“The Cape is where I want to be as an artist,” says ceramicist Isabel Souza. “The direction of my art is very influenced by my roots and my family history in Truro and Provincetown. It just makes sense for me to be here.”
Souza returned to her hometown of Truro after graduating from Syracuse University’s ceramics program, with a minor in business, in 2018. At age 23, she already has her own pottery studio and is making her mark with recent collections at local businesses, including Truro Vineyards, and custom work for private clients.
When she began to explore her own family’s history as a student at Nauset Regional High School, she discovered that her great-grandfather Abraham Soares owned a ceramic roof tile factory in Valença do Minho in northern Portugal before emigrating with his wife to the U.S. The couple moved to Truro because there were jobs to be had in Provincetown’s fishing industry. Once settled, Souza’s great-grandmother worked for Ada “Tiny” Worthington, a local seamstress who, in the 1930s, began to use fish nets to create women’s fashion.
“I feel that creating functional art is in my blood,” Souza says.
Souza’s great-grandfather was also a passionate gardener, a tradition that still runs deep in her family, which owns Bayberry Gardens & Landscaping in Truro. “The first piece of pottery I ever saw was probably a terra-cotta flowerpot,” Souza says. Being exposed to the many colors and patterns of flowers and plants throughout her life was — and still is — a deep influence on her work. “I am very interested in playing with bright color combinations inspired by nature,” she says. Souza smiles and adds that she and her family “are all turning dirt into beauty.”
She took her first pottery classes at Truro Central School and was smitten. “I found the element of surprise in pottery very exciting,” she says. “You make a piece and glaze it. Then, after it is fired, it looks completely different. It’s such a rewarding process, even now. Each time I get a successful piece out of the kiln, it feels amazing.”
While she was at the elementary school, Souza won a scholarship at Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill. “I knew I liked clay, but had not tried the potter’s wheel,” she says. “Even though it wasn’t as easy as it looked, I fell in love.”
Souza continued to take ceramics classes at Castle Hill throughout high school. At Nauset, she also found support and encouragement from her art teacher, Amy Kandall, who has a pottery business. In her senior year, Souza got an internship at Castle Hill, where she worked with then-ceramics director Brian Taylor.
She chose to go to Syracuse with the plan of starting a pottery business of her own after college. At the school’s study abroad program in Florence, Italy, she learned about sprezzatura, or “the art of effortless mastery,” a business model that has inspired her approach to ceramics. “Italian luxury brands create their goods — clothing, art, sports cars — to appear very simple and effortlessly crafted, though they’re actually very deliberate and focused,” Souza says.
Another important aspect to the Italian approach, she adds, is story — “the personal story of the artist or craftsperson, the story of the influences on their art, and the story of the material and quality of the item created. All are woven together in a cohesive way as the overall story of the brand.”
Elegant simplicity and story have since become hallmarks of Souza’s pottery. “I really like simplifying a design so that it can be all that it needs to be without any distraction,” she says. A fan of Matisse, she created a Mood Mug series inspired by Matisse’s gesture or contour drawings. Each mug has a slightly different facial expression, and when seen side by side, they illustrate the variety of human emotion. “The differences between each piece,” Souza says, “are the most fun parts.”
During the pandemic in the spring, Souza began creating her Rainbow Mugs. “I had just returned from a trip to Costa Rica when the lockdown began,” she says. “My mind was full of the rich colors I saw there, and I wanted to create a series that expressed how we humans are better together, not apart. Each of the mugs on its own expresses just one color, but together they make a rainbow.”
Working on large projects with local businesses, such as her pottery line at Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters in Brewster, has been meaningful to her. “To get to see people gather and have coffee and conversation over my cups has been amazing,” she says. “We live in a world that is so fast, so busy. Sure, you can opt to buy a mug from T.J. Maxx that is mass-manufactured. What’s so special about pottery is these objects make the user slow down, look, and appreciate that each piece was made individually by the hands of an artist.”