News / USA

Brain Surgeon Finds Inspiration in Ceramic Art

Cliff Lee's porcelain creations are on display at the Smithsonian

Ceramic artist Cliff Lee - pictured with his porcelain 'Prickly Melon' featuring his signature yellow glaze - combines his background as a neurosurgeon with his passion for clay to create exquisite objects inspired by his Chinese heritage.
Ceramic artist Cliff Lee - pictured with his porcelain 'Prickly Melon' featuring his signature yellow glaze - combines his background as a neurosurgeon with his passion for clay to create exquisite objects inspired by his Chinese heritage.

Multimedia

Cliff Lee came to the United States from Taiwan in 1968.  He spent the early days of his career as a neurosurgeon but gave it up five years later after discovering the joys of clay.

For the past 30 years, the former doctor has immersed himself in ceramics, using his surgical skills to create magnificent porcelain objects which he has exhibited in craft shows and galleries across the United States.

Now Lee has made it into the prestigious Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum - a huge step up for an artist.

From surgery to ceramics


Lee loves to work with his hands. As a young doctor he used them to perform delicate brain surgery. Then, a patient introduced him to ceramics.

"As soon as I touched clay," says Lee, "time went by so fast, like meditation. So after that I started making pottery in my basement, every day after work."



Lee left medicine to devote himself fulltime to his new-found passion. For the past 30 years, the hands that once cut into bone have been shaping and carving objects in clay.

While Lee sees parallels between being a surgeon and a ceramic artist, he says there are differences.

"The clay doesn’t talk to me, and there’s no liability in case I make a mistake. I can redo it over and over again. I just feel this total freedom," he says.

Asian inspiration

Lee was raised in Taiwan where he was surrounded by Chinese ceramics, both at home and during frequent visits to museums.

Cliff Lee's 'Peach Vase on a Pedestal' (1993) is part of the White House Collection of Contemporary Crafts, which features works by 77 of America's leading craft artists.
Cliff Lee's 'Peach Vase on a Pedestal' (1993) is part of the White House Collection of Contemporary Crafts, which features works by 77 of America's leading craft artists.

Lee says his parents were collectors of ceramics, and took the family on frequent trips to museums, including the National Palace Museum in Taipei. "Subconsciously, unconsciously, I was educated, visually. I never realized that until later days."

Over the last three decades, Lee has blended his Asian heritage with his technical training to create flawless porcelain objects.
The award-winning artist draws inspiration from his surroundings.

"I live in a very beautiful section of Pennsylvania. Nature inspires me a lot. Every day, I’m searching for inspiration - the water, the lotus, my Koi ponds. I consider myself very, very lucky."

Big break

For years, Lee marketed his work mostly in craft shows, traveling around the country to display and sell them.

His big break came when a piece of his work was included in the White House Collection of Contemporary Crafts. Now, Lee is one of four artists whose work was chosen for a show at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

Cliff Lee's 'Lotus Vase with Flower' (2009). The artist is inspired by the many trips he made with his family to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Cliff Lee's 'Lotus Vase with Flower' (2009). The artist is inspired by the many trips he made with his family to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Nicholas Bell, the museum's curator, says every two years the Renwick Gallery mounts what’s called the Renwick Craft Invitational.

"It’s where we look at trends that are emerging in American craft and look for some of the artists that we think are the best to illustrate them, and people that are deserving of broader national attention," he says.

Imperial Yellow Glaze

The Renwick is also impressed with the amount of research Lee has done for his art. For example, Lee spent years investigating how Chinese glazes were made centuries ago. And then set out to recreate them, using his knowledge of chemistry to find just the right ingredients. 

Cliff Lee blends his Asian heritage with his technical training to create flawless porcelain objects.
Cliff Lee blends his Asian heritage with his technical training to create flawless porcelain objects.

"Probably his best known glaze is the Imperial yellow glaze which was originally discovered in the 15th century and was so rare and hard to create," says Bell. "The yellow was such a pure color that it was reserved for use by the Imperial court during the Ming dynasty."

Lee spent 17 years re-creating that glaze from scratch.

"Failure after failure after failure until one day he opened the kiln door and it came out perfectly," says Bell.

Lee remembers that time, and says his wife and kids thought he was "possessed."

"They never saw me. The only time they saw me, was mealtimes."

Forty pieces of Lee’s work are on display at the museum, including his signature Yellow Imperial pottery.

Lee says being at the Renwick is the highlight of his career.

"Thirty years ago, I came to the Renwick Gallery. I said ‘I’d like to have my exhibit here someday.’ And over the years I worked, worked, worked. And I’m very, very fortunate being selected by the panel."

And he is also, deeply grateful.

"I think people in the United States, or people studying ceramic, or children, they should realize that we live in a wonderful, wonderful country. If you set your mind to it, you can do anything you want.  And the sky is the limit, because I learned all this in the United States. I got all my resources in the United States. I owe so much to this country."

You May Like

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

Physically and culturally close to Western Europe, Lviv feels solidarity with compatriots in country’s east but says they need to decide own future More

West African Women Disproportionately Affected by Ebola

Women's roles in families and the community put them at greater risk for contracting the disease, officials say More

Video NASA's MAVEN Spacecraft Arrives at Mars

Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution craft will measure rates at which gases escape Martian atmosphere into space More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid