Say it again

Raku sculpture by Wimberly-based artist Catherine Lee, on view at the Southwest School of Art & Craft through January 9. Lee, who works in a variety of mediums including metal and paper, "likes seeing how the material informs the process."

Artist Catherine Lee sculpts an elemental language

Artist Catherine Lee has the voice of a provocative child-woman, like a '70s movie star, maybe Sally Struthers or, further back, Judy Garland. It sounds at once untarnished and burdened by knowledge. It's a little disconcerting to hear that voice discuss working in bronze, copper, and ceramic, often on a scale large enough to require special moving equipment. A particularly striking sculpture that will appear in her show at the Southwest School of Art & Craft this month, for instance, began with two large metal skeletons. One is left hollow and roughly in the shape of an enormous spider's egg sack. Its counterpart resembles an organic space capsule; the cement that completely fills the scaffolding is planed so that the entire surface is faceted. The effect is similar to Lee's voice: weight and weightlessness seamlessly tethered.

Physical tension - centrifugal and centripetal forces pushing against one another to create an integral whole - also informs Lee's newest works, solid ceramic blocks frequently detailed with nails, finished in the bubbled and crackled Raku technique. Lee says she was trying to pack the same ideas, energy, and form in her larger bronze sculptures into the Raku objects, and they seem almost to hum with pressurized force.

The work of Catherine Lee

9am-5pm Mon-Fri,
11am-4pm Sat
Nov 11-Jan 9
Opening reception:
5:30-7:30pm Thu, Nov 11
Southwest School of Art & Craft
300 Augusta
Raku is said to have begun with the creation of a single item, a tea bowl for tea ceremony, shaped by hand rather than thrown on a wheel, the simple item made over and over again for spiritual and practical use like a primitive physical language. Lee also describes her art as a kind of language, her means of communication. Many of her works consist of a series of repeated forms, sometimes deliberately varied, sometimes sets of "unique copies." It would be a mistake, though, to group her with artists who practice handmade manufacturing as a way of exploring or protesting mechanization and commercialization. Lee is practicing iteration, a repetition of meaningful expressions that evolve, however subtly, with each incarnation. SSAC Director and Curator Paula Owen was responding to this visual and emotional lexicon when she asked Lee if they could recreate the way a large portion of her work was displayed in the studio for the show.

Distinguishing between art and craft, says Lee, is "just a convenient way of saying something about an artist's intention," but it also seems true that while Lee works in forms generally recognized as "art," her relationship to objects flows from the ritual of everyday use. When Lee divorced recently, she said that of all the art in her and her former spouse's house, she felt she had to have only three things: a Hammadi pot, an African mask, and a small Degas drawing of a horse's business end.

"One of the most interesting things is when you can listen to the work, not just impose yourself," observes Lee, who also practices karate. This idea is similar to another claim made for Raku: that it is "a manifestation of abstract spirituality ... as if creativity tries to go beyond the act of creation itself." A lot of artists aspire to let go in this way, but with Lee the absence of ego is evident in her art, and in the way she relates to material and other artists' work with receptivity and curiosity, as if she is listening for some communication. In addition to ceramic, cement, and bronze, Lee has also worked in paper and resin, copper, and paint. She "likes seeing how the material informs the process." She shows me an angular bronze sculpture that's "all about the clay."

Lee seems engaged and interested in many other art forms. She says she enjoys the baroque aesthetic emerging in visual and performing arts, as well as design, but her own style remains magnetically simple in its lines and earth-tone palette. It is elemental, but not minimal. The clean lines are a serene veneer over a complex thought.

"If your will is strong and you need something to exist, the material is inconsequential," Lee says. The sentence is open to at least two interpretations: you need the object to come in to being, and/or you need the object for your being. Lee, a native of Pampa who is in the process of moving fully back to Texas after a long double life in New York, lost a dog named Alabama a few years ago. She made a set of 60 clay pieces in a shape she riffs on often - a sort of primitive ax head - and using an untried technique she inadvertently made what she came to view as a dark child's band-aid shape over the "heart" of each off-white piece. Not long after moving to her new home near Wimberly, she found her new canine companion, Lola, being chased down a country road by a pickup truck. Lola is a beautiful black lab-like dog with a striking white star on her chest. Lee doesn't think this is just a coincidence, but she doesn't seem to need it be anything more, either.

By Elaine Wolff

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