Photography by Ye Rin Mok
Los Angeles–based ceramic artist Raina Lee is best known for her unconventional ceramic finishes, firing techniques, and forms. After spending most of her professional life as a writer and editor in the worlds of gaming, tech, and karaoke (in 2007 she wrote and developed a how-to and history of karaoke book), Raina fell into ceramic-making while living next to a ceramic studio in Brooklyn. “As a writer you live in a world of abstraction, so it was nice to do something tangible that had an end.“ Since then, she has been hand-making all of her pieces, cooking up custom glazes, and experimenting with other-worldy surface textures from her home studio in the bucolic neighborhood of Mt.Washington, Los Angeles.
We follow our friend and photographer Ye Rin (who happens to be an old acquaintance of Raina's from their days spent at Giant Robot, a hub for asian pop culture in the early 2000's) up the steps to Raina's home, where she gives us a generous tour of her treehouse and tells us about her wonderfully miscellaneous influences.
Your forms are often layered with texture and color—is this something that you improvise into your work or do you start with a clear plan? What is your guiding ethos?
I am driven by the materials, by what is possible in this medium and what the best uses are, how clay can truly be itself. I have shapes and concepts that I like, that feel familiar— the shape of Chinese replica antique I grew up with or the rock hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. But mostly I’m interested in seeing how I can push the materials to their limits. If I can create something I’m attracted to or repulsed by, it’s been worth investigating.
What are your points of reference when diving deep into glazes, clays, firing techniques etc?
I’m interested in ceramics history, from Neolithic Jomon works, Classical Greek and Persian forms, to Chinese Song Dynasty glazes. I study the ways they built and fired works, what their kilns were like, and how we are still using the same techniques today. Without history we don’t know what moment we are in now. You read and then realize it’s all been done before.
Your treehouse has become somewhat synonymous with your work! Can you tell us what you know about this special structure?
This treehouse existed before I moved in! The previous occupant built it. He was a professor who used it as a writing studio. I basically use it as a very wonderful ceramics storage unit as well as a nap room and email writing zone.
Can you share a bit about your upbringing and childhood?
I grew up in Palos Verdes in the South Bay part of LA and my parents owned a Numero Uno Pizza in Torrance. I spent all my time at the pizzaria playing arcade games like Tetris, Pac Man, and Arkanoid. Pizza, video games, and potato chips, that was my childhood. We went to Taiwan every year to visit family, where I would thus acquire more video games, especially ones from Japan. I have a very healthy 16-bit video game collection and knowledge of 80s and 90s gaming.
What are the ingredients for how you find balance in your life?
I’m a pretty serious yoga practitioner, and I find that physical practice helps mental clarity. And getting more sleep, reading fiction, and eating vegetables seems to work. And some karaoke!
Personally, we tend to carry things in our bags that hold some balance between creature comforts and necessity. What do you carry with you everyday in your Building Block beltpack?
I love my belt pack because of the size and how I can integrate it to my body. It forces me to pair down to the essentials— phone, lipstick, ibuprofen and wallet. Otherwise I’d be dragging around too much random.
Tell us about a collection you keep.
After my mom died I kept the shoulder pads from some of her 80’s and 90’s clothes, mostly because there were just so many shoulder pads. I have a giant bag of shoulder pads I had always intended to make into a shoulder pad Christmas tree.
Tell us about something you value/cherish that you’ve owned for a significant amount of time....And something new you’ve acquired that you value?
Old: I have this plastic sheet of collected butterfly wings that my dad had from Taiwan. I don’t know where he got it but it’s kind of amazing, to hold the sheet up to the light and to be able to see through the wings. The butterflies are named and categorized with labels, but they are flattened and preserved like dried flowers.
New: My aunt recently gave me a brand new apron from my parents' Numero Uno Pizza restaurant! She told me when she visited my mom there she asked to have an apron and my mom said no. So she secretly stole one! I'm glad she did because I didn't have much memorabilia from our pizza slinging days.
What's your favorite thing about being your age right now?
I don’t have to drink or hang out at bars any more! I can’t believe I spent so many years doing that. I was in my twenties before wellness became a hot thing.