COLUMBIA — On a chilly night this past November, Norleen Nosri handed out 175 tiny white ceramic teacups to members of the audience during a City Council meeting.
Each adult in the room filled a cup with tea; the children drank apple juice.
When they had finished, Nosri asked them to place the cups wherever they pleased within a set of brown containers she had made from earthenware.
The resulting work of art, "CommuniTea I and II," was randomly arranged with purpose. Instead of placing the cups in the containers where Nosri thought best, she asked the public to decide.
“I wanted it to generate a sense of family in a building where everything they do is related to helping the people in Columbia,” Nosri said. “I wanted it to belong to the people.”
The cups and containers now sit in a glass case on the fourth floor of Columbia’s city hall. Nosri's project was selected last year by the Standing Committee on Public Art to be funded through the long-standing Percent for Art Program.
The city described Nosri's art in its January newsletter: "The ceramic works ... are inspired by the rich diversity of Columbia. The serving, drinking vessels and bases represent many people coming together and sharing. The compositions symbolize giving and receiving, which in turn, portrays the main theme of the work, a communal sense of gratitude."
From business to art
Nosri, 35, is a ceramic artist and teacher in Columbia. She came to the United States from Malaysia in May of 1997, encouraged by her father to pursue a degree in business.
"I was studying business at Columbia College when I took my first art classes," she said.
An unforgettable experience in the art classes launched what would become a career. Fueled by her desire to learn the techniques, Nosri discovered that the novel experience intrigued her.
"Because I don't know, then I want to learn," she said. "So that was the whole spirit. I jumped into it because I felt like this is amazing."
She began with drawing and painting. When she transferred to the art department at MU in the fall of 1998, she developed a passion working with clay.
Nosri worked three jobs as she built her ceramic art portfolio. Feeling as if she had nothing to lose, she was intent on mastering the craft. Using clay as a metaphor, she said she embarked on a mission to figure out her identity, issues and a bigger goal for her life.
When she told her father she wanted to pursue a fine arts degree, his initial response was devastating. As a business owner, he did not consider a career in art to be either profitable or stable, but ultimately he gave her his blessing.
"My dad decided to let me stay," Nosri said, "but I had to figure out the rest."
A mentor and friend: the late Naoma Powell
Nosri won the commission for the city project after responding to an open call nearly three years ago. The City Council approved her project in the fall of 2012 using a percentage of funds from the cost of renovating City Hall.
Percent For Art began in 1997 in Columbia after the the council passed legislation to designate 1 percent of new city construction with a budget over $1 million for site-specific public art.
A number of projects have been built since, mostly in the downtown sector. "Time in Transit," an oil painting by artist David Spear inside Wabash Station, was completed in 2007, and "Keys to the City," designed by Howard Meehan in 2010, is the group of photographs secured within the steel structure in front of city hall.
Nosri credits her mentor and founder of Access Arts, the late Naoma Powell, for helping her develop into an artist of greater precision, discipline and truthfulness.
According to Nosri, Powell was looking for someone to teach ceramics to the children in the Access Arts program, which offers hundreds of classes in art media each year.
"It's like it's no longer art about me. It's about how I can have the kids do something simple but make them feel good," Nosri said.
Nosri gives Powell credit for helping her develop the skill that it takes to create this aesthetic. In her public art project, a shiny ceramic glaze drips over the matte ceramic texture.
"Those are Naoma Powell's glaze," Nosri said. "Naoma taught me how to teach kids what to do and what not to do with this glaze."
Powell also instilled the importance of having faith even under difficult financial circumstances.
Nosri remembers one month where they were discussing how to pay bills for the center, and Powell told her, "I have faith my mailbox will produce several checks." It did.
"All of a sudden the mailman came, and there were checks from people who believed in her," Nosri said.
She said that didn't just happen one month but for the past 30-something years.
Learning resiliency as an artist and also about caring for those who might be overlooked led Nosri to feel fortunate about their relationship.
“I learned so much from her,” Nosri said. “She’s a woman with principle and integrity. How could you not idolize or respect that?”
Connected to Columbia
The more Nosri grew as an artist, the more her father accepted that she was genuinely passionate about it.
He told her, “I don’t know whether this is the right direction for you or not, but you sound very truthful with what you want to do.”
From that day forward, she said he supported her, which was the validation Nosri needed.
“He was OK with my intention,” she said. “That was real.”
Currently, she lives in Columbia, which she said has a vibrant arts community. She teaches classes to both children and adults, and she continues to produce work for exhibits and juried shows. Her work has been shown in Washington, Texas, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri.
Although Nosri wants to travel back to Malaysia to spend time with her family, she plans to continue developing new work for upcoming shows and teaching art at the university level.
“I found something, a lifelong career,” Nosri said. “If I could promote this goodness through objects, things that I made from my own feeling and put it in my work aesthetically and it makes people feel good, I think that’s what I want to do."