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Ceramics for the Self, RISD News

Grad student Soe Yu Nwe MFA 15 CR in her studio with a piece in process from her ROOT series.

Closing her eyes, Soe Yu Nwe MFA 15 CR can still picture the lovely “spirit” houses carved into the sacred Bodhi trees outside her mother’s urban neighborhood – in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. Within the confines of their backyards, believers appease animistic deities with offerings of fresh flowers and votive candles.

Grainy photos of these tiny temples are tacked to the walls of Nwe’s graduate workspace, serving as decoration, inspiration and a sweet reminder of home. This fall the Chinese-born artist has been firing a series of porous ceramic sculptures that would easily meld with a magical, fairy-filled dream world. For instance, some of the clay pieces take the form of box-like shelters adorned with blooming flowers. Others appear to be bulbous vessels made of limp rope and thick vines. All of the work is incredibly fragile.

“I like to build complicated things that pose a mental challenge,” explains Nwe while carefully rotating one of her largest pieces. “These shrine-like containers are architectural puzzles that revolve around ideas of comfort, protection and internal reflection.”

Nwe first became enamored with art as a high school student when she starting sketching in the capital city of Yagon, formerly called Rangoon. At the time, Myanmar was an impoverished, isolationist state ruled by a violent military junta. Its generals were under international scrutiny for egregious human rights violations, including the forced labor of children and censoring media outlets to the point of silence. Those who protested against the government – including revered Buddhist monks – were imprisoned or killed.

Despite the social and political tensions, Nwe managed to shut out the chaos and focus on her schoolwork, taking the advice of her mother, who urged her to spend weekends mastering Thai and English. In 2009, thanks to a mix of natural aptitude and determination, she earned high scores on national tests, which, in turn, led to a scholarship to Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan. There, she originally planned to major in biology but quickly changed her mind after falling in love with the tactility of clay.

“It’s just such an intimate medium,” Nwe explains while organizing her shelf of delicate pieces in progress. “I like that your hands are the main tools required to manipulate the material. There are no barriers.”

The grad student is now experimenting with casting glass to infuse an element of transparency into her ceramics. Though the task is technically challenging, she feels that merging the two materials will allow her to create completely unique pieces that will “embody a kinetic, chaotic energy” and point to new possibilities for “growth.”

Though she’s not involved in South Asian politics, Nwe knows that her experiences of growing up in Myanmar – her home country – invariably inform her work in various ways. “My process is about reaching – and anchoring – the unseen parts of myself,” she says. “It’s a comforting practice.”

–Abigail Crocker

  • Nwe’s website

  • RISD Ceramics

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