Briefly describe the work you do.
Seeking rich abundance and relation with the natural world that is seemingly at conflict with our culture, I have been working on a series of sculptures depicting humans that are colonized by other life forms and natural elements. Alluding to symbiosis and the web of life, hair is made up of birds, honeycomb, flowers, pine cones, and various other flora and fauna. Birds roost on shoulders, and a scattered continuation of growth occurs on the sculptures’ bodies. These sculptures act as memories of the past, storied accounts of when the sky ran black with passenger pigeons, streams ran thick with salmon, and forests loud with birdsong. They are sorrowful; an expression of what is missing, yet, also hopeful, asking what might we recover?
I have also been working on a series of animals skulls. In death, energy does not vanish, but is transformed. As a meditation on this concept, I have been transforming the antlers or horns of these sculpted skulls into a colorful display of life, of botanical growth. This cyclical and interconnected process where decay leads to new life returns to the overarching aim of all my work to reveal some of the intricate relationships that occupy our world.
Although ceramic sculpture is where I have been placing most of my creative energy at this time, I also make useful pottery, and form experimental narrative clay installations that tell stories through their changing form.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
It is only in the last few years that I have really recognized how much my childhood shaped me as a person, and, in turn, influenced my art. I grew up roaming the meadows and forests nearby our various homes in the wet, Willamette Valley of Oregon. My mother always encouraged exploration and engagement with the natural world. We ate wild strawberries, fed raccoons, hiked amongst bears, canoed lakes, and felt at home in nature. This sentiment led me to feel a deep appreciation and awe at the natural world, internalizing the interconnection that occupies all of life, and a desire to preserve and protect what I can, while influencing the substance and narrative of my art.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Although my artist studio has fluctuated a great deal in the past year or so, from a shed to a more communal space to where I am currently working, a trailer, I do certainly fall into the more traditional notion, spending the bulk of my time laboring away in wonderful seclusion as I create. I am, no doubt, most absorbed in my work when I am alone, although I break the silence often with audiobooks or podcasts. I also spend time researching for my projects, often on the internet, but sometimes out in the real world. One of my installation projects, Transient Animals in Clay, a public ephemeral art project installed in Albuquerque, NM, took me to Armendaris Ranch with a conservation biologist and a fellow artist, to see firsthand the conservation projects in process there and to see species of concern such as the Northern Aplomado Falcon, in person, that I was sculpting for this work.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Gift-giver, activist, salesperson, etc.
I carried out one particular project that involved gifting my art to strangers, but I also have the compulsion, often, to gift my work, to find homes for my art, without regard to tangible compensation; and, really, the act of gifting becomes its own kind of intangible reward.
My activism is mostly a quiet one that embodies my lifestyle, bike-commuting and walking, supporting sustainable and local agriculture, etc, but I do try to infuse these concerns and energy into my artwork where I can. Currently I am making bee-inspired pottery and small sculptural works where 10% of the proceeds are donated to support research and protection of these important beings. I also have been involved in installation work that acts as an homage and representation of vanishing and/or diminishing species.
I am not a natural salesperson. This role makes me rather uncomfortable, and, when placed in this position, in person, I often do myself a disservice, giving away too much for too little, however I am working on this. Aside from spending energy applying to juried shows, seeking galleries, etc., I also have an etsy shop where I sell my pottery and smaller sculptural works on-line.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
My art-making schedule fluctuates a good deal. At times, I will get really immersed in a project and work obsessively on it, and then I will need some recuperating time where I will put my energy into less intensive efforts… putting finishing touches on sculptural work, taking photographs of finished pieces, uploading items to my etsy shop, catching up in my garden, and so on. My studio is not insulated and I have no climate control so I am very conscious of the weather and what time of day I work is often dependent on this. On cooler days, I wait until mid-afternoon or so for it to warm up and I hotter days, I choose to work in the morning and evening.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
My underlining interests have remained the same, but my work has changed a great deal. This is mostly because I went to graduate school at University of New Mexico starting in 2009 allowing for me to really focus and explore creatively. This concentration on my personal body of artwork, not only, improved my technical ceramic skills, allowing for me to better actualize my creative visions, but also stimulated more complex and involved works of art.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
I could compile an endless list of inspiration and influences, in part, because so much motivates and inspires me, but also, recognizing the intrinsic interconnection of life, I see a spiraling network of muses and random ahahs. Of course family holds a strong influence on where I am and what I do. My mother exposing me to many wilderness experiences helped shape the content and concepts behind much of my work, and her endless support gave me a foundation to stand on. My spouse has, also, had a huge impact. Although his vocation is in medicine now, when we first met he spent much of his energy and time on his music and I learned discipline from watching him. He has also acted as a strong, encouraging support beam.
Poets such as Linda Hogan, Mary Oliver, Carolyn Forche, Wendell Berry, and e.e. cummings have all been quite influential in their own ways as have nature writers such as David Abram and Annie Dillard, and philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I have taught ceramics as an adjunct in the university environment and in small workshops and both were a pleasure, and I anticipate returning to that, again, at some point. I am, also, planning to attend a yoga teacher’s training retreat soon and I hope to balance my art-making practice with yoga teaching. I am an avid gardener and have worked on farms and at farmer’s markets in the past, and if I was not a ceramicist, I would likely seek out a livelihood that involved sustainable agriculture in some form.
Niya Lee is a ceramic artist whose work includes ceramic sculptures, functional pottery, as well as ephemeral and public art installations. She recurrently references both interior and exterior biological morphology, with a present emphasis on narrative figurative sculpture and vanishing fauna. Raised in the wet, green hills of Oregon, she now lives in the strikingly different, sun-laden desert of New Mexico. Niya Lee received her BFA in Painting & drawing with honors from Oregon State University and her MFA with distinction in Ceramics from University of New Mexico. She received a provost fellowship during her MFA studies at University of New Mexico. In addition, she has been granted numerous scholarships and awards, such as the Phyllis Muth Scholarship for Fine Arts, Clyde & Elizabeth Hill Fine Art Scholarship, and the Takami Memorial Art Scholarship. She is forever striving to catch up with all the ideas running around in her head and currently lives and works in Silver City, NM.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.