Step inside Jessica Hengen’s store and workshop in Sugar Loaf, N.Y., and you might find her at her workbench, jeweler’s visor on, filing a ring carved from wax—a commission for a customer. The finished version will be cast in green gold, and set with natural, uncut sapphires.
Or you might find her brushing a white clay slip on a head modeled out of red stoneware, her dog (and sometimes model) Qweet lying nearby. Your eyes rove from the striking clay figurative pieces peering out from every nook, to the jewelry case packed with her unique designs.
It was as a jewelry designer in Manhattan that Hengen made a career for herself, apprenticing to master jewelers on 47th Street to learn the trade. Moving to Warwick with her husband and two babies at the height of the recession, she knew she had to reinvent herself. She returned to her first love—ceramics.
A largely self-taught clay artist, Hengen’s work leans toward organic shapes and rich textured glazes. She might apply a black oxide wash to give definition, or explore recipes for low fire matte glazes, using found objects, such as driftwood or a chunk of asphalt, to provide textural details. Inspiration comes from plants in her garden, or an image of her daughter engrossed in play. Encounters with animals spark her imagination, such as the baby crow she hand reared, or the snapping turtle she helped cross the road. Vines and branches often take on symbolic roles in her work.
Hengen pays her skills forward by teaching kids how to work with clay in her children’s classrooms. She has made a series of bowls to donate to Empty Bowls, a community fundraiser to fight hunger, and also teaches workshops in jewelry and clay art.