Polly Lee surrounded by projects in her home studio in Petersburg. Photo Credit: Alanna Elder

One of Petersburg’s most well-known artists, Polly Lee, has a new exhibit in the Clausen Museum. Alanna Elder visited Lee in her home the day after the opening to talk about her experiences creating pottery and organizing on behalf of the arts.

Polly Lee opened the door to her laundry room closet to show me a few small pottery pieces she made years ago from local clay. Her favorite is a dark handleless mug with a bright blue streak.

“That is a result of the iron and something in the white glaze – the combination. I don’t know just what it was. But I like it,” she said. “That was the beginning.”

Lee experimented with local clays during the early years of her career in Petersburg, but they limited the shapes she could create.

“They didn’t have the quality that makes clays stand up when you pull it – on the wheel and you’re pulling it up? It would slump. It didn’t have that plasticity,” Lee said.
Lee spent decades teaching and creating ceramics, mostly ordering clays from Seattle based outlets. When one outlet sent her a bad batch in the nineties, she was barely able to finish the pieces she needed for an exhibit.

“I just felt helpless because a potter living up here is dependent on getting a proper body. And if you can’t count on getting a proper body, you can’t do anything. So I went from pottery then back into painting,” she said. “But before that happened, I made an awful lot of pottery, all different kinds. This kind of architectural tiles, English medieval tiles – I spent a lot of time and got a degree in that subject.

Included in Lee’s body of work is a collection of porcelain slabs that Lee showed in Sitka in 1984. They were some of her first creations to come out of the studio in her current home.

“I had done quite a bit of ceramic work from my home on Wrangell Avenue, but having my own big studio – big for me – made a huge difference,” she said. “Having a place to work for an artist is incredibly important. Kitchen table doesn’t work. Work stays small, you have to put it away for every meal. That’s kind of a cliché; the kitchen table doesn’t work as a workshop.”
After that exhibit, the pieces were packed in boxes and sat for years on the shelf underneath her studio table. Until her daughter Ann Lee, who is also curator of the Clausen museum, pointed them out.

“So one day, we opened some boxes, she says, Mom, this is a show! I said, well, okay… So she put it down for the fourth. This was back in February,” Polly Lee said. “I was working on the stained glass piece on top. I was frantic to get that piece done so I could get it off the table so we could get ready for this show. So, two weeks ago we got finished.”

That show is now on exhibit in the Clausen museum, titled “Cadence in Clay.” Lee said, like all of her work, it is a reflection of themes she sees in nature.

“Watching water, watching the tide roll in and out, and the waves from either tidal force or from vessels’ wake,” Lee said.

The giant windows in her dining room look out on Frederick Sound, giving her a lot to contemplate.

“Birds in the trees always attract your eyes, you know? I always hope the little birds are coming back. They have their seasons too. That’s just the way nature is,” Lee said. “Things move.”

Lee herself is a mover, and one of the people responsible for making public spaces in Petersburg look the way they do. She designed the Our Town mural and some impressions in the sidewalk near Petersburg Fisheries Inc., to name a couple.
“I was also political. I still am. Very. Not that I do anything, but I have strong beliefs, and I was more active and my husband was too,” Lee said.

She served on the state’s arts council, and her husband was a delegate during the writing of the state’s constitution. These days, Lee is still envisioning new projects around town, and frustrated with the state engineer’s office for not giving more priority to art along sidewalks and public spaces. She said a strong public art committee can accomplish a lot.

“As active citizens, they can be very powerful,” she said. “But if you aren’t there, they’ll do what they want.”

Lee said her exhibit opening Monday gave her opportunity to network about some new projects.

“I’m a politician for art,” she said.

The exhibit will be open through July 21st.