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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go 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.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More