Fragments: The artworks of local ceramist Yiu-Keung Lee
Working in clay, porcelain, stoneware, and terra cotta, Lee transforms symbols from his life into beautiful, intriguing artworks. His assemblages mix together depictions of different objects and forms. He likens this to the nature of memory, “which is fragmented and without time,” he says.
In Lee’s works, “fragments” are thrown together to form a space where different experiences, senses and ideas from throughout his life happen all at once. His works are “not a narrative” that happens in linear time, “but a conglomeration,” he says. Metal traps, pinwheels, human heads, children’s toys, and other symbols are repeated throughout his work. These have personal significance to him, but they also challenge the viewer to make their own sense of his assemblages.
Some of his works allow you to arrange different pieces as you wish, such as his representation of pickup sticks, which invites you to sit down and play a game. Others urge you to mentally “play” with the forms in order to make sense of them.
Lee is a member of the Clay Gallery and teaches in Eastern Michigan University's art department. He has also contributed artworks to exhibitions and collaborated with sculptor Barron Naegel on public art for the Washington Street parking garage. Although he is a well-known ceramist in the area, in the last few years the artist has made a greater effort to branch out to the national and international art community.
One of Lee’s artworks is currently featured in Pewabic Pottery’s "The Michigan-Ohio Game" exhibition, a collection of pieces created by ceramics professors at major universities throughout Michigan and Ohio. Pewabic Pottery is located at 10125 E. Jefferson Ave in Detroit, and the exhibition runs until August 30. Next summer, Lee is set to be featured in Ceramic Art & Perception, an internationally known journal based in Australia.Lee started making art and teaching in Hong Kong. As a young man, he found that although “commercial or applied art” was popular in Hong Kong in the '80s, much of it “left out the idea part of it.” He found a mentor who taught ceramics classes at an art center in Hong Kong, and eventually started working and teaching classes there.
In 1988, Lee moved to the U.S. to attend Eastern Michigan University, where he received his BFA, before completing an MFA at the University of Michigan in 1995. He started his studies in business and psychology, concerned with finding a career that would provide him more opportunities for financial security than art.
“Eventually, I said to myself, I just can’t live with myself if I’m going to work to do something that I don’t really like. So I went back to art,” Lee recalls. As a professor, he has also held on to his “passion for teaching” - instructing students around the greater Detroit area before working at Eastern for the past five years.
In Lee's art, plumeria blossoms appear again and again. They remind Lee of being in the tropics. “It started when I went to Hawaii for a symposium, in 1998. Plumeria are everywhere in Hawaii. It starts when you get off the plane and just smell it. It’s just so fragrant that you cannot avoid it.” Lee started working the flower’s form into clay during a workshop at the symposium, and has used it in many of his artworks since.
The smell of the plumeria blossoms also “triggered a flash back because Hong Kong is a tropical area. So that kind of connection happened. It was like a symbol of nostalgia,” Lee remembers. He also began using the form of the plumeria more and more after his wife told him that it was the thing she likes most about his work.
Earlier in Lee’s career, he began depicting the human head in his artworks; however, “I never considered myself a figural artist. I think of myself as more minimalist,” he says. “The heads are almost like a catalyst because the figure has a strong effect on people. You can make metaphor carry over to the viewer in a very direct way,” he elaborates.
Lee also took an interest to the formal qualities to metal cages, or “traps,” in his early career, when he was created more larger-scale artworks. He continues to use this symbol in his later works. He explains that although “the traps trigger a memory of making these earlier works,” they also document his “fascination with the formal qualities of metal” — its texture, weight, look, etc.
Many of his recent works are inspired by watching his three daughters playing with their toys - leaving them scattered around the house. These artworks “represent moments of things that we do together as a family,” Lee explains. “There’s also a play factor — clay is my toy."
In his artist statement, Lee writes, “I looked at the floor and turned my head to the walls. There are things left from playing by the kids. There are unfinished structures bearing the look of an automobile or a pinwheel. Or, some kind of contraptions; or, they are put together in ways that no one can figure out what exactly they are ‘for?’”
Top and lower photos: Artist Yiu Keung Lee attaches handmade porcelain flowers to a spun piece of porcelain as he works in the studio in the ceramics department at Eastern University on Monday. Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Right photo: Artist Yiu Keung Lee cuts a spun piece of porcelain clay from a board as he works in the studio in the ceramics department at Eastern University on Monday. Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com