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This L.A. Ceramicist Embraces the Strange

Raina Lee cooks up custom glazes inspired by 8-bit colors and vibrant things that nearly make your eyes bleed.

Raina Lee, a ceramicist who lives and works in Los Angeles, prefers the strange over the perfect, the grotesque over the conventionally refined. Her work looks a little bit like it dropped from the sky in a meteor shower and maybe melted a little during entry.

“There are a lot of really beautiful ceramics out there — a lot of minimal, gorgeous, well-done ceramics,” she says. “I hope that each one of my pieces can give this sort of feeling of, like, Where did this strange thing come from?

For the past few years, she has been exploring different techniques from her home studio in the Mount Washington area of Los Angeles, where she resides with her partner, Mark Watanabe, an architect. It’s become an obsession of hers to create weird surfaces, and she does this by cooking up custom glazes.

And strange they are: Lee’s ceramics are mottled, bumpy, and oozing. They are sometimes iridescent, sometimes neon, and sometimes pastel, but always manage to be vibrant. They seem like they are creatures from a glowing alien world, which makes sense considering Lee’s background. She’s a writer and editor and has spent most of her professional life in the worlds of gaming, science fiction, and tech. (She also wrote a book about karaoke and published a zine about gaming culture and feminism.)

“I’ve always been into really bright, saturated 8-bit colors and vibrant things that nearly make your eyes bleed,” she says. It’s a sensibility that’s carried over into ceramics. “I just want really intense experiences with color and texture and shapes.”

Lee estimates that she’s made at least 1,000 objects over the years. She sells some and gives a lot of them away, but she also lives with a good deal of them. She hasn’t counted exactly how many are with her at home, but to give you an idea of the volume, she tries to make everything herself for her kitchen and tabletop. Watanabe renovated their backyard tree house, which was there when Lee bought her home, into a showroom-gallery.

“The number of ceramics I was making was getting really out of control,” Lee says. “So they live in the tree house. I mean, they’re still all over the kitchen, but they also have to live away from us.”

Lee talked us through a few of her recent experiments:

The crater-y glaze on this vessel is from a volcanic glaze mixed with cobalt.
Lee often layers different glazes. The bumpy peach glaze on this matcha cup is from a crawl glaze.

“This is the volcanic glaze I’ve been working with [above, left image]. Volcanic glazes mean there are a lot of crater-y, textured surfaces like a Swiss-cheese or moon surface. What actually happens with this glaze is there’s an element in it that explodes, and that’s what creates the bubbles. It’s really visceral and looks like it’s dripping, which is what I really like about it. It’s taken a long time for me to figure out how to apply it so it bubbles up and doesn’t run all over the kiln. I’m trying to do more colors with it.

“I use copper, iron oxide, cobalt, manganese, and chrome to make the colors in my glazes. This particular chartreuse color was made with chrome, which can either be a deep forest green or lighter, depending on how you mix it. I think people are now ready for color and excitement and feeling alive. I think it’s a reaction to the beige-y Kinfolk aesthetic we’ve been seeing for the past decade.

“I’ve been really obsessed with matcha — making it, whisking it, the whole ceremony — and so I made a line of sculptural matcha bowls [above, right image]. The series has overlapping glazes, and the peach-colored stuff is actually a crawl glaze, which basically shrivels up in the kiln and turns into this bulbous surface. This is wheel-thrown. Ceramics, especially wheel-throwing, are really difficult. I don’t know why I stuck with it … It’s really actually painful and masochistic. It’s just become a nice balance to reading and writing, like a nice way to get out of my head.

“I’ve tried to make all my kitchenware and tabletop items, so I end up using all these cups that have strange textural glazes. It’s nice. I always get a refresh of kitchenware, and if I get tired of something, I give it away to a friend. It’s always constantly rotating.

A raku vessel glazed with copper.

“This is raku fired in an outdoor kiln [above]. You take it out when it’s 1,900 degrees, when it’s completely red hot. I could never do raku in New York, but in L.A. I can. There’s so much space, and even mental space. You basically put it in a metal can with paper in it. I use an Ikea can and newspaper, and when the red-hot ceramic hits the paper, the paper goes up in flames. When the fire hits the glaze, which has copper in it, it turns into this metallic color that you can only get through raku.

“Raku firing is extremely satisfying because you get all the results in like five minutes. You’re covered in leather gloves, and you have a mask on, and you look like a spaceman. It’s super-fun if you like to be around fire.

These vases stuck together in the kiln, which Lee describes as a “happy accident.”
Lee tries to make all of her at-home tableware, like these plates, herself.

“These three moon jars stuck together when they were in the kiln firing [above, left image]. It was a happy accident. Making glazes is a lot like baking — you’re weighing all the different ingredients and then you mix with water and then you stick it in the oven and then you see if it works. It’s a running joke that I’ll open my kiln and I hate everything except for one piece. Then I’ll warm up to them after a couple of weeks. The glazes are all special snowflakes. They’re all going to have a mind of their own.

“When you live with the objects, like a vase or small cup or plate with strange glazes, you realize it’s almost a little universe unto itself [above, right image]. I use a lot of glazes that end up looking like landscapes. It’s like a tiny little world in this object. I feel like art is a transcendent experience, like a religion for some people. When I have these objects — whether made by me or my friends — around me, it offers some transcendence. Each object has its mystery and logic. You get lost in looking at stuff.

“My boyfriend and I are really into camo. Whenever I go to a new place, I’ll look for the military surplus store and buy whatever cool clothes they have. So I was interested in creating this psychedelic camouflage and having different layers of glazes [below].”