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Heesoo Lee In Conversation

Heesoo Lee, Aspen Bowls and Forest Vessels, porcelain, 2016, Image Credit: Alan Wiener, Courtesy of Greenwich House Pottery


Heesoo Lee is a ceramic artist from Seoul, South Korea. She currently resides in Helena, MT and has been both a short-term and long-term Artist-in-Residence at the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts. In this conversation, Heesoo Lee discuses with the Jane Hartsook Gallery’s Preparator, Aimee Odum about her current studio practice and major influences for the exhibition on view January 6 – February 3, 2017.

Aimee Odum: Could you walk me through your technical process? For instance, when do you apply layers of color? What methods do you use for application? What's your firing process like?

Heesoo Lee: Now I only use the porcelain because I like to get the background color and use white as a canvas. Some pieces I throw on the wheel and I start to add up with coiling or with a little piece of clay and add it to the body. I just started to do that kind of texture six months ago. I made one mistake with a big platter. At that time I wasn't doing any texture work on the body, but there was a huge crack so I tried to create something to attach it together and hide that mistake part. This is where my new ideas started and made me think of new ways to develop my work in a different direction.

Once I fire [to bisque], I start to apply my painting with underglazes. I have Duncan underglaze and velvet underglazes from AMACO. Also, they have the watercolor glazes called "semi most underglazes" and those three are the main underglazes I use for my work. Semi-moist underglazes have watercolor results so I like to use that as a background for a more watery, runny feeling. After painting I fire between cone five and cone six, which is a medium to high firing. Sometimes I do gold and silver in the third firing. Also sometimes I use red in a finish firing. Painting with underglazes is a little tricky. It's hard to make the depth on the surface. I use all different kinds of texture and different types of glazes, so that those layers can create more depth. 

AO: Could you explain your application process for painting and the different stages of layering?

HL: With layers, there are at least twenty coats. When I fire to low temperatures, I can get the color completely. When I fire to cone five, especially the warm colors start to fade away so I need to make sure I keep that color with a lot of different layers. I do several different layers of colors and coats and then I start to add more detail with a really fine Chinese brush. With my poppy bowl I added forty different layers onto the surface. 

AO: Wow, that’s incredible!

HL: Yeah! You cannot tell [it is that many layers], but it is. I paint with a big brush for the basic coat and then I start to change my brush smaller and smaller, and the last layer I use a really tiny brush for the highlights. 

AO: Do you use any other methods for application besides brushes?

HL: I like to use the sponge. I do sgraffito too on the greenware for the highlights. I apply all different ways for the fine details. 

Heesoo Lee, Poppies, porcelain, 2016, Image Credit: Alan Wiener, Courtesy of 
Greenwich House Pottery

AO: I want to go back to when you mentioned that in the last six months you started adding more dimensions to the aspen trees and poppies. After you used texture to fix a mistake and that solution worked for you, did you instantly decide to add texture to all of your work? Or did you gradually integrate these sculptural aspects?

HL: Yeah, my work has changed quite a bit with texture and patterns, little by little. Every day I like to do something different. That's my personality. I didn't start with the texture on the greenware, I just did the texture after the firing. My first piece with texture was on a poppy bowl. I added up some epoxy and glued it onto the finished work. I tried to make it similar to [Gustov] Klimt. In Klimt's painting you can see a lot of texture and gold and silver and red/orange color on the painting. The epoxy was supposed to be clear, but it was really gold and shiny and bright. After the first textured piece, I really liked this direction. It gives more personality and depth. That’s when I decided to put texture on greenware. But the first time when I did it, there wasn’t much dimension at all. It was very flat – ugly - it didn't look good. I started to a little clay ball and made layers like a background, front and middle. I added the little clay ball over and over to create more depth and texture in order to grasp the landscape better. Everyday something is changing. I'm processing and I can't always tell what's next. But I keep moving around and playing around. 

AO: It’s really interesting to hear about your influences, such as Klimt. Do you have any other major influences for your painting or your forms?

HL:  I moved to America after living in Korea. All of my educational background is from Korea. My painting techniques are collaborations from china paint, water color paint and oil color paint. It's all mixed up. It’s because in the finishing touches, I do a really fine line with the last underglaze. That influence is from china paint. Oil or water color painting doesn’t do outlining layers, but I do all the time for my final layer and line. In my Fine Arts major I was able to learn oil color, china painting and Chinese letter writing. So I'm glad I have that influence from my country. 

Image: Gustov Klimt, Farmhouse with Birch Trees, Oil on Canvas, 1902, For Educational Purposes Only

AO: Some of the main themes in your work are composed of imagery of aspen trees and poppies. Does this imagery have a specific story for you? Do you use them symbolically or are they part of memory?

HL: From my country I moved to California. That's how I met the poppies. In Korea, there are no poppies or aspen trees. All of my material follows my journey. In California I was having a tough time because I didn't speak any English and I'm a shy person around people. The language was really hard to learn because the school language and the real language were totally different. I was really depressed. My friend took me to Highway 1 and we just drove around and I saw a huge California poppy field. That was the moment from sadness to happiness. I want to remember that moment in my life and that’s why I keep painting the poppy.

With the aspen tree, I lived in Colorado for a while because Adam [my husband] grew up there. I just fell in love with their shape. They look like a human, like a really feminine lady to me, really delicate. I just can't stop painting them. 

AO: I notice that sometimes in that imagery, you insert what looks to be a human eye. It gives them a new reality or a new life. What's your motivation behind this?

HL: The first time I was able to drive around the Colorado mountains, I could only see aspen trees for hours and hours. It's amazing. It doesn't seem real to me. The first time [I saw them] it was fall and we drove around for thirty minutes only seeing yellow and orange leaves. When I walked into the forest, I saw that so many trunks had eyes and they were all looking at me. The tree's knobs look like eyes to me. The wind was blowing and making lots of noise, so it was like they were whispering to me and talking to me, asking “who is that person?” That was a really interesting moment in my life. Younger trees look like a little girl and older trees look like an old lady to me. Sometimes the nature allows more, that's why I started to notice and paint them. 

Heesoo Lee, In Dream Bowl, porcelain, 2016, Image Credit: Alan Wiener, Courtesy of 
Greenwich House Pottery

AO: You’ve mentioned the human condition when describing this work before. In the most general sense this refers to humankind’s life changes such as birth, development, journey and aspiration. Are you most focused on our human nature to seek journeys through these phenomenal moments, like what you have mentioned?  

HL: I’m making my childhood memories from Korea and I'm making my country. I'm the only child living in the US and all my family is in Korea. I always miss my family, friends, and childhood memories. So there's a certain connecting part. I can satisfy the nature here - like the poppy fields or aspen forest - those very personal moments in nature gives me happiness and keeps me satisfied. I can't go to Korea right now, but when I'm working, I keep reminding myself of my happiest moments in life.

AO: In context of the human condition, you’re referring to these sensations of happiness or emotion. 

HL: Sunshine Cobb, she's my good friend. She has crazy happy colors. So we always talk about, "it's very simple. I'm making happy pots." I like to make happy pots and whoever has my work, I want to let them be happy and enjoy.

AO: You have some sculptural works where you've made the figure more prominent. The emotional aspect is more apparent when you’ve communicated it through facial expressions. Do you see those figures as "happy" in the same way as your other forms? Or is there something different you are communicating?

HL: Those pieces narrate my little private world. If I don't explain, people don't notice. But that was my idea, to narrate my story like a little child figure. I started to make the sculptural work as new experiments. I did a short term and long term residency at Archie Bray, 2014 and 2016. I wanted to try something new I've never done before. I wanted to do something I'm really interested in but never experienced. At the residency I made sculptural work, slab work, hand building and coiling. I tried all different ways. It wasn't enough time, but I'm glad I did it because I learned a lot. I was able to look at things from a different perspective and get over my limits. At that time I was making all the sculptural work and that's when I did the one woman figure with the cherry blossom all around her.

Now I have two kids. I'm a mom. [With the Blossom Sculpture] I tried to explain, when she looks at the kids, she doesn't smile, she doesn't cry. It’s like she has figured it out. She has all of the emotions inside of her around her heart and there are many things blossoming. She's very quiet, small - a little lady - but has a lot of passion and things going on inside her heart. That's my story for that piece.

AO: There's a sense of contentment too. 

HL: Yes. 

AO: In relation to these new working methods, do you use molds to make some of the smaller textural parts of your work? Or do you apply them each individually?

HL: Yes, the texture. Everything is on the clay body when it's wet. So I make sure I spray the water around the edge and I keep adding onto the raw clay with very sticky clay fresh from the batch. So otherwise it's not going to stay on the surface. It will just fall off everything. I just add by rolling tiny little balls of clay. It takes... forever. 

AO: Yes, I'm sure. 

HL: It takes time for this work but I'm enjoying it. It's like working on an impressionism painting in the three dimensions. 

Work by Heesoo Lee is on view at the Jane Hartsook Gallery at Greenwich House Pottery January 6 – February 3, 2017. The gallery is located at 16 Jones St. New York, NY 11221 with regular gallery hours Wednesday – Saturday, 12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. or by appointment. 

Heesoo Lee, Blossom Sculpture, white stoneware, 2016, Image Credit: Alan Wiener, Courtesy of 
Greenwich House Pottery


 Heesoo Lee, Aspen Bowls, porcelain, 2016, Image Credit: Alan Wiener, Courtesy of Greenwich House Pottery

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