Amidst this year's uncertainty and upheaval, ceramist Heidi Woo is using her art to support others and fight injustice
When artist Heidi Woo traveled from Brooklyn to Maine in January, so that she and her husband could care for his father who was going through cancer treatment, she had no idea how different the world would look in just a matter of months. After years in New York, the effects of COVID-19 have led Woo, her husband, and their young son to make Maine their home indefinitely. Fortunately, Woo, who specializes in ceramics, was able to continue her work via at-home equipment and Instagram connectivity while sheltering in place in South Portland.
The death of George Floyd in late May and many other Black men and women as a result of police brutality and misconduct fomented national protests, the scope of which haven’t been seen since the 1960s desegregation and voting rights efforts. In light of all that was happening in Maine, in New York, and all over the country, Woo decided to use her art to contribute to COVID-19 relief and Black Lives Matter causes that were personally important to her. We spoke with Woo about how her own challenging medical history led her to art and how she’s using that art to help incite change—while staying safely at home.
Tell me a little bit about your background with ceramics and how you got your start.
I am an occupational therapist by trade, but I stopped working when I was pregnant with my son, who’s now two-and-a-half. I had some complications during my pregnancy, which actually caused me to develop cancer—it was the second incident for me. I guess the pregnancy encouraged tumor growth, and I had a recurrence of brain cancer, which I was first diagnosed with in 2014.
I haven’t been working since then, and I began working with ceramics as sort of a healing modality. I started looking into therapeutic activities like art, and I started ceramics just as a way to do something that wasn’t related to taking care of my diagnosis—just something that could be fun. It ended up being so beneficial to my mental health that I fell in love with it. I’ve mostly been making things for fundraising purposes; before that I was just making things for myself and for friends.
What kind of items do you like making the most?
I like tiny pottery, so I have a miniature wheel. It’s a really accessible way to practice ceramics at home. It’s a tabletop machine, and you can buy it online for $50. I like making tiny pots and beads for jewelry; I also make earrings.
It’s been especially therapeutic during COVID-19 because of quarantine. Obviously we weren’t socializing, and since we are new here, we didn’t have a community built in before the pandemic hit. We were isolating from my in-laws because of my father-in-law’s compromised immune system, so really it was just me, my husband, and my toddler. I leaned hard into pottery as a way to deal with what was going on at the time. I started creating videos of how to make tiny pottery and hosting Instagram Lives to teach people how to make things at home. Most recently I started making flowers, not only for myself, but to offer people an escape from whatever they’re struggling with right now. I’m learning a lot about the healing properties of flowers, so I’m delving a little bit into making flowers for people and doing instructional videos with that.
A big part of your mission is fundraising and helping social causes.
During COVID-19, I was so affected by the devastation in New York City and what had happened—not only there, but everywhere. Partly because my mom, my aunt, and other family members of mine had contracted the disease.
I started to become really depressed. I couldn’t go there to be with them because that would put me at risk with my medical history and my preexisting condition. So we stayed here in Maine, and I tried to support my family from afar. Everyone’s fine now, but it was such a scary time. As a way to take action and feel like I could do something to help the situation back home, I started two online fundraising initiatives from Maine.
I started a traditional fundraiser—selling items and having all of the proceeds go to COVID-19 relief organizations, including food banks and an organization helping homeless and giving support to the homeless communities. I also organized an art auction with my art community back in Brooklyn. We held an Instagram auction and, altogether through those fundraising efforts, in one month we raised $3,000 to donate. It made me feel so good just to be able to give back a little bit. I’d love to do more of that.
Once Black Lives Matter started to gain more attention in June and the death of George Floyd was all over the news, I decided to direct my fundraising efforts to organizations supporting Black and indigenous communities. Right now one-hundred percent of proceeds from the Black Lives Matter capsule collection I created is going to BLM causes, and 50 percent of my total sales are going to four organizations I selected to help the cause right now.
These kinds of personal and grassroots contributions are so important at times like these.
I think I’ve been really blessed. We are so lucky to have our needs met, and that my husband is in a position where he can work remotely. We’re so lucky for my father-in-law to be healthy, and that my family members who were all sick with COVID-19 got better in time. I have such a crazy medical history, and I survived so many outlandish things where I should be dead right now, but I’m not. I feel indebted to the world that I get to be here, and I want to be able to give back while I’m here.
Seeing how so many communities have come together because of what’s happening and how we’re behaving more like little villages now instead of insulated families, just spinning for ourselves—it’s really amazing what comes with tragedy. There is a lot of terrible news out there, but there’s a lot of beauty, too.