Feats of clay

by Zachary Jason
Isabelle Abramson
Campus & Community / Alumni | August 21, 2016

Isabelle Abramson, at her home studio in Vermont. (Photograph by Gary Wayne Gilbert)

Seven mornings a week by 7:00, at the end of a two-mile dirt road in a forest in southern Vermont, Isabelle Abramson climbs the alternating-tread staircase of her rustic home—one step just wide enough for her left slipper, the next for the right—to her studio. For the next five or so hours, choosing from nearly 100 metal sculpting tools of various shapes and sizes, she carves labyrinthine designs into molded, dampened clay, yielding in a matter of days, or sometimes weeks, ceramic confections ranging from two-inch bud vases to lacy pendant lamps that will shine their light through more than 900 individual cut-outs.

“I knew I had to be pretty good so I wouldn’t just die in the woods,” jokes Abramson, who grew up north of Boston and spent most of her childhood summers on a West Virginia farm. She “always” wanted to be an artist—she sewed her own pants as a teenager—but also “couldn’t stand a life not helping people.” After a semester of art school, she enrolled in the Connell School of Nursing. She became a nurse at an Orthodox Jewish K–12 school in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 2007 and spent her spare hours at a local pottery co-op, teaching herself the near-surgical process of incising a design (mapped out in pencil) while constantly sponging to prevent cracking.

By 2011, the likes of Yankee Magazine, the Huffington Post, and the Dutch fashion magazine Nouveau had discovered her high-gloss lattice bowls and votive holders (virtually always white) at gallery-style home goods stores in Boston’s South End and on her website, giving her the confidence to move to Vermont to pursue ceramics full-time. At first she worked 14 hours a day, often until her fingers bled. Owing to the delicacy of her pieces, only two-thirds of her smaller items and one quarter of her larger ones survive the required four-to-five kiln firings. Now she makes up to 100 mini vases a week. Larger pieces such as her intricate fleur-de-lis bowls can take three weeks or, as she says, “about a thousand years.”

Abramson still practices nursing—twice a week making house calls to elderly patients and working as a substitute nurse at a local private school. Some Saturdays, she brings her smaller vases and her hand-crafted porcelain-and-silver earrings to the Brattleboro Farmer’s Market. Most of her larger works—the pendant lamps, for instance—sell on her website, for as much as $5,600 apiece.

—Originally published in Boston College Magazine