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The Call of the Wheel

The Call of the Wheel

The Call of the Wheel

February/March 2015 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Clay
Cliff Lee and Dog

Cliff Lee draws inspiration from nature, and his home in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, offers no shortage of vistas. Photo: Chris Crisman

The first time he sat down to throw a pot, Cliff Lee knew he was right where he belonged.

Cliff Lee’s porcelain vessels are prized for their elegant forms, exquisite carving, whisper-thin walls, and luminous glazes. They’re found in the permanent collections of the White House, the Renwick Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among many others. Evoking classical Chinese pottery and the natural world, they are unlike anyone else’s. Nor has his path to ceramics virtuosity been like anyone else’s. 

In 1967, at not quite 16, Lee arrived in Virginia from Taiwan on a full college scholarship. His parents wanted him to be a doctor – although the teenage Lee would have preferred to be a cowboy, like John Wayne, that icon of rugged independence. 

He breezed through pre-med studies and his medical education without taking a break. Soon, Dr. Lee, neurosurgeon, was performing delicate operations on ailing brains, working long hours, pushing himself ruthlessly in a field where even tiny mistakes are impermissible. It wasn’t long before he felt burned out. 

He mentioned to a patient who happened to be a potter that he was thinking of finding a hobby for some respite. She suggested clay. He signed up for a class. 

Thus began the metamorphosis of Dr. Cliff Lee into Cliff Lee, master ceramist. 

“I fell in love at the first touch of the clay,” he says. “When I sat at the potter’s wheel, I forgot everything. It was almost like a meditation. No stress, nothing. I said, this is a wonderful life.” 

At first Lee tried juggling his newfound passion with his medical career, taking sabbaticals to work on an MFA in ceramics at James Madison University. During his studies, he met his wife, Holly, a jewelry artist whose dedication to her craft and work ethic matched his own. Over time, the call of clay grew more irresistible, until by the late ’70s, he took his final sabbatical from medicine. “I’m still on it,” he says. 

It was a move fraught with risks, financial and familial. In the family home in Taiwan, his parents had displayed their collection of Chinese porcelain, a profound influence on Lee’s future work. But the making of such objects had no place in their world. “I was rebelling against my parents’ teaching,” Lee says. “When we were young, we were not allowed to play with dirt and clay. Lower-class kids, wild kids, played with clay.” His family was cultured, well traveled (Lee was born in Austria while his father was ambassador there) – and traditional; to the eight children, disobedience was unthinkable. 

He lost touch with his parents for a time, afraid to tell them he had quit medicine for clay. Not until the first of his two sons was born in 1979 did the new dad summon the courage to call his parents. All was forgiven, he says: “My father said, ‘Give me your phone number. I will call you back. You are poor artists. You can’t afford an overseas phone call.’ ” 

Lee the artist turned out to be not so different from Lee the neurosurgeon: determined, precise, hard-working. He pushed himself to realize the refined work he envisioned, just as he had once driven himself to make a perfect incision in a living brain. His hands, trained to tease apart nerves and excise tumors, proved perfectly able to coax porcelain – the most temperamental and unforgiving of clays – into ethereally light vessels, some with impossibly slim necks, others adorned with fantastically carved dragons; lush leaves, fruits, and blossoms; minuscule prickles that must be applied, laboriously, one at a time. 

Nature has always been an inspiration, and the Lees’ home in rural Lancaster County, Penn-sylvania, where they have lived since 1992, offers it in abundance. Flowers and fruit trees dot the grounds, where a stone barn houses a showroom and both the Lees’ studios, Holly’s directly over Cliff’s throwing room; he also has rooms for glazing and carving, and another for his two gas kilns. A bridge over a koi pond, in summer abloom with lotus, leads from the barn to the centuries-old farmhouse. “We have carved out our corner of the world here as our paradise,” Lee says. 

Tiny mistakes remain impermissible; his standard is prodigiously high. A single pot might evolve over weeks or even months of meticulous throwing, carving, firing, glazing, firing again. Then he might deem half the finished contents of a kiln not good enough, break the also-rans and throw them out. He does not save seconds, although sometimes Holly uses shards in her jewelry. 

Lee’s determination served him well after a stroke left him partly paralyzed in 2002, unable to throw even a simple cylinder. Bit by bit, he rebuilt the physical and mental pathways that allowed him to return fully to his work, doing almost all of his rehab on his own. 

Such true grit and independence would do his onetime idol John Wayne proud. Lee has never had an assistant or apprentice, preferring the freedom to work alone, when and for how long he chooses. He makes all of his clay and all of his glazes from formulas he has developed after long searches for the best ingredients. “Everything’s my own,” he says. 

That includes the recipe for a brilliant yellow glaze once reserved for use by imperial potters in the Ming Dynasty. In what turned out to be an all-absorbing quest, Lee set out to do what many others over the centuries had attempted: duplicate the long-lost formula. “The only time [my sons] could see me was during dinnertime. I immersed myself, buried myself in my studio doing experiments, like I was possessed.” Aided by his pre-med background in organic chemistry, he studied old kilns and pottery, pored over documents, mixed up countless batches of glaze, and fired innumerable test pots. Seventeen years after he started his search, he found the formula. 

At least for now, he’s keeping it a trade secret. He’s been asked to deposit it in a museum archive, he says; “I did not say no, I did not say yes.” 

Lee also goes his own way in the business of art. After a bad experience with a gallery, he decided to sell his work directly. “One way, you’ve got to be your own business manager. Another way, you can just be a maker and let others promote you,” he says. “My way is the harder way.” 

At some early shows, the young unknown netted little or nothing. “I’d drive a long way and on the way home, just feel so sad,” he says, recalling the pressure he felt to support his young family. “Three birds back home say ‘Feed me, feed me,’ and I don’t have any worm to feed them.” 

He sometimes agonized over returning to the security of medicine, but he credits his wife for encouraging him to stay with clay. “I married the right person,” he says. 

When Lee’s Peach Vase on a Pedestal was selected for the White House Collection of American Crafts in 1993, the lean years were over. Amid publicity about the collection, the Lees’ phone started ringing off the hook. Collectors took note. The list of museums holding his work began to grow. At a Rose Garden ceremony, President Bill Clinton singled out Lee and asked the other guests to give him a hand. 

And, in a nod to his monumental achievement with the imperial yellow glaze, in 2011 the Metropolitan Museum added Pair of Prickly Melons to its collection of Asian ceramics – rare recognition for a living artist – where they are on view alongside some of the greatest masterworks from many centuries. 

As his renown has grown, Lee has remained his own agent, making him a rarity: an artist whose work is in museums and top-echelon collections, and who still can be found perched in his booth at craft shows, chatting with his customers. He enjoys the personal relationships he’s built over the years. “I’m selling my babies,” he says. “I want to get to know the person who purchases my work. I always remember what every person buys.” 

For all the major laurels he has earned, Lee rests on none of them. He constantly seeks new ideas, new designs, and ways to refine what he’s already done. 

“I stress out because I want to go somewhere nobody ever did,” Lee says. 

“The day you think you’re a master, that means you stop learning and improving. I’m getting closer, but never there.”