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Sylvia Hyman

Sylvia Hyman

(1917-2012) born in Buffalo, NY, lived in Nashville
Crate of Books and Things, 2002
ceramic stoneware, 10.75 x 12 x 8.25 inches, 2005.54.2

Hyman received her bachelor’s degree in art education from the New York State Teachers College at Buffalo and obtained a master’s degree in art education from Peabody College for Teachers, now known as Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. She spent over thirty years as an art teacher in the Nashville area, and it was 1957, fifteen years into her teaching career, that she first began working with clay when she was given some ceramic equipment. In the early 1970’s she began working as a ceramicist full time.

In the spring of 1971, under the auspices of the International Academy of Ceramics, the Tennessee Arts Commission pledged its support for the promotion and establishment of the U.S. International Ceramic Symposiums. The Symposium’s mission to help develop a worldwide network of support for ceramic art was achieved by bringing together top ceramic artists from around the world for a month-long sharing of ideas and creation of innovative ceramics.


Left: (image from the ICS 1973 catalogue) Hyman attaches raku, Egyptian paste beads to an almost completed necklace Center: photo of Hyman Right: Hyman with work she created at the 1973 ICS

Hyman represented the United States at the First U.S. International Ceramic Symposium, which consisted of twenty-five artists from thirteen different countries, and was hosted in the summer of 1973 at the Memphis Academy of Art. While at the Symposium, Hyman created a set of decorative bottles, a couple of beaded necklaces, and a few realistically textured clay bags, which are precursors to her later trompe l’oeil work.



Top Left: Set of Five Bottles, 1973, clay, dimensions variable, 93.39.68-72 Center: Necklace, 1973, stoneware, 19 x 8.5 inches, 93.39.142  Right: Necklace, 1973, stoneware, 18 x 7 x 7 inches, 93.39.140 Bottom Left: Salt Glazed Evening Bag, 1973, clay, 6 x 6.25 x 1 inches, 93.39.90 Center: Stoneware Bead Bag, 1973, stoneware, leather, raku beads, 93.39.132 Right: Salt Glazed Pouch with Raku Balls, 1973, clay, 5.5 x 7.5 x 2.25 inches, 93.39.89

At the Symposium Hyman also made a cinerary urn, (shown below) which she titled Sarcophagus for Myself. This cinerarium vessel with Hyman’s face depicted on the lid was part of her Etruscan series. When Hyman passed away in 2012, plans were made to seal some of her cremated remains within this burial urn as a place of remembrance. Hyman knew what ingredients could be used in creating workable glazes and clay so she planned on her remaining ashes to be used in pottery glazes and kneaded into clay that were formulated by close friends and potters, Susan DeMay and Tom Turnbull.


Left: Hyman creating Sarcophagus for Myself, 1973, clay, 16.75 x 19.5 x 12.75 inches, 93.39.268 Center: Finished Sarcophagus for Myself Right: Lid for Sarcophagus for Myself (Additional images and video below)

Having loved the 1973 Symposium in Memphis so much, Hyman went on to organize and serve as the director for the third International Ceramic Symposium in 1985, which brought eighteen artists from thirteen countries together to work for a month at the Appalachian Center for Craft in Smithville, TN.

A retrospective exhibit of her work was held in 1995 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, and following this show, Hyman focused the rest of her career to creating captivating trompe l’oeil works, for which she is internationally recognized. Trompe l’oeil is a French phrase that means “to fool the eye,” and it refers to the techniques Hyman developed to make clay sculptures that look so realistic that people often do not realize they are made entirely of clay.

In 2007 she was the subject of a 23-minute documentary film made by Nashville filmmaker Curt Hahn called Sylvia Hyman: Eternal Wonder, (video excerpt below) which premiered at the Nashville Film Festival in concision with an exhibition at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville on her 90th birthday.

Although later in life she became legally blind, Hyman continued to create sculptural ceramic pieces for commission and exhibition in her Nashville studio with the help of two assistants. The Intriguing Vision of Sylvia Hyman: Trompe l’oeil Ceramic Artist, a book of her ceramic work edited by Janet Mansfield, was published in 2012, the same year she passed away in Nashville.

She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Craft Arts from the National Museum of Women in the Arts of Washington, D.C., the 1994 Tennessee Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, and the 2004 Individual Artist Fellowship award from the Tennessee Arts Commission. In 2001 Hyman created the ceramic trompe l’oeil award that was presented to recipients of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts.

Today, her work can be found in museums and art collections worldwide including the Renwick Gallery of Smithsonian American Art Museum, the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pamona, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, the Saga Prefectural Museum in Saga, Japan, and the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.

An excerpt from Curt Hahn’s documentary Sylvia Hyman: Eternal Wonder

Written by Aiden Layer, TN Arts Intern