Steven Young Lee

Steven Young Lee is the Resident Artist Director at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. He received his MFA in Ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. In 2004-5, he lectured and taught at numerous universities throughout China. While there, he created a new body of work as part of a one-year cultural and educational exchange fellowship in Jingdezhen, Jianxi Province. Steven has taught at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, B.C., Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, the Clay Art Center in New York, and Lill Street Studio in Chicago. He currently lives in Helena, MT with his wife Lisa and son Gavin.

What was most difficult for you when you finished school?

After undergraduate, the most difficult thing was identifying the avenues there were to pursue and what was a good fit for me. I looked at the different paths people had taken, but there were many options. Luckily, I had an opportunity to come to the Bray for the summer after I graduated. I think residency programs serve an important role for current students or recent graduates because you have time to think about how you want to shape your career in an environment where there are other artists to learn from. At the Bray, I was in a situation where I was working in a studio next to a woman Fredi Rahn, who was a full-time potter, recent graduates, a retired schoolteacher, professors at universities, etc. It helped me see how people carry out their lives in their studio practice and assess what was important to me and what wasn’t. That was really helpful and in just three months, offered some clarity in setting career goals. Leaving the Bray, I decided I wanted to try, at least initially, to make my living as a studio potter which I did for a number of years.

Heading into graduate school I had a much clearer idea of how I wanted to utilize the experience but not such a clear idea of how it would play out. I looked at it as an opportunity to focus completely on developing my work. I didn’t see graduate school as an avenue to get my MFA to teach, it was really about moving my thought process further along. I did want to teach eventually, but I didn’t want that experience to be driven by that, although I learned a lot in that area as well.

The graduate experience left me wanting to be in an environment where I was surrounded by people who were passionate about their work and working at a high level. I had initially imagined that would lead me to a teaching position at a university somewhere. Coming back to work at the Bray presented a unique opportunity that wasn’t my anticipated path, but put me in an environment and around people that really challenged and inspired me, perhaps more than anywhere else I could have imagined. When Josh Deweese decided to leave I put my hat in the ring, not expecting to get it, but hoping I would.

I think one of the most difficult things for me was to stay open minded because sometimes the best opportunities are ones that you may not be thinking about. It’s important to be aware of all your options and not be afraid to see things from different perspectives.

That answers part of my next question about your professional goals out of school and have you achieved them? Is there anything else you want to add?

In my opinion, graduate school is a place to go to further your work and thinking first and foremost. A lot of people go because they want the MFA to teach and see that as the only viable career path. Being able to teach is a great honor, and some people are meant to do it, but I think you should do it if you are passionate about it, not because you think its the only path to a career. I’m a believer that if you’re engaged with your work in the way you need to be, then the right opportunities will arise. For some that will be teaching, a studio career, or maybe something completely different. For some people, like Bobby Silverman, Andy Brayman, Ayumi Horie, Chris Antemann, or even Jun Kaneko, their road has been very different than most because they were following what was right for where their work needed to be. Even for me, I had no aspirations to be a non-profit administrator coming out of school, but it was the right environment for me as an artist and I find the non-profit side just as interesting.

How do you stay connected with your peers in the larger community of ceramics?

I think this place ends up doing that despite the fact we live in Helena, Montana. My job allows me to travel to events where people convene like NCECA or SOFA. NCECA offers an opportunity to see what artists and educators are doing all around the country and have great discussions about the field. SOFA provides a different perspective of the type of work that is being exhibited and how the marketplace responds. It’s great to see all that.

Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets have allowed for a different kind of connection or awareness of what’s happening. I enjoy watching what other people are making in their studio, even if I have never met them.There has been some backlash to the amount of time people spend on their computers but its a nice tool for both keeping in touch with what other people are doing and keeping them in touch with what I’m doing. The feedback is so instantaneous, which is a little scary, but it can also lead to discussions later when you are face to face. I try my best to flip through many of the arts and ceramics publications that come across my desk to stay on top of where people are showing or teaching.

Do you stay connected with people outside of the ceramics field?

I try to and again, I think Facebook in its odd way has helped to keep in contact with people. My 20 year high school reunion was this past year and I was able to reconnect with a lot of people I hadn’t spoken to in years. I like seeing where those friends ended up from where I thought they would be. Most of them aren’t artists and have careers as doctors or real-estate agents. It’s interesting to see how they respond to or don’t respond to the work. I think its healthy to get outside of the field because sometimes it puts the issues of being an artist into perspective. My family does that pretty well too.

What about other artists who aren’t working in ceramics?

I have friends outside of ceramics and enjoy talking to about the benefits and challenges they face in the larger art world. It’s often been discussed within the ceramics field about wanting to be a part of the fine arts world, but that can come with its own set of limitations. For one, it puts you into a much bigger pond that can be extremely competitive. However some, a very small percentage, have the ability to sell their work for amounts which we don’t see very often in our field.

There is a distinction between the ceramics community and where you show/sell your work. I love the ceramics community. It’s very generous, inspiring and uniquely supportive–I don’t ever want to leave it. It doesn’t mean you have to only sell your work in the ceramics community or if you sell outside of it you can’t be a part of it anymore. Beth Cavener has done a nice job balancing this, being very involved in the clay community while selling her work successfully in wider circles. Akio Takamori and Patti Warashina are also good examples of this.

What about living in Montana? Is there something about living here that affects your work or your quality of life?

I imagine it’s similar to a lot of other people who have chosen to live here–the time and space is a really nice element. I feel like my time in my studio time for the most part is pretty free of pressure, which allows me to really explore. This helps me pursue both good and bad ideas which I think is a good thing. Being at the Bray, I also appreciate that I can walk out the studio door and have access to 10 or 20 people who are in a similar headspace. There’s a vulnerability to it but it’s also a support system. It’s similar with the Montana arts community who are incredibly supportive of each other in a way I haven’t experienced in other places I have lived. Most artists in Montana love to see each other succeed and it’s encouraging and motivating. It feels good to see other people doing well.

Lifestyle in Montana is another big factor for me, being close to nature with a lot of outdoor recreational activities. I still feel the need to travel and absorb the benefits of experiencing urban areas, like museums, cultural diversity and great restaurants; I like that I can go experience those things, take it in, and then come back and feel like I have a much slower and frenetic pace here in Helena. When I was living in Chicago and New York I could probably spend hours of my time in traffic. I don’t have to do that here and can spend the time on something more constructive. When I need an escape, there are a lot of fun things to do like fishing, hiking, or floating a river. To me those activities can be part of a restorative mental process.

There is also a steady stream of artists that seem to come to the state via the residency programs like the Bray, Red Lodge Clay Center, the Clay Studio of Montana, or the strong university programs, a number of whom have decided to stay and live here. They bring a great energy and diversity. There aren’t many places in the world that are like this, to have that draw, that magnetic quality that Montana has. Living in Helena, there is a very well educated and sophisticated community. They support the arts and understand what they’re looking at. People here are supportive of artists and arts organizations and we all try to work together instead of against each other. I appreciate the collaborative spirit, it makes you feel like you’re less alone in the fight because you have a team of people making sure you don’t fail. Not every city in Montana is that way but a lot of them are.

So you are the director of the Archie Bray, a studio artist, a father and husband and also a new homeowner and fisherman. How do you try to achieve balance in your life?

I’m trying to get there, it’s definitely a work in progress. We all have to balance the things we want to do and what we are responsible for. Being the director of the Bray, getting married, having kids, trying to make work; they all come with great benefits as well as difficulties. I put a priority on my family and keeping a balanced family life but I feel like I need to pursue the other things to stay sane. I can’t be a good husband or father if I’m not feeling fulfilled as an artist or happy with the progress of the Bray.

As responsibilities increase it seems like time decreases, so I’m getting to the point where I have to decide how I want to spend that time. I don’t fish as much as I used to but I feel like I need to keep doing it and appreciate it even more when I can. I’ve also had to be realistic with my schedule and when I am most productive. When our son was born, he shifted my schedule because he’s up early every morning which means I’m up early every morning. Before, I used to work a lot at night but I found that I was more productive when I could get in the studio early and then did office work after.

At the Bray, there has been an intentional hiring of an artist in this position of Director which has it’s unique benefits and challenges but it keeps me going to the studio. It’s always a struggle balancing studio and administrative time but over the years has evolved and is becoming more viable. I think that I make the best decisions while I’ve been sitting in the studio making work or out talking to residents. The studio often gets pushed aside because the structure of the work isn’t as tangible but time is essential. Administrative work, which is also important, usually has a clear structure–responding to e-mails, grant deadlines, meetings, etc. Both are important but I try not to let the studio side get overlooked because it is so crucial to staying on track with our mission; I need to be down here in the studio order to do my job there better and because we have such a great staff, it works.

Which do you find influences your work the most success or failure?

For my work the success depends on the failure so it’s a great combination! It’s a marriage, failure influences the success and the success is dependent on the failure. Another way to look at it is what is expected and unexpected. There is motivation to keep making things work how you want them to but the real advances happens through failure and the unexpected. I think it’s difficult revisiting things that go according to plan because it its not natural to think of ways to change it. It’s easier to look at a failure and think of 10 different ways you would do it differently–that motivates me. Honestly I try not to think of success and failure so much anymore.

Do you think that there are certain privileges or disadvantages that are apparent today for new artists as compared to when you were getting out of undergrad?

I do…there are so many more people! I’m always amazed at how many ceramics programs there are producing so many great students. It’s healthy that there are a lot of people interested in clay but opportunities are also becoming more competitive because of it. If you don’t work really hard then you’re at a disadvantage because there are a lot of people out there who are really talented and working hard. On the flip-side, there seem to be many new ways to create exposure that didn’t exist when I was in school. The internet has provided a lot of new an creative ways to let people see your work but there is still the issue of density.

Early on, I used to think that there were distinct career paths in ceramics. Most people seemed to either get a teaching job, set up a pottery in a rural area, do craft fairs, or find enough galleries to carry their work. Those options can all be a part of the equation but there are a lot of other possibilities. In fact, the pattern of getting and MFA and then a teaching job has a relatively short history. In the US, there were people like Voulkos, Autio, Soldner, and Betty Woodman who were at the beginning of a lot of that. Now we have so many more people in the field and a limited amount of teaching jobs so new opportunities need to develop and have been.

When I first started I made most of my living doing craft fairs in Ann Arbor, St Louis, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, etc. It was a lot of work and a lot of sales in one sitting. The fairs also helped build my mailing list which led to a growing studio sale once there were enough people familiar with the work. The internet has enabled artists to do something similar without having to set up a booth all around the country. They can use their websites and Etsy shops as a way to take control of their sales and then drive traffic to those venues and building a following through online marketing or by doing workshops. It takes a lot of time and energy to make those things work but can be very fruitful. It also enables people to live where they want. When I did craft fairs I was living in Chicago which was convenient because I could easily drive to a lot of fairs in the midwest, but I didn’t do the ones that were further away. Now people can ship work anywhere.

The gallery scene is also broadening in many ways. There seem to be less clay specific galleries and more that are showing ceramics along side other kinds of work. I feel like this is a good thing for the field.

When you started to get into exhibitions or galleries how did you know what places were right for your work and how did you go about getting into those places?

When I was making functional pots, I was mostly looking where other people were showing. I visited a lot of galleries to see what other artists were being carried or would keep an eye out in magazines and applied to a lot of juried exhibitions. Frankly, when I was starting out I was trying to get in anywhere and everywhere!

After grad school, my work was more sculptural and it didn’t really fit in a lot of the venues that I had relationships with and I felt I needed time to let the work mature before I started exhibiting it.

After coming back to the Bray, I had time to really develop my ideas in the studio and started to feel more comfortable trying to find the right venues to show the work. There are a lot of opportunities with the Bray exhibition schedule that provided a lot of exposure but I was also looking for venues that provided other kinds of visibility. That helped me to get some feedback and keep developing my ideas. After a while I was lucky enough to be able to work with a couple galleries that understood what I was doing and gave me freedom to keep pushing my ideas. They were also able to get it in front of the right people and sell the work. It’s important to find opportunities that are the right fit and not just only take what is in front of you; it’s crucial to make sure that the work continues to grow and evolve.

There are some practical things to consider as well. I wasn’t used to shipping larger sculptural pieces and had to be more mindful of how they would get displayed in a gallery or fine art fair. Cost of shipping was another consideration and where the pieces were going. I also didn’t have a huge inventory of work so I had to be careful to plan ahead and not over commit or over extend myself.

Just last year, Tony Marsh was telling me about one of his recent grad students Matt Wedel whose work was gaining a lot of attention. He was he was turning down some of the big galleries in LA because he just didn’t feel like it was the right fit. It takes a lot of guts for a young artist to do that because it’s natural to be flattered by any opportunity that comes at you. Now he is with one of the top fine arts galleries in LA and is doing extremely well. I was impressed that he had the presence of mind, confidence and patience to wait for the right thing to come his way but I think it is how artists should approach things if they are feeling confident in the work.

What are the greatest challenges facing students just coming out of school and becoming professionals?

It’s hard because you need to tell people to just continue to be creative and that means creative with your work and creative with where your work goes. Like we talked about before, there really isn’t a clear structured path coming out so it is up to each individual to create it. You have to really be in tune with yourself and your work and where you want it to go. That is the hardest thing to do because you’re the only one who can figure out what that is and it can be really frightening. Once there is some clarity of your goals, then it gets easier because you can move forward with some filter of what opportunities are right for you. When you run a business you create a business plan so that when you move forward you know how to best invest your time and resources. Artists should do the same as well as clarifying their creative vision.

Students also have it rough because they have to move around a lot to pursue opportunities which can be a big investment. It’s even more reason to know what your priorities are so you can decide whether moving to certain places is even in the cards for you and if it’s not, then you can eliminate some things. If you have a family then there are other considerations, but if you are clear about where you are headed, you can factor the limitations in.

Do you have any other advice that you would offer to emerging artists?

Working hard, whatever that means to people, is kind of non-negotiable. If you really aren’t built to work hard and make working part of your life, then this isn’t the profession for you. Being an artist isn’t a vacation but it is very fulfilling. There are also ways that you can make a living as an artist without solely depending on the sale of your work. Selling can sometimes complicate the artistic vision. I have a friend in Vancouver who is a performance artist and also a dentist. He practices dentistry part time during the week but also has a has a studio practice and does performances around the world. I don’t think he could make a living as a performance artist but he knew what he needed to do in order to keep moving forward. He also picked two professions that were fascinating to him.

There are opportunities for people to do this in ceramics that aren’t what we have traditionally seen done. A lot of people who want to be potters have a romantic notion of what that means. There are a lot of people who do it very successfully but you have to be aware of the limitations too, it is very hard work and not everyone can do it. There are other options on the table that you can incorporate and still fulfill yourself with that lifestyle. We are seeing some artists who have started to engage the design world to create their work. Molly Hatch is a good example and Klein/Reid is a really great example. What I find so interesting about Klein/Reid is they both have academic ceramic educations and they found this niche in the design world based on what they love to do. They work their tails off but also have freedom to pursue projects that interest them. Nancy Blum is another example where she is pursuing a lot of public art projects and it fits her work in a really wonderful way.

Go to school to cultivate your creativity and apply it to other things. Apply it to your life, to your career and also apply to your work. That’s the best advice I would give, to find and use what you’re good at, and be creative with it. The ceramics field is in a very important moment because people are coming up with new ways to define their careers.

I was talking to an artist I have a lot of respect for and he approximated how many pieces he will be able to make if he lives to be 80 and it was just a couple hundred pieces….that just blew my mind. Life is short and you want to use that time wisely on things that are worth spending it on. If you have a family, that has to get factored in, or other interests outside of art. I think that the work and other parts of your life have to feed each other, it’s all part of making you a better human being.

Nancy Blum said something great when she was at the Bray. She was talking about selling work as a means of making a living and said ‘you have to trust that you will be provided for so that you can continue to do those things’. I think that is a great way to look at it.

It’s also important to be aware of your goals and really work to try to get there. If you want to be somewhere you are not, then try to understand what it takes to move forward. If you want to be in the fine arts world, you can’t just look at it and say ‘that’s where I want to be’ and not factor in what it means to get there and live there. I think it’s easy to do that and say the other grass is greener without fully understanding what it takes to make the grass green.

Look for different funding opportunities for travel and special projects. Jeremy Hatch did that for a couple years and it funded his studio practice and some major projects.There are places that want to help fund artists fulfill their visions. In the ceramics community there are a lot of opportunities to travel, you don’t always get paid very well but opportunities to meet a lot of interesting people. If you have not done any international travel, make a point of doing it. Seeing how other people around the world look at art or just ceramics is really fulfilling and eye opening. The difference between asian, european, african, and latin ceramic art is night and day. It’s easy to think that our world is our world but there is so much happening outside North America. Then, once you’re there, so many other doors can open up for you.

It’s a great life that we get to live, to make things for a living. That’s pretty amazing.