Art & Design Magazine

Cliff Lee and the Emperor's Old Glaze

By Americanart

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee, Prickly Melons (short and tall), 2008, Porcelain, imperial yellow glaze, Collection of the artist

"Yellow makes everything shine," ceramicist Cliff Lee said at the opening of the Renwick Gallery exhibition History in the Making: Renwick Craft Invitational 2011, which features his work. He was referring to the use of the color yellow in the Ming court and how it was reserved for the emperor's use, including his distinctive, yellow robe. And if anybody knows their way around yellow, it's Lee, who spent more than seventeen years trying to unlock the secret of the yellow Chinese imperial glaze, so named for its high position in the Ming court beginning in the fifteenth century. Through what Lee called "painstaking experiments," he was able to recreate the imperial glaze in objects such as Prickly Melons from 1988 (pictured here), and Anniversary Tea Set from 2001. "I have the scars to prove it," Lee adds, "which include marks from getting bit by scorpions" when lifting old pottery to conduct his research.

In the field he sought out minerals, plants, trees, and collected ashes from old kiln sites. When I asked Lee where he conducted his research he laughed and said, "that's a secret. I can't tell you where." And then one day he had a eureka moment and solved the mystery of the imperial glaze, "Finally, I found it right in front of me. How could I not realize it?" He found the answer in his own firings back at home. The results are a yellow that would do an emperor proud.

Cliff Lee, and his wife Holly Lee, a renowned jeweler who often collaborates on her husband's pieces, will be in conversation at the Renwick on Sunday, June 19.

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