Cliff Lee came into prominence in 1993 when he was invited to contribute a piece of his work to the White House Collection of American Crafts. Two years later his work was in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. His work can now be found in several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition catalog for 'History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011' says Cliff Lee "stands alone in his sensitivity to the source and the intensity with which he channels China's ceramic past into contemporary American work."
What first interested you in working in your medium?
In the beginning, I was a neurosurgeon. On my sabbatical, I took a ceramics course to be therapeutic and then I got hooked. My colleagues thought I was crazy, but now that we’re in our 70s, they think differently. It’s been a win-win situation for me—I could prolong my career doing something I love.
What is special about the medium you work with? How does it inform the work you create?
It’s almost like meditation—I just forget everything, sitting at the potter’s wheel. Also, I like clay! I’m Chinese, I come from a family where my parents didn’t allow us to play with clay. They thought only wild kids out in the country played with clay, so I wasn’t allowed. But they collected Chinese porcelain—I lived with it, and was exposed to it early on. Porcelain is an immense challenge. I’m a type “A” person, so of course I picked up porcelain. I like challenges, I always want to pursue the best; it’s the most difficult things I want to overcome.
What do you love about your workspace?
My studio is a 210-year-old stone barn that we converted. I share the studio with my wife, the jeweler Holly Lee, who was just featured on the front cover of Ornament Magazine. It’s two stories, at 4,500 square feet. We got to design the studio to be exactly what I wanted—there’s a glaze room, a carving room, a kiln room and a showroom.
What was your inspiration for a recent piece?
A few years back when I took a trip to Hawaii, we went out to look at the volcanoes, at the lava fields. I saw that the leaves regenerated a few years later. I’ve been working with lava glaze, and carving and sculpting trees, leaves and flowers.
Cliff Lee was the 2013 Craft Show award winner for excellence in design and will return for this year’s show. Preview his work here. See the artist at work in his studio over several videos posted to his YouTube channel.