I can’t recall the first time I came across Malaysian mid-career ceramicist Lee Ee Vee’s ceramics but I remember how they struck me – that perfect shade of soft off-white gray and the clean lines, slightly irregular and not trying too hard, hitting the sweet spot of simple but not rustic artisanal ceramics that is hard to come by these days.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thirty3Eleven is a one-woman show of small-batch, contemporary stoneware ceramics in an agreeable palette of greys and whites made with Malaysian clay. Lee shapes, pinches, cuts and builds clay pieces by hand, transforming them into angular mugs, crimped-edged plates and fluted bowls, all with her unique minimalist point of view.
It turns out Lee is mostly self-taught, quite an impressive feat for someone who had taken a course in September 2015 and realized that, with ceramics, she couldn’t solely rely on an instructor as a lot of the learning process comes with practice.
“I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and practising those techniques daily. It was an extremely frustrating learning process with lots and lots of failed pieces, pieces that didn’t look anything like what I imagined them to be. I was disappointed after every firing and was depressed for days each time,” the 36-year-old confides.
“But that’s also because I had an unrealistic goal. I thought it’ll only take a few months to make Pinterest-worthy pieces. The more I read and researched, it dawned on me that the learning process would take years. That’s when I had a paradigm shift in my thinking — I realized that what I was aiming for was much like trying to play a Mozart piano piece in front of an audience when I had barely mastered Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” She set new, more realistic goals but not before challenging herself to create sellable pieces in six months by immediately booking a booth at a local pop-up art market.
Growing up in Malaysia, Lee has always been interested in design and has dreamt of becoming an interior designer but never pursued it formally because she couldn’t draw. She eventually studied communications at university. “My friends would buy fashion magazines but I saved my money for interior decoration magazines. It was my lifelong dream to do something related to design and part of that journey of trying led me to ceramics.”
The accidental ceramicist explains, “I found something so meaningful in taking clay, a humble material from the earth, shaping it between my hands and, with a bit of magic thrown in, turning it into something beautiful for the home, be it on the table for food or by the bedside as a vessel for flowers.”
I’m naturally curious about her foray into ceramics as an outsider. “I don’t have formal design training nor do I come from an art school background,” Lee candidly acknowledges. “A number of my early designs were based on simple geometric shapes or existing pieces and trying to see if I could make them consistently. I think it’s an honest self-learning method and possibly the only method I know to hone my skills.”
Her pieces sell out quickly each time she updates her online shop. She admits she used to make pieces for herself and her home when she was starting out. These days, not even her family gets anything as she is barely keeping up with demand. Her small kiln can only fit 20 to 40 pieces.
Lee describes her typical work day: “Coffee first thing in the morning, then meditation and ideally some journaling but I usually get distracted by social media and group chats. Before I know it, two hours have flown by and that’s when I start scrambling to reply to emails, Instagram direct messages and get on with administrative things before having an early lunch with my husband. I’d like to be more productive but honestly, the earliest I can get to the studio is after lunch. I’ll usually spend about six hours there working on the pieces.”
We’ve met once, after multiple online exchanges, at a pop-up market in Singapore, where she and her husband had driven 300 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, transporting ceramicware she had carefully wrapped and packed in boxes for the journey. Lee is affable and soft-spoken, her petite frame accented by dainty barely-there jewelry. Like Lee, her ceramicware is quietly unassuming, each one a tiny slice of craftsmanship and expression realized through passion and persistence.
Her advice to aspiring ceramicists who are unsure what the future holds? “Keep at it, it really is a lifelong-learning process and let that process of constant failure build you up. Finding out that Japanese ceramic artist Takashi Endo was self-taught really blew my mind. I was very inspired, knowing that I could learn a lot on my own too if I put my mind to it.”