Hidden in the Hills Artists Inspired by Life

Writer Sue Kern Kern-Fleischer

Photography Courtesy of Sonoran Arts League

Ceramist Sylvia Fugmann Brongo has a lot of experience delving into unknown territory, which often leads her on an adventurous journey, in both her personal life and her professional life. 

In her studio, moments of adventure come when she loads her kiln and waits to see how her colorful, contemporary sculptures turn out. On the road, traveling the country in her recreational vehicle, adventure might come when she explores a new route. 

In either scenario, the outcome could yield wonderful surprises or challenging disappointments, but she never regrets taking the risk.

A Cave Creek resident, Fugmann Brongo is one of 199 artists participating in the 23rd Annual Hidden in the Hills Artist Studio Tour taking place over the last two weekends of November. She is also one of 47 studio hosts in this year’s tour, which takes place throughout Cave Creek, Carefree and North Scottsdale. Coordinated by the non-profit Sonoran Arts League, Hidden in the Hills is Arizona’s largest and longest-running artist studio tour. 

Maps are available for download online, and can be found at Sonoran Arts League’s Center for the Arts at 7100 E. Cave Creek Rd., Suite 144, in Cave Creek’s Stagecoach Village.

Capturing Creativity in Clay

Fugmann Brongo grew up in a rural, forested area of upstate New York, where she was drawn to nature. She credits her parents for encouraging her to pursue her passion for art. Throughout high school and college, she experimented with painting, sculpture and fiber arts.

“I always came back to clay,” she said. “Clay is so forgiving when it comes to applying texture and shaping. I focus on those characteristics to create organic, flowing, fluid pieces, translated into vessels, vases, bowls and wall pieces.”

She enjoys the challenge of working with clay, which she said is a very meticulous process. Each of her clay pieces is slab-formed, and she uses a large rolling pin to roll them out into thin sheets. She applies texture using simple tools, some of which are also handcrafted. 

“Each piece is fired in a kiln at up to 2,100 degrees for approximately eight to 10 hours,” she said, adding that there are two firings. “I airbrush a glaze onto the surface when the clay has dried and is in the greenware state. So, the bisque firing is also combined with a glaze firing. It’s a bit unconventional, and it works for my process.”

Lately, she has been experimenting with piercings, which she does while the clay is still fresh and wet.

“It’s a tricky process, and I’ve had to learn how far I could push the boundaries before the clay falls apart, breaks or cracks,” she said. “I have to be very careful, especially when I load the kiln. I often find myself holding my breath wondering how each piece will look when I unload the kiln. 

“Like life, it’s a process of trial and error.”

Feeding Her Soul through Travel

Fugmann Brongo got the travel bug from her parents, who explored national and state parks in their RV. 

Before she moved to Arizona in 2006, she traveled to art shows around the country in her full-size cargo van. Then, after the sudden passing of her mother in 2016, she found herself longing to discover the country like her parents did. 

In 2018, she bought a Winnebago Travato, named it “Sylver Gypsy,” and embarked on a seven-month journey, driving 17,000 miles round-trip from Phoenix to the East Coast through 25 states. Her only companion was her five-pound, long hair Chihuahua, JoJo. 

This past summer, she traveled more than 6,000 miles up the Pacific California Highway into the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. She spent a week in the San Juan Islands, reaching Roche Harbor before heading to Seattle, then staying on the east side of the Cascade Mountains as she traveled south back to Phoenix. 

Like working with clay, when she’s on the road, sometimes she encounters obstacles that she needs to overcome. 

During her first trip, she learned the hard way that camping on the beach can be dangerous. She had decided to camp on a narrow strip of North Padre Island, not far from Corpus Christi, Texas. Unfortunately, she drove about two miles onto the beach and got stuck.

“I couldn’t turn around. I had no cell service and the tide was coming in. I tried to dig myself out and two good Samaritans tried to help me, but I was stranded. Sylver Gypsy looked like a beached whale,” she recalled. 

She was able to get a tow the next day, but she had to wait three weeks for her RV to be repaired before she could continue her journey.

Seeing slices of small-town America and experiencing breathtaking scenes has made up for any challenges on the road. 

“The ocean shore and cliffs always seem to soothe my soul,” she said. “Whenever I can view animals in the wild, I feel like it’s a special honor. During my most recent trip, I observed dozens of elephant seals near Monterey, California, and not once, but twice, I observed up to 25 bald eagles feasting on a carcass on the beach in Washington.”

Her experiences on the Cascade Range were just as thrilling. 

“I encountered several lucky views of the snow-capped volcanic mountains. I was as excited to discover every view of snow-capped peaks and alpine flowers as I was seeing the ocean cliffs along the Pacific Coast. There was so much beauty, that at times I was overwhelmed and emotional,” she said.

Inspired Ideas

Not only does Fugmann Brongo find peace and tranquility during her trips, but she also comes back to her studio with new ideas for her art.

“When I encounter an activity, or catch a glimpse of a view, it may inspire me on how I could incorporate that texture, shape, color or essence into my art. I think inspiration comes without a plan, but rather because of an experience. I find myself determined to seek new experiences to stimulate the process,” she said.

She cherishes each day as an adventure, often driving without any idea of where she is heading and where to spend the night.

“The freedom of spontaneity and non-structured planning was what I wanted to do, as I balanced anticipation, excitement, as well as apprehension at times, while entering the unknown,” she said. “It’s like the design process in my studio as I try new-to-me techniques and new designs.” 

Her recent trip inspired her to try a new technique in her studio where she uses a slab-on-slab process, pasting soft clay on top of soft clay. 

“I am also using 300 million-year-old fossils that I excavated, and I impress them into the clay. The designs are abstract, contemporary, and certainly capture the essence of nature,” she said.

During Hidden in the Hills, Fugmann-Brongo will exhibit and sell bold, colorful vessels, bowls and wall pieces as well as whimsical sculptures at her Studio #40. 

Her guest artists include her sister, Carol Fugmann, a skilled metalsmith and jeweler; Joan Nelson, an abstract fiber artist; Judith Rothenstein-Putzer, a mixed-media photography artist; and oil painter Nancy Townsend.

hiddeninthehills.org

23rd Annual Hidden in the Hills Artist Studio Tour

Nov. 22–24; Nov. 29–Dec. 1 | 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. | Free | hiddeninthehills.org

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