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Ceramics for All: The Art of Common Touch

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Zestro Leow

If you’ve ever tried to throw something on a pottery wheel, you’ll know that the act of shaping clay is a deceptively complex one. While those of us of a certain vintage may have recollections of Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and a whole lot of retrolicious romance in the movie Ghost, the reality of creating shapes on a pottery wheel is often rather more prosaic.

The wheel is secured to its base but constantly spinning. While one’s natural instinct is to push down and force the clay into its desired shape, sudden acts of aggression will almost certainly result in immediate destruction of the vessel at hand. Yet, if you move too lightly or tentatively, you’ll never achieve your desired result.

This fine balance mirrors the journey faced by award-winning sculptors Zestro Leow and Fyon Cheong. (We want to say that they’re one of the best-kept secrets on the local ceramics circuit, but they’re personal favourites of Team Plural, having been featured here, here and here). Having exhibited their art in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, and Malaysia, Zestro and Fyon are the proud founders of Common Touch Craft Unit a ceramics studio that’s quickly gaining a reputation for its skilled anchor artists, thoughtfully-crafted work, and super chill vibes.

Zestro Leow (left) and Fyon Cheong (right)
Zestro (left) and Fyon (right) pictured in the Common Touch Craft Unit studio.

Zestro in particular is passionate about bringing Singapore’s ceramic culture and identity to the global stage, and raising the profile of the local ceramic art scene. In his view, ceramic art is a dying practice that not many understand, especially locally.

As a young Singaporean artist, he feels a keen sense of responsibility towards keeping this tradition alive, as well as towards raising public awareness that Singapore’s national history of ceramics in fact extends far back into the past.

Zestro Leow, hard at work.
Zestro, hard at work.

You might think that these are bold thoughts for a kid born in 1994 (4 years after the release of Ghost!), but collectors of Zestro’s work are quick to point out that the sculptor’s talents have shone through consistently, even from his student days at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art.

“He wanted to charge me $50 and I told him it was too little and he shouldn’t sell himself short, so I paid him $150,” laughs Mr. S., Gen-X professional and long-time collector of Zestro’s ceramics, as he recounts his first encounter with the sculptor while he was still at school.

Mr S. shares that he and his wife had first met Zestro in 2014, at a flea market in the People’s Park Complex car park, and had commissioned the young talent to make him a serving plate.

Fast forward some years later and you’d be hard-pressed to get your hands on Fyon and Zestro’s work unless you’re an avid follower of their Instagram page, and are up to speed on their latest issuances through Common Touch.

The dichotomy between art and craft has been a long-debated one. One distinction sees craft objects qualifying as ‘art’ as long as they possess formal aesthetic qualities that are separate and independent of utilitarian function. But the larger question remains – why are we so inclined to distinguish between objects and experiences that involve utilitarian usage and those that do not? And why do we seem to value the latter over the former?  Sally J. Markowitz in her essay The Distinction between Art and Craft quotes Arthur Danto’s theory that part of what makes something an artwork rather than “a mere thing” is its semantic character: the possibility and necessity of interpreting the work, of offering a theory as to what it is about and what its subject is.

This interpretation, moreover, is motivated and made possible by the practices of the art world and must make sense within their context. For Danto, Markowitz explains, art theory “detaches objects from the real world and makes them part of a different world, an art world, a world of interpreted things.”

It is not enough then, she observes, for an artefact to exhibit a pleasing array of forms or colours suitable for aesthetic contemplation. The artefact must be about these forms and colours, or emotions, or politics, or art.

We do not, after all, usually interpret finely crafted wooden benches, hand-thrown mugs, woven shawls –  we sit on them, drink from them, and wear them. In short, we use them. Of course, Markowitz continues, we may contemplate them too, possibly even aesthetically. We may also talk about their form, how they are made, the tradition of which they are part. But they are still mere things; and although they may be beautiful ones, they do not require an interpretation in the way that ‘art’ objects do.

That being said, it’s pretty clear what one needs to do with Common Touch items – hold them, cradle them, sip from them or slurp out of them. None of these things, however, detract from the gorgeous painterly quality that the studio brings to its ceramics. While COVID-19 has driven us to various iterations of ‘working from home,’ we’ve found ourselves taking more joy in the everyday. Sometimes, a glimpse of a shiny, cool glaze, as one’s stressed-out head turns from laptop to mobile phone, to work desk and back, can make all the difference.

Midnight Spindrift mug. Image credit: Common Touch.
The delightfully named Midnight Spindrift mug, named after its “cold and mysterious-looking textures.” Image credit: Common Touch.

In terms of artistic inspiration, Zestro is drawn towards a reimagination of shrines as a form of spacecraft, to reflect his personal fantasies of an escape from the mundane.

Fyon on the other hand is inspired by the complexities of human emotion and the veering of moods from one extreme feeling to the next. This volatility, according to her, gives rise to a certain beauty in impermanence, as each emotion is fleeting and cannot be locked down for too long. Constantly in transition, the medium of clay is itself somewhat similar – shifting from wet to dry, at first malleable, then hardening into solid structures. The ceramic sculptures that Fyon creates are to her, a physical manifestation of how turbulent and twisted human feelings may be experienced internally, but revealed externally in a wholly different manner.

Family of Three by Fyon Cheong
Fyon’s work Family of Three, was also featured in this Plural project. Fyon’s pastel-shaded sculptures are populated with quirky faces complete with bulging eyes, pert noses, and pursed lips. Each baby-like face is individually sculpted to convey the intricacy of human emotion in a whimsical yet relatable manner.

Fyon and Zestro are sanguine when faced with the question of whether their craft products count as “art”, musing that craftsmanship is an important part of art-making.

With the hope that their collectors “get to own not just a functional piece of ceramic ware by Common Touch, but the essence of an artwork,” the duo does not make a habit of drawing hard lines in terms of the differences between art and craft.

It’s a sentiment that collectors like Mr. and Mrs. S. roundly appreciate.

Says the couple, “We like Zestro and Fyon because their work is edgy and different from ceramic art pieces especially since many of their pieces can be used daily. They are very approachable… they don’t take themselves too seriously and their artwork is not too precious to be used. “

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Note: If you’re in agreement with Mr. and Mrs. S and want to get your hands on some limited-edition mugs and tumblers from Common Touch Craft Unit made exclusively for us, visit Plural’s online shop, Shop Plural now!

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