‘It Feels Right to Grieve With My Hands’: Watch Sculptor Heidi Lau Build Mourning Vessels From Clay

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

A cemetery isn’t the likeliest place for an artist’s work to appear, but that was exactly the case in 2021 at Brooklyn’s famed Green-Wood Cemetery, where sculptor Heidi Lau was the inaugural artist-in-residence after being chosen out of nearly 1,000 applicants.

In Green-Wood, Lau’s ceramics often took the form of miniature architectures crossed with funerary vessels and infused with a sense of mythology. Tentacles and leaves seem to blossom from Tau’s works, snaking across the ground like roots, though the finish is distinctly slick and manmade, making for a surreal fusion of the natural world with fine art.

In an exclusive interview filmed with Art21 as part of the “New York Close Up” series, Lau explains her connection to the medium of clay, and why her work is a perfect bridge between cultures and worlds.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Production still from the “New York Close Up” film “Heidi Lau’s Spirit Vessels.” © Art21, Inc. 2022.

Lau sees herself as part of the medium itself, telling Art21: “Sometimes I feel like it’s the clay telling me what to do, and I just submit to this very cruel mistress… It’s like it’s sculpting me.”

The artist notes that clay is a special medium because even the lightest touch “becomes embedded into the material. It’s just continuous making layers upon layers.”

Lau began to think about how clay could be used to make a burial garment following the death of her mother, and cites burial objects from the Han and Qin dynasties as touchstones that inform her work. 

“It feels right to grieve with my hands,” she says. “The labor of it equals grieving.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s New York Close Up series, below. The video will be featured as part of Green-Wood Cemetery’s Rooftop Film series, “Cemetery Shorts”  program at Green-Wood Cemetery on June 17th. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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