Some artists shape clay into dazzling objects, each one unique. Others put the material into practical service, producing art in multiples. Down-to-earth potter Mea Rhee enjoys creating beauty for the everyday. With graceful motions, her hands form plates, jars, bowls, casseroles, mugs and more for the table and kitchen, repeating patterns again and again. “I like knowing that when one of my pots goes into someone’s home, they’ll use it and get pleasure from using it,” says Rhee. “That’s extremely rewarding to me.”
In its harmony and simplicity, Rhee’s work reflects the origins of functional pottery in early Asian cultures. The balanced contours, muted tones and subtly glazed surfaces of her pieces evoke the earth itself, the source of clay. “There are no extra details, no colors you wouldn’t find in nature,” says the potter, comparing her tactile objects to “the smooth, polished surface of a river stone.” And, as in a group of stones, no two of Rhee’s handmade wares are ever identical or predictable.
Standing in the basement studio of her Silver Spring, Maryland, home, the potter surveys a half-dozen finished dessert plates. Stacked on wooden shelves and spread out on a worktable, each plate measures eight inches across. And each is gently decorated in broad patterns of white slip on dark stoneware. “I love to see the pieces together like that, all the same, but different,” says the potter, sounding like a proud mother discussing her offspring.
Rhee takes a businesslike approach to her art. She travels to a dozen shows each year, from street art fairs in the mid-Atlantic region to DC’s Smithsonian Craft Show, taking place from April 21 to 24. She documents every sale and bases future production on those numbers. And she establishes a monthly work schedule and sticks to it.
On a typical day, Rhee makes an average of 30 pieces. She can recite from memory one of her daily to-do lists: eight small jars with sculpted elephant accents, two sets of three nesting bowls, 21 five-inch-wide plates.
It takes her a single day to hand-build or throws those pieces on a wheel. When the clay is dry the following day, she trims, assembles and finishes them. “I try to vary the workday for health and safety reasons and for anti-boredom,” she notes. “I have it all mapped out.” Five weeks are planned in advance; then the schedule repeats. According to her records, Rhee produced more than 2,000 objects in 2015.
The potter credits this orderly work regime to her first career: After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1992, she worked as a self-employed graphic artist for 20 years. Her first and only class in ceramics came soon after graduation. “I took up pottery purely for recreation,” she explains. “It slowly took over my life.” Rhee now produces about 40 different designs, ranging from three-inch bowls to “showier” 16-inch platters carved with imagery of fish and herons.
In the process of teaching herself pottery, Rhee also discovered the ceramic traditions of her Korean heritage. “I didn’t know what a rich history it is,” she says. “Koreans pioneered so much of what modern ceramics is today. On some level, I’m trying to pay tribute to that.”
She also credits her lineage for understanding the science of working with clay. Her parents—one a software engineer, the other an electrical engineer—expected Rhee and her three siblings to study physics, chemistry, biology, and math when they were students at Paint Branch High School near Burtonsville, Maryland.
“A lot of pottery is engineering and science and math,” explains Rhee, proceeding to identify the chemistry in glazes, the physics in throwing clay, the fluid dynamics involved in drying clay and the thermodynamics at work in the heated environment of a kiln. “It takes a lot of engineering to turn a lump of clay into a functional object that’s durable.
“It’s 100 percent suited to me,” she continues, reflecting on the satisfaction she’s derived from a career in pottery. “I’m aware of how lucky I am.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase. Mea Rhee’s pottery will be on view at the Smithsonian Craft Show from April 21 to 24. For more information, visit goodelephant.com.