Lee describes the piece at the top as “a ghost and he has a friend that goes with him but he’s not pictured here. I titled it after the coffee place I go to down the street: He looks like how I feel when I’ve had too much and there’s no going back.” To the right is a Christmas tree ornament Lee made for her sister, Lila, who lives in Sweden. The other pieces are early mugs along with Lee’s “Crater” creamer and “Suzanne” vase.

Jennie Jieun Lee, Ceramic Artist

PHOTOS BY WILL FOSTER

Jennie Jieun Lee
makes plenty of glossy, pretty pieces that would look lovely alongside other objects in your home, but there’s a real depth of feeling that distinguishes her work. The large ceramic masks she’s been showing in galleries have a visceral, unsettling quality and a sly humor. But even her more practical goods — plates, bowls, cups, and creamers — convey moodiness and urgency, something you don’t often find yourself saying about tableware. “I think it was because of all those years I was stuck,” she says. “It was dying to come out.”

For more than a decade, Lee suffered a creative block. After graduating in 1999 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she majored in printmaking and ceramics, she ended up working in fashion, “learning a lot, but not necessarily liking it.” It was only a couple of years ago that she returned to her own practice, drawn back by the “hypnotic” act of throwing clay on a wheel and the release she found in the medium. Born in Seoul, Lee immigrated with her family to New York when she was four. “One of the reasons I started making the masks is that when I first moved to America in the ’70s, my mom took me to a ceramics class. I remembered how fun that was, so I tried to recreate that.” Her friend, artist Eddie Martinez, encouraged her to “make more, and make them big” for a group show called “Bad Fog, which he curated at New York’s Martos Gallery last January. “That’s when it gained momentum and people responded.”

Masks, of course, are loaded with symbolism and though Lee turned to them to recapture a childhood joy, they also became about her struggle with agoraphobia, feeling frustrated, “and the strange faces we need to present in life as adults.” Freelancing as a casting agent once on a project for a major department store, Lee watched would-be models “put on these smiles, and I knew some of them were not very happy. This one kid, I could hear him breathing through the smile. He was trying so hard and it was like he was stuck in this purgatory.” That tension and heartbreak became the theme of her solo show “Smile Purgatory,” which opened this summer at Lefebvre et Fils in Paris and runs for a few more weeks.

This past year has been a super productive one, perhaps because it took such a long time to come. We caught up with Lee at her Brooklyn studio to get a better sense of how she got there and to catch a glimpse of what’s next.