5 picks for May ArtHop: Ren Lee brings a ‘Weirwood’ of her own to Clay Hand Studios


You don’t have to travel to the Weirwood at Winterfall in “Game of Thrones” to commune with talking trees. Ceramic artist Ren Lee is one step ahead of you. Her new show at Clay Hand Studios, “Old Gods & Reformed Monsters,” is an immersion in what Lee calls richly drawn, heroic, magical, and whimsical characters that are revered and called upon to safeguard homes, crops, loved ones, and future events.

The works are part of her exploration into modern interpretations of Druid and Celtic ideas about soul, spirit, and natural forces shaping our collective construction of natural forces.

Lee’s show opens Thursday, May 2, as part of ArtHop, the monthly open house of galleries and studios in the downtown and Tower District neighborhoods, and is one of my picks for the month. (You can view the complete venue and show list here; my four additional picks are at the end of this post.)

Here’s my discussion with Lee:

Q: How and when did you get interested in the Northern gods?


A: Reaching back a long way here. American children are raised on Disney cartoons, and back in the day it was Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Sword in the Stone — stories based on the myths and folklore of Western Europe — and from there it’s a short step to Asgard, Thor, Freya, and the dark side of the Arthurian legends.

I studied art history and was always fascinated to see interpretations of those characters in allegorical paintings and illustrations. In grad school, I got interested in how people and culture build identity — so when I started working in clay full time, somehow those images floated to the surface. As I’ve matured, I’ve gotten very interested in the relationship of the old cultures to the supernatural, soul urges, and how people used to understand phenomena in the absence of science, technology, and contemporary belief systems. I started building spirit figures over 10 years ago, and they have evolved into more and more detailed, complex forms including my weir trees.

Q: A highlight of your new show is a “forest” of weir trees. Each of them have a different face and personality. Do they each reflect some facet of your own personality?

A: Probably many facets of my own personality! I find that as I construct a face, my own face starts to mirror the expression I’m trying to sculpt. The mouth becomes pensive or pursed, the eyes narrow or widen. My hope is that they reflect aspects of every person — ideally, the centered, focused, optimistic aspects that we all rely on to grow and learn.

Q: It seems serendipitous that “Game of Thrones” fever is reaching its greatest heights just as your show opens. Are you a fan?

A: I read all the GOT books years ago and was reluctant to watch the series on TV until a couple of years ago. Then I watched six seasons all at once, and couldn’t look away. It’s amazing what they can do now with animation.

While the story itself is very much about the competing interests of the different houses in the show, there are elaborate rituals and relationships with nature and the gods throughout the story that are grounded in a lot of the same Northern European history of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Druids, Celts, and Norse Mythology. Legends come to live with lots of CGI. It’s fabulous! For me, the take home bits have to do with the language made popular by the series regarding the Old Gods. That language resonates with what I’m trying to evoke.

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Q: You call many of the works in your show “wisdomkeepers.” Why?

My work is conceived as spirit figures with vessel qualities, and each piece can be thought of as a vessel, or “wisdom keeper,” for ideas, hopes, dreams, memories, aspirations and blessings. I started making them to hang on the wall, but lately I’ve been experimenting with free-standing forms including figural and functional pieces.

Q: Do you talk to your weir trees? Do they talk back? What do they say?

A: I talk to all my work! It’s a new life coming into existence as it’s being created, so if it needs a little encouragement, or if it’s being difficult, or if it just needs some validation, that’s what it gets. It’s a lot like talking to my pups. “What are you doing now?” “There, there, it’s going to be OK,” and “Stop fighting!” are common themes.

And, yes, they talk back: “I don’t want to,” and “Why?” Once they’re finished, they become wise in their own ways. When you have a wisdom keeper on the wall in say, your den, and you’re trying to solve some personal issues that seem perhaps complicated, you can focus on the art, ask the question, and see what it says back. And it pretty much always has something wise to say…

Ren Lee

Ren Lee’s ‘Dark Moon.’

Q: Tell us just a little about yourself and your life/background as an artist.

A: I studied graphic design in college and had a long career in corporate branding, then I got a PhD in consumer psychology and advertising. My dissertation was based on research into the question of how the things people consume are used in the construction of their personal identity. Then I got even more interested in how people construct personal identities in the US in the absence of centuries of cultural evolution in one place — and that was about the time I also got back into the art studio. I was looking for ways to pare down the trappings of consumer culture and represent the core idea, the transcendent nature of humanity, relying on myth, dreams, and stories as source material.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say?

A: Trying to condense the substance of my work into sound bites is more challenging than I ever seem to think it should be. I’ve spent a lot of time considering the work of Joseph Campbell and other depth psychologists who study myth, dreams, and the metaphors around them. A lot of the material I draw from is so deeply embedded in my thinking that it’s just part of the tapestry, not neatly packaged as the idea it started out to be. If my work is relatable, if it touches people, I hope it is because I have offered a part of my own soul, a glimpse into a deeper psychology, or a window into transcendence. I think it depends a lot on both the artist, the giver — and the viewer or receiver. It takes both to complete the circle of experience.

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to explain and show off.

Other ArtHop picks

M Street Arts Complex

McLane High School’s ArtVenture Academy and art instructor Marc Patterson are known for provocative, timely and often devastatingly moving art events. With “After Dark: Breaking the Chains of Human Trafficking,” opening at the M Street Arts Complex, the academy tells the story of human trafficking through the visual and performing arts.

There are three components:

Visual arts: “Fresno After Dark” consists of oil paintings of nocturnal scenes of Fresno with stories. Also included: an expose on Parkway Drive (graphic novel paintings); pop-ups with stories of sex and labor trafficked survivors; shadow boxes; and sculpture (found objects).

Performing arts: “After Dark Dancers” (performing “Rise Up” by Andra Day).

Performance art: “After Dark” monologues, dramatizations and spoken word.

It sounds like a challenging, emotional experience. And think about what an impact this kind of art making has on the students themselves.


A ballpoint pen drawing by Ryan Wesley McPhail.


Tony Stamolis, owner of Scraps, writes:

My old friend Ryan, a West Texan I know from my early days in New York, works from home sometimes, and does these amazing little ballpoint pen drawings when he has 15-20 minute blocks of time, when his kid is napping. I convinced him to do a show at my shop!

The artist is Ryan Wesley McPhail, and the show is titled “Not My First Rodeo.”

Sorensen Studio and Galleries

Chris Sorensen Studio and Galleries

A group exhibition, “The Garden Show,” features landscapes, paintings, flowers, photography and garden sculpture. It’s the perfect time of year.


Vernissage Art Gallery

Lura Schwarz Smith and Kerby Smith are featured artists at Vernissage. Lura’s oil paintings and Kerby’s textile art will be on display. Be sure to check out the innovative way Kerby combines digital photography and quilting. It’s fascinating.


Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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