On View at the Renwick: Cliff Lee Creates One-of-a-Kind Porcelain Ceramics

Porcelain artist Cliff Lee spent 17 years trying to recreate a glaze. He succeeded. Then, he lost the formula

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Porcelain artist Cliff Lee spent 17 years trying to recreate a glaze. He succeeded. Then, he lost the formula. Three years would pass before he could successfully (and continually) reproduce the imperial yellow glaze of the 15th-century Ming court. The glaze is one of his biggest discoveries and remains, perhaps, his biggest secret.

More than 20 of Lee's works are currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery (located at Pennsylvania and 17th Street, NW) in the exhibition, "History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011" through July 31.

A self-described "type-A person," Lee demands perfection—from himself and, by extension, from his art; he will not rest until he achieves it— if he rests at all. Ironic, since "rest" is what brought Lee to the craft in the first place.

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1951 and raised in Taiwan, Cliff Lee was exposed early on to Chinese porcelain through his parents' vast collection of Chinese antiques. The son of a diplomat, Lee attended college and medical school in the United States, specializing in neurosurgery. The stress of the job led Lee in search of a release and, after a patient introduced him to ceramics, he began taking classes. Soon after, he left his surgical practice to pursue ceramics full time. Lee began his career creating vessels of clay painted with standard glazes. He then switched to porcelain, where impurities are difficult to mask, and began mixing his own glazes and firing his own work in the kiln so that he could understand and control the entire process from start to finish. Blending technical precision and artistic vision, Cliff Lee's one-of-a-kind pieces reflect his dedication to a purist aesthetic. And, true to form, Lee does not spend much time on the computer, preferring, instead to speak by phone, or face-to-face. He recently chatted with ATM, revealing what he could about his technique, from his studio in Lancaster County, PA, where he was, of course, working.

How do you go about designing a piece?

Most of the time, I get inspired by my environment. I live in the county and I have very beautiful surroundings. Because I have high blood pressure—I am a type A person—I need beautiful surroundings to cool me off, calm me down. By observing nature, the surroundings, most of the time I get inspired for my work. I get ideas in my mind, sometimes for many months and I try to solve the technical problems. Then I start working on it and slowly, slowly it comes to reality. It’s a gradual process. It doesn’t just come out. The ideas incubate slowly and then I try many many times and fail many many times. Every time I try and fail, I learn from the mistake and it eventually comes. That’s why my work is one of a kind. Every one of them that comes out is different.

Does your training as a neurosurgeon ever play a part in how you go about crafting a piece?

Yes. Like chemistry, physics, calculus, surgical procedures are very tedious and require patience. I’ve got precision, I'm precise. You cannot make any mistakes, so all that training comes into practice. I’m a workaholic. I’m still working. If I don’t work on the potter’s wheel, in my studio, I’m reading or either studying, doing experiments.

What are you currently working on?

Now, I’m trying to perfect my persimmons glaze, a beautiful persimmons glaze. I saw one piece in the Sotheby’s catalogue. I studied it, looked at it and I said, 'hey, I can do this.' So, I’m working on it and it slowly comes out to be very beautiful. I want to perfect it. Because, when you do firing in a kiln, each one has a different location which is good for certain glazes. So, when you do experiments, you accumulate knowledge and when you know, the problem then becomes your knowledge. The 'know' comes from knowledge. You know something, then it becomes your knowledge.

Why did you decide to work with a notoriously difficult sculpting material like porcelain?

I like the challenge. Life is full of challenges. If there’s no challenge, what’s life for? There’s no meaning any more. It's too easy. That’s not in my nature. Just like doing sports. I was watching the NCAA man’s basketball . The first half was terrible—they all missed all the shots. I say, 'what’s going on with these kids,' you know? They’re supposed to be very good at it; they’re supposed to be able to make the easy shot. If they cannot keep their cool, and take a deep breath before they take a shot, that means that they are not there. They need to practice. It's the challenge, everyday life is just a challenge.

You have had an enormous amount of success thus far in your craft. Is the work still challenging?

Oh yes, because I have set a standard. I want to be better. Every year, every month, I want to be better.  So it’s just the beginning for me, everyday is just the beginning. I want to go one step beyond. I’ll never be happy, satisfied, isn’t that terrible? It’s a curse.

Why did you decide to focus on traditional Chinese ceramic forms and glazes?

In the early days, I lived with a whole bunch of Chinese porcelain; my parents have a vast collection of Chinese antiques. And when we were young, they took us to museums very often so I got attracted to those beauties, the color, the shape. So, subconsciously I got educated, that left an imprint in my mind. So I did not learn ceramics overseas in Taiwan. I learned everything in the United States. I owe everything to the U.S. They gave me a good education and they gave me good opportunities. I think that, in the United States, if you set your mind to it, you can do anything you want. The sources are infinite. Anything you want to get, you want to know, you can get it, if you work harder.

It took you 17 years to recreate a previously lost Chinese glaze—imperial yellow. What can you tell us about it?

Some of my personal secrets, I cannot tell. Everyone wants to know. You know that right? It was a very difficult process, long process. Like "Craft in America," next week is coming to my studio for four days. They are coming to my studio, a film crew, six people, for four days, to tape. They want to know all this too, but I cannot tell them, you know. Someday maybe I will give all the secrets to the museum. Maybe the Smithsonian, maybe the art museum; they can decide what they want to do. They can sell my secrets for a lot of money. That’d be fine.

How do you  keep people from finding out?

I don’t tell them. I keep my mouth shut. Everybody wants to know. Sometimes when you get online you can see the people say, 'How did Cliff Lee do the yellow? We really want to know.' That's for me to know, for you to find out.

Hear Renwick curator Nicholas R. Bell discuss Lee's Guan-ware Vase at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery tomorrow, April 20 at 12 PM in the first floor lobby. See more of Lee's work, including pieces painted in the famed imperial yellow glaze, on display in the exhibition “History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011,” at the Renwick Gallery through July 31. The artists were selected by Bell, Ulysses Dietz, senior curator at The Newark Museum and Andrew Wagner. The exhibition also features the work of silversmith Ubaldo Vitali, stained glass artist Judith Schaechter and furnituremaker Matthias Pliessnig.

This post was updated to clarify the role of the visiting scholars.

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