Photographs & Interview by Justin Chung

Raina Lee, Artist & Writer

Los Angeles, CA

October 28, 2021
Los Angeles, CA

Raina Lee is a ceramicist and writer based in Los Angeles. I met Raina not too long ago and was immediately drawn to her work and also the way she showcases her portfolio of ceramics in an intimate gallery in her backyard treehouse. As a city kid born and raised in San Francisco, it was like a dream to experience spending time in a treehouse.

On this studio visit, I was fortunate to have my friend Brian Elliot along for the ride to help create a short film. I hope the video and photographs capture the in-between moments from our morning together at Raina's. Interview, photographs, and film, below:

Raina's Treehouse in Mt. Washington

Living in LA, I am so drawn to your ceramic showroom space because I have never really encountered such a unique space – a backyard treehouse showroom. Can you explain a little bit on how it came about?

The ceramics treehouse happened by accident. I started doing ceramics some years ago and the works were in boxes all over the house. When friends wanted to buy pieces I had to get the boxes, unwrap them and wrap them up again. So instead of the constant unwrapping and wrapping, Mark, my partner suggested I display them in the cabin on our hillside. It wasn’t getting used that much, even though it was the selling point of the house! I’m glad it’s finally found it’s true purpose. It’s dreamy place to host studio visits and backyard events. It’s a gallery, store, and place to get inspired.
You mentioned that your tree house is like your “home retreat.” Aside from the treehouse also acting as a showroom for your ceramic work, how else have you been using the space as your retreat?

Our house is very small and we have little flat yard space. But we’re lucky to have so many contained spaces, indoor and outdoor ones all feeling very separate. I have the garage, which is the production, glaze, and wheel-throwing area. Mark works in the “office” bedroom and I do yoga in the guest room. There’s the narrow backyard patio where I can raku fire or have friends over for pizza on the grill. And the treehouse, where I can show and view my work as a cohesive body. Every square foot is usable and convertible, which really helped during lockdown.
The treehouse is my private office, where I sketch out ideas, scheme with friends over tea, or take naps. I’m into camping and backpacking, but I don’t have to go far to get that outdoor adventure feeling! I just have to make it up a steep staircase.


How has living in LA shaped your overall style?

Since I’m a native Californian and not from the more restrained East Coast, I’m an “anything goes” kind of person. I’m into all eras and styles, even all at the same time. I’m a maximalist. More is more! And everyone in my family loves fashion and color. I’m a total thrift and estate sale hound and find my best clothes at the army surplus. My rule is no rules! And build your collection slowly. Don’t buy it all at once or from the same place.
What are some of your design principles or philosophies when approaching your craft?

Since ceramics is a lot of technical building and chemistry, I first have an idea of what I want to make and approach it in a systematic way. I prototype, build many versions, and then try glazes and colors on test pieces. I do this many times before I make a final piece. Working with clay has so many steps, from making, to drying, to firing and glazing, that you have to plan it out before you start, or else you could be missing a major piece. I’m trying to combine this approach to one that is more loose, like the clay equivalent of a gesture drawing or a quick sketch. Otherwise, I know when a piece is done. I listen to my body and senses for a reaction. If it’s not done I just reglaze and fire again!
You mentioned that you still write quite often. How has being a writer influenced or helped shape your ceramic work?

I started doing ceramics as a kind of side hobby to writing. Ceramics as procrastination! But now I see it as more of a balancing act. As a writer, you spend all your time in abstract thought, and you go through months, or years with nothing tangible to show for it, except an occasional article, zine, or if you’re lucky, a book. With ceramics you make an actual thing, which gets fired and glazed, and then it’s done and in the world! You can imagine how gratifying it was to make a real thing versus write about a thing for years but still not be done! Also, I’ve always been a visual thinker, having designed and made xerox-copied punk zines for years.

I’ve also found that as a writer and avid reader, I can dive deep into art history and ceramic history, researching ways things were made and what historical and cultural forces came together to make them. I love learning about ceramic history and knowing works from the Song Dynasty look like they were made today. The technology is the same but the circumstances are different. Ceramics history informs my work, because it’s about the evolution of societies and us!
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as you embarked on a freelance career?

Well, getting steady work is the biggest challenge. As a freelancer and artist, everyday, every gig is a hustle. You can have some luck, know a person, or be in the right place, but it can feel as if your career is out of your control. I’ve learned that there’s no job description for what I do, unlike someone with a regular job like my cousin at Deloitte. You have to be creative with how you make money but also know there isn’t just one path. Recently, I came to the realization that not only do you have to hustle all the time, but you have to like the hustle. Or try to like it. It makes it less painful.

Another challenge is not coming from a traditional art background. I didn’t go to art school. But as I said before there’s a path for that kind of person and I’m figuring it out. My friends who went to elite art schools said no one taught them how to make it either. So I don’t feel so bad! ●

Photographs & Film by Justin Chung
Director of Photography & Edit by Brian Elliot
Music by Enjoy the Landscape
Special thanks to Raina Lee