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Art People: how Hiep Le shaped a new life

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Hiep Le's left hand curls around the base of the spinning lump of wet clay. His right presses hard across the top, cords of muscle rising along his thin forearm. His hands wobble on the uneven clay, then steady as it centers on the wheel. He drives his thumbs into the middle of the mound, curling its sides outward, then, grasping them with his long fingers, deftly draws it up into a cylinder.

Le had wanted to be a surgeon. In the early 70s only 400 people a year were accepted into South Vietnam's six-year medical programs; 20,000 would apply. He'd finished four years when Saigon fell in 1975. His family, which had fled Haiphong when the communists took over the north in the 1950s, had already packed what they could carry. They headed for the river, by chance to the place where barges were waiting to pick up Vietnamese who'd worked for the American government. No one asked for proof as thousands of people pushed on.

Le arrived in Normal, Illinois, four months later, hoping to go on with med school, but was told he'd have to start over. He worked as a janitor through several semesters as an undergrad at Illinois State, then dropped out to take two jobs and save money. Friends told him California made it easier to get credit for classes taken in Vietnam, so he moved to LA, where he studied for the national boards for six months. While he was there, he gradually realized he didn't like LA and wasn't enjoying what he was studying. He was also afraid he wouldn't be able to develop close relationships with his patients here as he had in Vietnam.

He went back to Illinois State, switching to fine arts, and became fascinated by clay. "It's extremely--how should I describe it?--sensuous," he says, smiling. "The clay responds to the slightest pressure. It's a very intimate experience to sit down and work with a piece of clay."

When he got his degree in 1982, Le went back to work full-time and gave up pottery until after he moved to Chicago five years later. He now lives in Rogers Park, working full-time for a picture-framing business in Arlington Heights and spends around ten hours a week throwing pots and teaching at the Clayworks pottery studio.

The spinning cylinder is now more than a foot tall. Le's left hand slides up the inside wall, gently pushing it out; his right chases the left on the outside. He presses the top toward the center, then flares the lip, saying "That's a Roman form." He reaches back inside, and the pot bows up slightly from the base. He draws the top in, flaring the lip only a little. "That's an Oriental form."

The top is too soft to keep working it, and he cuts off several inches with a knife. He curves the new top out, then pushes the opening until it's small with a short, nearly straight neck. "And that's an American Indian form," he says.

He isn't sure whether there's anything of Vietnam in his pots, though he says he tends toward classic Asian curves. He's looked for examples of Vietnamese pottery, but couldn't find any at the Art Institute. He's seen a few in books but he's not sure that there even is a distinctive Vietnamese style.

When he tries to remember pots he saw when he lived there, he sees rice bowls, and huge jars for collecting rainwater, and large incense burners in temples. But he isn't sure the burners were ceramic. "Maybe they were iron. Maybe bronze."

A free exhibit of Le's pottery runs through Sunday, November 7, at Clayworks, 1405 W. Lunt; hours are 2 to 9:30 Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 9 Saturday and Sunday. For more information call 262-2522.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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