Having a conversation with Auburn sculptor Jim Lee feels a bit like being under a microscope. That's because he's made a habit of studying faces, and every new facial expression he sees adds to his knowledge about how to sculpt portraits out of clay.
"I'd always carved portraits out of wood," Lee said. "One day I was at an art festival watching a guy make a portrait out of clay ... I could tell that one cheekbone was higher than the other. He added a bit of clay to the cheek and kept sculpting. It was like a five-alarm fire went off in my head. You can't do that with wood."
After only four years of working with clay, Lee has been told that he has a knack for expressions that more experienced sculptors will spend their lives trying to achieve. Even before he understood what he was doing he had the ability to change a portrait's expression from disgusted to joyful with a few tweaks of the clay.
In fact, he began teaching portrait sculpting as a way to put words to what he was doing intuitively.
"I never thought I would say this," Lee said, "but I enjoy teaching almost as much as I enjoy sculpting."
His students seem to enjoy his classes as well, as they are booked solid between now and September. In each session Lee works with as many as nine students for a total of 20 hours. His students range in talent from those who've been working with clay for years to those who -- in his words -- couldn't draw a stick figure.
For most students, he said, ears are the most challenging part of the sculpture because they're not something people tend to notice about each other.
"Who stares at ears all day?" Lee laughs.
Well, Lee does, actually. He spends about a half an hour every day reading anatomy books, he said, learning how the muscles move when a person laughs or cries or becomes angry.
"A person's expression changes the entire face," he said. "When someone smiles, the muscles in the mouth pull back and puff up the cheeks, and that creates a little bulge under the eye ... the eyes have to smile, too, or you're only seeing half of the emotion."
Lee's natural talent with expressions combined with his pursuit of knowledge allows him to suggest that his students make minute adjustments to their own sculptures, and suddenly their work changes from something made of clay to something almost human.
Some of his new students will look at what they've created at the end of the class and cry, he said.
"They'll say, 'I never thought I had any talent,'" Lee said.
Lee's classes are taught in the basement of General Gomez at 808 Lincoln Way. For more information, visit Clay Head Sculptures.