live a long time, with an end result of sending up this beautiful stalk. It takes so much energy to do this that it actually kills the plant. So its whole purpose is this one bloom. I always look at it and think, ‘Boy, you’re spending your whole time on this earth to send up this one beautiful bloom for all of us to enjoy, and then you go away.’”

Gayle and Myrl Mortenson are fans of Sudal’s agave murals. The couple had met the artist in the early 2000s during a vacation in the Valley. When they decided to build a new house in their hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, they made sure to incorporate his work into the design. “We wanted pieces that emphasize the architecture,” says Gayle.

In all, the Mortensons own 10 of his wall hangings, including a 4-foot-diameter freeform agave, as well as several 12-inch-square agave rosette tiles, agave wall sconces and an agave welcome sign. A matching pair of 14-inch-square lotus blossom tiles decorate iron gates that lead to his-and-hers garage entrances, while a 3-foot-square dimensional magnolia bloom hangs outside of the husband’s office. But the homeowners’ favorite piece is 4-foot-high by 3-foot-wide rendering of a hesperaloe that is displayed on a 19th-century fireplace surround in their kitchen. Its warm orange hue complements the soft cream of the hearth’s limestone.

“In the evening, when the fireplace is on, there is not a more beautiful spot on earth,” says Gayle. “Jim rolled every one of those little blossoms with his own two hands.”

While he didn’t know it at the time, that elective course in college was another defining moment in the artist’s life, opening the door to a lifetime of creativity and purpose. “There’s something spiritual about working with clay,” Sudal notes. “It’s grounding, centering—all those things. And it’s a connection with the earth. With clay, you’ve got this lump of, in essence, earth, and I look around at what I’ve done and what I can transform it into. In that sense, there is a lot of joy that I can find and give, just in the material.”

For more information, see Sources.

MASTERS of the SOUTHWEST Award Winner

Jim Sudal

Craig Pearson, one of Phoenix Home & Garden’s inaugural Masters of the Southwest award winners, has known Jim Sudal almost as long as we’ve been honoring the region’s best professionals. The pair met while Jim was working at Desert Botanical Garden and have remained friends ever since.

“Jim’s work has come so far,” Pearson says, “from simple vases and mugs to large wall hangings that are just spectacular.

When Jim opened his eponymous studio, Jim Sudal Ceramic Design, in a historic building in Old Town Scottsdale in 2006, Pearson was “really happy to have him as a neighbor. He’s really flourished. He’s constantly working, doing stuff in the studio or throwing clay on his wheel out in the driveway,” the plantscape designer says. “You can tell that he totally loves what he’s doing.”

And so does the public. Jim’s work can still be found at the DBG gift shop—he’s one of its highest-volume sellers—as well as in stores at Phoenix Art Museum, Taliesin West and numerous luxury resorts in Arizona, as well as at botanical gardens and cultural institutions throughout the Southwest. “He’s one of the few crossover artists we feature whose work both locals and tourists love to buy,” says Ken Schutz, executive director of DBG. “Whereas many of our products are mementos of Arizona, his ceramics are pieces of art.”

From charming vases decorated with purple lupine and sturdy mugs sporting saguaros to richly hued heirloom-quality murals that showcase the blooming glory of the Sonoran Desert, Jim’s artwork has universal appeal. The pieces work in a variety of home settings, from traditional to Southwestern to contemporary. And, they’ve been a staple of our pages for many years. As such, we figure that it’s time to pay our respects to this talented artist by naming him a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. Congratulations, Jim.

—The Editors

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