New film focuses on Green-Wood Cemetery’s artist-in-residence

Heidi Lau’s Chinese-inspired ceramics decorate catacombs

June 1, 2022 Raanan Geberer
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“Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels,” a look at the first artist-in-residence at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, was recently released as part of Art21’s award-winning digital film series, “New York Close Up.”

The short film gives an interesting look into the life of Lau, many of whose works, under the title “Gardens as Cosmic Terrains,” are being exhibited in the catacombs of Green-Wood. She grew up in Macau, an enclave on the coast of China that was under Portuguese rule until 1999. 

Lau, a sculptor, works mainly in clay. Her ceramic sculptures, usually in blue and white, are evocative of traditional funeral objects such as urns. 

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Sculptor Heidi Lau, left, and Chinatown ceramics-store owner Mei Lum. Photo courtesy of Art21

“Sometimes I feel like it’s the clay telling me what to do,” she says. “Instead of me sculpting it, I feel like it’s sculpting me back. … It really feels like I am the medium. It’s like a conduit for spirits.”

Lau says that she’s learned every technique she uses herself. In particular, she talks about the hands she includes in some of her sculptures. She doesn’t use actual human hands for models, she says – she makes the hands ghostly elongated “to signify that they come from the spirit world.”

Her childhood and adolescence influences, she says, was a mixture of “strict Chinese upbringing” and Portuguese colonial-style houses, cathedrals and other structures in Macau. She often would leave her home and wander around the city, imbibing the architectural styles.

The second part of the film shows her visiting Wing On Wo, a 130-year-old ceramics store in Chinatown, talking to her friend, owner Mei Lum, and admiring Lum’s sculptures, chainmail garments and urns using traditional designs. “If I close my eyes, I can see the books in my grandfather’s house,” she said. 

One of the lakes, or ponds, in Green-Wood Cemetery. The scenery here gives Heidi Lau inspiration for her artworks. Photo courtesy of Art21

Finally, we see her walking through Green-Wood itself for inspiration. She sees her work, she says, as “putting emotions into clay … it becomes something familiar, something beautiful.”

Art21 is a nonprofit organization that creates films that focus on contemporary artists. “Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels” can be seen on YouTube and on art21.org. In addition, it will be screened as part of Rooftop Films’ annual “Cemetery Shorts” program on Friday, June 17 at the Green-Wood Cemetery. Tickets are available at rooftopfilms.com.


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