By Jake Weber
Junior Soe Yu Nwe (“Joy” on campus) took one of the top four student awards at the biennial Michigan Ceramic Art Association Michigan Mud conference held in October.
"I'm kind of surprised, because there were graduate students competing too," said Soe Yu Nwe of the juried competition. "I'm just an undergraduate. But it was nice to win."
Soe Yu Nwe’s winning sculpture, "House," was inspired by a childhood spent on both sides of the border between Thailand and the Union of Myanmar. Many Thai families have "spirit houses," small structures which are decorated and sometimes furnished for spirits tied to that land. Also, "the Chinese character for 'prison' is a box with a person inside," explained Soe Yu Nwe, whose mother is Chinese. "My sculpture is sort of a box with a person inside, so it relates to language and heritage too."
For Soe Yu Nwe, the Michigan Mud honor is even more surprising given that she knew nothing about art when she arrived in Albion in the fall of 2009. Intent on a biology major but unable to find a seat in the introductory class, Soe Yu Nwe liked the ceramic studio's decorative pediment and decided to take a class in a building she found interesting. "I asked someone passing by if they knew where I could find [then department chair] Lynne Chytilo, and she said, 'I'm Lynne Chytilo,'" Soe Yu Nwe recalled.
For her part, Chytilo was surprised to find herself agreeing to take Soe Yu Nwe into an already-full ceramics class. "It's really hard to make space for extra students, but Joy was an international student and seemed so lost," said Chytilo. "I had no reason to do it other than I felt sympathetic for her.
"She has this whole internal world that translates beautifully into ceramics," Chytilo says, explaining Soe Yu Nwe's work. "People have a visceral response to Joy's work. She has a unique gift of communicating something in a way that I don't often see in students her age. It's been a remarkable journey to see who she is and to watch where she goes."