You know, I can look at photography, or ceramics, and I can pretty much see exactly where a person is. Whether they’re just starting, in the middle, towards the end, at the height of their careers. You just see those levels when you’ve been doing stuff as long as I have. You can just see it.
When I saw Gordon’s stuff, I said, “Whoa.” He’s a master at what he does.
It’s good to be around masters. It’s good to be around somebody who’s better than you. It makes you think about what it is you’re doing in your own art.
When I was playing music, one of the things my mentors kept telling me was to keep playing with people better than me. You’ve got to keep working with people better than you are. It’s the same thing with photography. And ceramics.
You can hang out with all the other experts for five years. But you hang out with Gordon Lee, or Toshiko Takaezu, or Paul Soldner for three weeks, and I guarantee your life is going to change. If you don’t change, you weren’t paying attention.
You know, all these art critics and gallery people, whenever they see your work they want some kind of statement about it. They want you to describe it, and write some kind of a statement, and explain it.
Gordon doesn’t need a statement. His life is his statement. You go to his house and you look at all those pieces and you just go “Wow.”
You don’t know what to expect. Here’s this ceramicist that’s just been quietly working all these years and has taught hundreds of students. You think he’ll have bowls and that kind of thing. Then you go to his house and there’s all kinds of shapes, all kinds of sizes, it’s like, “Wow!” All kinds of things. You don’t know a scope of a man’s work until you see it.
He makes clay fishponds. They’re on pedestals; they’re what, 24 inches across. They’re really nice in the yard. Really cool. I’ve never seen one before, and I’ve seen a lot of clay. I’ve never seen a clay fishpond.
Then there’s the bell. He’s making clay bells. The bells are at least 29 inches tall. They’re not done yet but we’ll see how they come out. They’re quite big. He needs an engine lift to put it in the kiln. It’s huge; you can’t physically pick it up. He said he was just driven to make one. Said he’s had the idea for the longest time and finally got around to doing it. It’s like a temple bell.
We walked around his yard and I saw pieces and I said, “What is that,” and he’d say, “Oh, yeah, I make those.” He has this one that’s an 8-legged animal with a hexagon body. They’re kind of like little puppies around his yard. They’re just around. They’re pretty cool.
He’s so humble. He’s up there, man. It’s not often you meet somebody like that. I’ve been in the fine art community since the 70s. I think I can probably name you on one hand the artists I’ve met that have had kind of a profound effect on me, on my life. I mean, there’s always something to learn, and you can learn from somebody who’s beginning or wherever they are in their career. But the life-changing ones – you don’t meet them too often.
Plus he’s kind of fun to hang out with. We had a good time when we were photographing his stuff. Just talking, trying this, trying that. And we know a lot of the same people in clay.
I thought I was just going to go over and shoot the stuff and get out. But we were just there hanging out, he made lunch, and then we went back and shot some more stuff. We got along really well. ~ Macario PAU
Gordon Lee was born in Nome, Alaska, where his grandfather had settled long before to mine for gold. From age 8 through high school, he lived on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Philosophy, then earned a teaching certificate and taught elementary school in Boise.
In the early 1970s he enrolled at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where he earned his MFA. He also taught ceramics at the YWCA in Honolulu.
After graduating, he moved to Hilo where for more than 30 years he taught ceramics at Hawai‘i Community College and through the Continuing Education program. He retired in 2004 and then taught as a lecturer for another year-and-a-half before leaving teaching completely to enjoy some home improvement projects and work in his home ceramics studio.
Q. What would you say to someone who is interested in seriously pursuing ceramics today?
A. Oh, the economy is so different now from what it was when I started. The cost of fuel is unbelievable compared to then. And the cost of clay—even just shipping it has become so expensive. I think it’s a different attitude now. You have to look at it, at the project differently, and take some cautions at what you get into.
But if a person is enthused about ceramics, I’d say, “Just go for it.” Go after it. You’d have to face – it’s almost a jeopardy – the cost of things.
But it’s worth it. It’s something that can be done, even with the cost. The excitement about ceramics is worth it.
See Gordon Lee’s art at:
High Fire Hawaii
114 Haili Street
Hilo Hawai‘i 96720