Artist Sufong Milonni with a large ceramic piece she recently donated to UNM-Los Alamos. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/ladailypost.com
Close-up of a ceramic Chinese character created by Sufong Milonni. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/ladailypost.com
By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
Sufong (Mei-Li) Milonni recently donated a large ceramic piece to UNM-Los Alamos and it is now hanging in Building 5.
The piece is formed by the ceramic rendering of the Chinese characters that make up the poem “Remembrance of the Tale of the Red Cliff” by renowned poet Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, who lived and wrote during the Song Dynasty (960-1127). The year 2037 will mark the 1,000 year anniversary of his birth.
“We are delighted to have a very visible piece of Sufong’s art,” UNM-LA Chancellor Cynthia Rooney said. “It’s a beautiful piece and fits in with our educational mission.”
The characters were hand built rather than thrown on a wheel. Millonni used colored clay in a squeeze bottle to form the letters.
“The characters were much easier than pots, but very difficult to frame,” she said.
Milonni met her ceramics mentor Barbara Yarnell 16 years ago in the first class Yarnell ever taught at UNM-LA. Milonni spent many hours in the UNM-LA pottery studio over the next 16 years.
Yarnell built a vibrant program and by the time she retired, more than 50 students were enrolled in ceramics classes at UNM-LA.
“I have so appreciated having Barbara as an instructor and as a friend,” Milonni said.
The two have done a number of shows together.
Milonni came to the U.S. to complete a PH.D in physics. She was born in China, but her family fled to Seoul, South Korea and she was raised there.
“I got a book of American university names and started with the a’s,” she said. “I ended up at the University of Arkansas.”
Milonni met her husband Peter in graduate school and the two came to Los Alamos in 1985 to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
When macular degeneration ended her scientific career, Milonni was at a crossroads.
“It was a big challenge to reinvent myself,” she said. “I found clay.”
Milonni also is a poet. She taught math at UNM-LA to give something back to the school that had nurtured her ceramics passion, she said.
“She has a beautiful mind, both scientific and artistic,” Yarnell said.
Milonni is taking her work to Taiwan for a show in 2022. She’ll display a 500-word poem engraved in Chinese characters on pottery vessels of many sizes, a paragraph on each, which are displayed in order.
Milonni is looking forward to the end of the need to socially distance.
“My fingers itch to get back to clay,” she said.
Now that they are fully vaccinated, Molonni and Yarnell have just started working together in Yarnell’s studio in White Rock.
“It’s wonderful to have someone who understands your work!” Molonni said. “Barbara and I do that for each other.”
*Note on the translation: There are many translations of this poem, but this one, by the translator who blogs as Vacant Mountain, is a personal favorite and the footnotes are helpful to those who don’t know Chinese history.
“Missing the Songstress’ – Reminiscing at the Red Cliffs”
The Great River  flows east, and borne on its waves
Are all the great men of centuries past.
To the west of the old fort, people say,
Are the Red Cliffs of Zhou Yu  from the Three Kingdoms.
The rocks pierce the air, waves shatter on the shore,
Mounting great banks like driven snow.
A landscape like a painting, and once so frequented by heroes!
To imagine Gongjin  in those distant days,
Newly married to the younger Qiao , at the height of his beauty and vigour.
Feather fan in hand, and scarf on his head, he chats and laughs,
As masts and rudders  are rendered to ash and smoke.
So much for imagining old kingdoms, that my laughable sentimentality
Has whitened my hair before its time.
A life like a dream – now I shall dream of toasting the river moon!
History: The Battle of the Red Cliffs was one of the critical battles, which led to the opening of the Three Kingdoms Period (220 − 280 AD). Having united the north of China, Cao Cao led hundreds of thousands of men south in a attempt to unite the whole thing; but at the Red Cliffs, he was stopped by an alliance between 孙权 Sun Quan (182 − 252) and 刘备 Liu Bei (161 − 223), who managed to set fire to his whole fleet with a clever ruse.
1 – The Yangtze River.
2 – 周瑜 Zhou Yu (175 − 210) was the supreme commander of Sun Quan’s forces. While later works like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms emphasize, for political reasons, that the famous 诸葛亮 Zhuge Liang (181 − 234) was the one who won the battle, during Su’s time credit went correctly to Zhou. In here he is called something like ‘Zhou the Attendant’, because he was appointed as Attendant General in the past.
3 – 公瑾 Gongjin – Zhou Yu’s [courtesy name]. Both Yu and Jin are ritual tools made out of jade.
4 – Younger Qiao – this refers to two sisters who were both famed beauties in the south of China, known simply as the Elder and Younger Qiao. Since Zhou Yu and his best buddy 孙策 Sun Ce (175 − 200) were both known as handsome and talented men as well, they eventually married the two sisters, Zhou marrying the younger Qiao.
5 – Masts and rudders – here referring to Cao Cao’s massive invasion fleet.