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HOLLY LEE. On Becoming an Artist


CHRIS TRIOLA. Made in Michigan

 

RANDY STROMSOE. Luscious Materiality

ROB JACKSON. Discarded Beauty

 

VINTAGE CHINESE GLASS. Toggles, Archers’ Rings and More

 


 

FEATURE

AMBER NECKLACE on design sketchbook, 2014. Photograph by Holly Lee.

Holly Lee


On Becoming an Artist



 

“In the past I’ve been very focused on a business, on raising children, on my husband. I feel it’s time for me to really express myself as an artist.”

 

 

Nestled among fields and farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, some sixty miles west of Philadelphia, are the home and studios of Holly and Cliff Lee. Since 1992, this dynamic pair of craft artists—she a maker of fine jewelry, he a highly respected potter—have lived here in a nineteenth-century farmhouse and worked out of its 4,500-square-foot barn, both of which they have painstakingly fashioned into spaces that fit their needs, and their artistic and aesthetic sensibilities.

Chief among these sensibilities, in Holly’s exquisitely crafted jewelry, is the interplay between containment and openness—or, put another way, between interior and exterior spaces. Her signature element, a hollow silver sphere pierced with holes, reflects this characteristic “I’ve always loved the sphere,” she says. “The sphere is endless, there’s no beginning and no end. Drilling the holes creates interior space as well. It’s about light passing through space. You have a wall—you add a window, now you’re opened up, you’re not closed anymore.”

It is no coincidence that this motif entered Holly’s work shortly after she moved to her present setting. The earlier phase of her life and career was spent in a combined home, studio and gallery in the Washington, D.C., suburb of South Arlington, Virginia, which she and Cliff purchased in 1977. “You used to be able to buy homes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog; that’s the kind of house we lived in,” she recalls. “My space was in a basement that had no windows. I had to duck my head because of the pipes.” In many ways they thrived in this environment—their two sons were born; their work gained a loyal following; and their tiny gallery became a hub for the D.C. area’s emerging studio craft movement—but for Holly, there was also a sense of containment, and a longing for openness.

When a real estate agent and close friend suggested that they look at houses in rural Pennsylvania, the Lees needed little encouragement. It took seven years to find the right place, but when they saw it, they both knew they had arrived. (By an interesting coincidence, the house they fell in love with was then owned by fellow craft artist Ivan Barnett, who moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and runs Patina Gallery.)

LUSTER OIL SPOT NECKLACE of sterling silver, shard from a Cliff Lee broken vase, pearls; hollow formed fabrication, holes hand-drilled with twist drills, 2008. Photograph by Douglas Lee.

Now they live and work in large spaces designed to afford breathtaking views of the landscape. An addition to the farmhouse, completed in 2012, includes floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over a terraced garden to the barn and the open fields beyond. The walkway from the house to the barn crosses over a koi-filled pond, through a pergola, to the studio entrance. The constant burbling of the stream that feeds the pond provides a calming soundtrack to this pastoral scene.

The first floor of the barn houses Cliff’s pottery studio; the second floor includes an informal gallery and Holly’s jewelry studio. “I can look out my studio window and gaze into this beautiful field,” she says. “I was able to open up. The physical space translates to the mental space.”

For Cliff, the location may be ideal, but it can sometimes be slightly less than idyllic. “Her studio is right above mine. When I’m making pots and she’s banging up there, it’s like I’m living in a drum,” he says with a laugh.

Having two craft artists in the same family is, Holly admits, “a double-edged sword. There’s the one side where we can help each other, because we understand the life of an artist, the temperament of an artist. But then on the other side, we’re both artists! We’re both intense. We both have egos.” She adds, “Artists need egos just to keep at it. You need tenacity, or else you would give up. It’s not an easy life.” (Their two sons, now grown, could perhaps speak to the difficulties of the artistic life, since neither has chosen to follow the path laid down by their parents: One is an engineer, the other an information technology specialist.)

Though the Lees did not know each other at the time, their shared journey can be traced back to Taiwan, where Cliff grew up, and where Holly attended high school at the Taipei American School. Her family was based in Virginia, but her father’s job as a Chinese language and culture expert for the U.S. government meant they moved often, spending stretches in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

“I was a very energetic child and my parents thought I needed something to do, so they got me lessons with a famous Chinese brush painter,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know I had any talent until then. The Chinese brush painting taught me a lot, not just about the technique of drawing, but about calming down. The process of mixing inks, learning the strokes, started me on a whole new path in life.”

When she returned to the States, Lee enrolled at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. There she studied with the landscape painter Barclay Sheaks, but eventually discovered that two-dimensional art was not where her passion lay. She began experimenting with metal sculpture and felt an instant affinity for the medium. “I loved metal. There was something about it that I was very attracted to,” she says. “It was like my brain had already done it before and I was just following the flow.”

During the summers she worked at a jewelry store on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where her grandparents owned a home. “I was really good at selling, to the point where the owners got comfortable enough for me to buy jewelry from wholesalers for the store, and I would buy for myself as well. When I got back to school and needed paints, I would sell the jewelry.”

It all came together when she went to a tennis tournament at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this is a beautiful campus.’ So I went over to the art department to see what it was like. When I walked into the jewelry studio, a little light bulb went off in my head.” Suddenly, a road opened up in front of her; she thought to herself: “I know how to sell, I know I can make a living at it, now I have to learn how to make it.”

She transferred to JMU the following year and set about realizing her dream. In the studio next door was Cliff, who had studied at Hershey Medical School and begun a career as a neurosurgeon before having an epiphany of his own, making the unlikely discovery that his true calling lay in being a potter. He was instantly intrigued by this aspiring jewelry artist from Virginia who had gone to high school in his native Taiwan and spoke fluent Mandarin.

Cliff, the romantic, recalls a shared love of dark beer and long drives in the country; Holly, the pragmatist, quickly adds: “We also both had the same work ethic. We would work all the time.” Cliff had a master key to the studio, so they could go there anytime they wanted, and this is what they did—and have continued to do ever since.

2-R-1 EARRINGS of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold; hollow formed fabrication, holes hand-drilled with twist drills; 3.2 centimeters diameter, 2014. The two halves of the earrings fit together to make a full circle. Photograph of Holly Lee by Douglas Lee.

“I like high contrast,” says Cho. “That’s my own character.” The damascene technique, which accounts for most of his output, is particularly well-suited to making high-contrast pieces. The effect produced by sharply defined motifs of gleaming gold on a ground of blackened steel gives the works a strong graphic quality, almost like a woodcut or steel engraving—truly “drawing on metal.” The elegance of these mostly vertical compositions, with their intersecting planes of intricate geometric patterning, also brings to mind the paintings and prints of the Vienna Secession, particularly the works of Gustav Klimt, another artist who was fond of using gold.

In addition to her college training, Lee took a workshop with renowned jewelry artist Bob Ebendorf. “At the university, I had all these sketches, and my professor said, ‘Well, why aren’t you making that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have the skills. I don’t know how to make it.’ I went to Bob Ebendorf’s workshop to learn cold joining, where everything is put together with rivets or screws.”

She also learned by studying the work of artists she admired, particularly William Harper and Albert Paley. “I used to go to the Renwick and just stare at Paley’s jewelry,” she says. “If I saw something that looked interesting, I would deconstruct it and then put it back together in my head.”

Mostly, though, Lee learned by steadfastly practicing her craft. In South Arlington, her work came primarily in the form of commissions, and she became an accomplished bench jeweler. “I used to get lots of people who had inherited things that were old-fashioned and wanted them updated—pearls, diamonds, precious gems—so I would take them apart, and reuse the metal as well, especially with lost-wax casting,” she says. “I used to draw it all out meticulously—exactly what I used, gauge, weight—so I could go back as a reference.” She also learned to gauge people to determine what forms or styles best suited them. “The one good thing about having to produce for somebody else is that you really become very conscious of how things fit on the body. Everyone’s body is different, everyone’s hands are different, so I became very tuned in to how things look on different people.”

Having the gallery in their home meant that they did not need to seek out clientele. “People were coming to us constantly,” she recalls. “At that time, there wasn’t much of a craft movement. Basically, we had to educate everybody who walked through our doors.” In many ways, it was tough going in these early years. A bad kiln firing one Christmas nearly spelled financial disaster for the young family. But thanks to their persistence, hard work and a growing and supportive craft community, they always bounced back.  

In 1985, the Lees opened a new gallery just off Prospect Street in Georgetown. The neighborhood was then in transition, with large retail chains moving in. There was plenty of pedestrian traffic, but it was difficult to interest people in unique, handmade craft objects. When one of their sons was diagnosed with a learning disability, they decided to close the gallery after just two years so that Holly could spend more time at home.

Being in the D.C. orbit had its advantages. Their circle of acquaintances included people like Al and Tipper Gore, whose children played with their boys. Cliff recalls once when Tipper came into the studio, somewhat frantic, looking for her son, Al Jr. “She said, ‘He has to come home right now!’ I said, ‘He’s upstairs in Douglas’s room, Tipper, you know where it is.’ ” The next day, they found out why, when candidate Bill Clinton announced that Al Gore would be his running mate.  

The following year, shortly after the Lees moved to Pennsylvania, Cliff was among the artists whose work was selected by Renwick Gallery curator Michael Monroe for the White House Collection of American Crafts. The honors included a reception with the Clintons. “That was scary,” recalls Holly. “I was very intimidated by Hillary Clinton, because she is so incredibly bright and intelligent. Life magazine had done a magnificent article on her just before that event, and I found that we had one thing in common: We both loved hats! So I wore a really awesome hat.” A photograph of their meeting—awesome hats and all—hangs on the wall of Holly’s studio.

Around this time, Monroe, who had watched their careers from the beginning, issued a poignant challenge to Holly to stop making what he called “fashion jewelry”—pieces crafted with an eye to the market and designed for daily wear—and to really begin to express her inner vision through her work. The challenge could not have come at a better time. She had just moved into her new studio space in Lancaster County; their sons were growing up; and they had been freed from the burden of running a gallery day in and day out. She was more than ready to spread her wings.  

Holly’s work blossomed, as she moved from lost-wax casting into fabricating complex designs in silver and eighteen karat gold. The pierced sphere made its appearance around this time, instantly giving her pieces a distinctive look. At first, she meticulously hammered out each hemisphere before soldering them together; now she uses a press and custom dies to accomplish the same end. Sometimes she likes to create “deconstructed spheres” in which the two halves remain apart, the space between them seemingly charged with a desire for completion.  

Much of the inspiration for this new work flowed from her increased contact with the natural world. The idea of drilling holes in the spheres came from forms in nature, including eroded oyster shells she collected at the beach, as well as the lotuses that bloom in their pond each year, whose large seeds leave craters on the seed pod’s surface when they drop into the water.  

About three years ago, while cleaning up a section of meadow with her son, she was struck by another inspiration. She rushed back to the studio and set to work, cutting thin, tapered pieces of metal, forming them into featherlike shapes, and then joining them to create a brooch. This “swallowtail” motif, as she calls it, has become a recurring element in her jewelry, finding its way into many forms.  

She also began to replace the precious gems favored by the market with materials that hold more personal and historical value. These “treasures,” as she calls them, include shells, jasper, carnelian, amber, and copal, many of them collected on her travels. A two-week trek across Nepal with her son Douglas in 2007 yielded amber, glass beads and ceremonial horns made of bone. A 1999 trip along the Nile from Aswan to Cairo brought, among other items, a piece of bone that found its way into the intriguing Treasure Box with its spherical sterling silver “head” topped by two overlapping triangles that bring to mind the ceremonial headgear of some otherworldly cultic priest.  

At times vastly different cultures and eras are combined in a single piece, such as a gold necklace that features a precolumbian cockleshell carving from South America, along with etched carnelian beads originally found in the Girsu region of the Indus Valley in the second or third millennium B.C. Another material—much closer at hand—that has found its way into her pieces are shards from Cliff’s broken pots. She has boxes and boxes of these in her studio, and enjoys the challenge of fashioning the delicate, beautifully glazed irregular porcelain shapes into lively figures.  

A major setback for both artists came in 2003 when Cliff suffered a stroke that left him nearly paralyzed for a time. He has made a remarkable recovery, so that anyone meeting him today would have no idea. But the experience has given both of them a different perspective on their practice. For Holly, it has prompted the realization that because of the physical demands of the work she does, she only has so many years left in which to create. “It makes me think about how I spend my time,” she says. “In the past I’ve been very focused on a business, on raising children, on my husband. I feel it’s time for me to really express myself as an artist. Because it’s in there—it’s so in there, and it’s time for it to come out.”  

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

David Updike
David Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. He is Coeditor, with Jane Golden, of the book Philadelphia Mural Arts @30 (Temple University Press, 2014). For the past twelve years he has worked in the Publishing Department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he has edited exhibition catalogs on subjects ranging from Rembrandt to Zaha Hadid. He last wrote for Ornament about Bethesda-based jewelry artist Namu Cho. For this feature, he enjoyed a beautiful April afternoon in the company of jeweler Holly Lee and her husband, the potter Cliff Lee, at their home and studio in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.


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