In the Studio

Cliff Lee and his wife Holly lived in the Washington, DC suburbs for twenty years, before setting out for the rolling hillside around Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Surrounded by Mennonite farming families, their life is in many ways idyllic. Cliff and his wife work in adjoining studios in a converted barn adjacent to their modernized 145-year-old house; they're surrounded by 200 acres of corn fields; and in the summer when the wind is right, the quiet is nearly complete.

But there's a modest downside. Cliff and Holly will never quite fit in with their intensely religious and close-knit neighbors. And the culture and excitement of the city are a solid two-and-a-half hour drive away. Still, they have no qualms or second thoughts. And the piece of mind they get from raising their two sons--age 10 and 15--away from the temptations and dangers of the city more than makes up for the sometimes odorous consequences of living smack in the middle of two organic farms.

"I treat all the things I do like I work in a laboratory. Like experiments. Sometimes I spend weeks just mixing glazes and testing until I get exactly what I want.

At first, Cliff Lee was nervous about taking a knife to his bowls.

VIDEO (1.8 MB) || AUDIO (RA:30)

"My pieces have no gimmicks. No paints, no commercial glazes. And all my porcelain is made just for me, according to my special recipe. It's made from kaolin, feldspar and silica in just the right proportions.

"You may not know this, but porcelain is aged to increase its workability. The older it is, the better. In old times, the grandfather mixed up porcelain he hoped would be used by his grandson.

"There's nothing more difficult than working porcelain on the potter's wheel. It lacks plasticity. It's just like you're working cottage cheese. But I've developed a sensitivity, a dialogue with the material. Fewer and fewer people are able these days to work on real porcelain. A lot of people work on porcelonian or fake kind of porcelain. I like it because it cannot hide any flaw, cannot hide any impurities. With porcelain you have no choice but to be very, very honest. And once you fire it, it becomes dense, hard, translucent."

The work is so delicate that it's not unusual for everything to be lost if Lee's hand slips, or he misjudges the bowl's diameter by a 1/16th of an inch.

VIDEO (1.8 MB) || AUDIO (RA:26)

We went to visit Cliff Lee to explore what seems to be a basic connection: the link between crafts and food. So many crafts once had a useful life as objects for the serving or preparation of meals--from punch bowls to silverware, from salad bowls to teapots to baskets for saving and gathering. Lee's Peach Vase on a Pedestal is a work "about" peaches: it's in the shape of a peach, ornamented with peach leaves and peach branches. And yet its hard feel and translucent character aren't about soft and inviting fruit at all. And this extravagant object is almost too precious to really hold flowers and it's certainly not for serving food. The work flirts with and amplifies this powerful paradox.

There's another food connection-- when we first proposed visiting Lee he insisted on feeding us lunch. And it was clear that he didn't mean a stop at the MacDonald's. The afternoon started with grilled Teriyaki Chicken and progressed to the local specialty, Shoefly pie. Why read anything significant into his hospitality?

Here's why: crafts are about use, and daily life. They do nourish us, in part because of their connection to food, even if that connection has often become blurred. And some of the men and women who create crafts tap some of the same nourishing and loving parts of themselves in preparing food for guests and loved ones. We came to Pennsylvania to discuss these things with Cliff Lee, but he hasn't much use for philosophizing on the subject. He says simply, "I love to cook."


Cliff Lee - Main Page Po Shun Leong