One of the first things you get to know about painter and potter Dawn Kwan is how, even before she reached teenagehood, she was already a prolific painter who was mounting solo exhibitions, raising funds for charities through her art, and being copiously profiled on television and the newspapers. At an age when most of us were probably still messing about with potato stamps and finger-painting, Dawn Kwan was well on her way to her first solo exhibition at the ripe old age of nine.
Yes, this young lady may be 23, but the experience that she has under her belt belie her age. And although it can be tempting to measure her past years in numbers – of paintings made, awards won, money raised – what we find more compelling is the grit and heart that Dawn puts towards making the artist life work for her as a young adult in the world today. Despite the privilege of the opportunities that have come her way since she was a child, this young artist has no illusions about the challenges of an artist’s life – and she faces it head-on.
We chat with Dawn about her various creative pursuits, the challenges of tasting success at a young age, and what keeps her going.
What is it about art that keeps you continuously engaged in so many ways, even though you’ve been at it for almost twenty years?
I love the experience of just engaging in a process that is creative. I get many sensory experiences from different materials. What keeps me in love with it is the satisfaction of being able to share what I love with other people and the fulfilment that I get from creating things.
I have not been tempted to leave it all behind at all, but I have always wanted to integrate art into different aspects of my lives. I’m currently taking my Masters in Art Therapy in Lasalle so I can integrate art into my future job. I’m looking forward to being able to do something that is both meaningful, something that I’m good at, and also something that I enjoy.
What do you find meaningful about art, or the experience of making art?
To me, art is about the business of change. The experience in itself, it shifts something within you when you’re creating it, whether you go into a very contemplative silence or if you are engaging in a lot of creative expression. There is something within the maker that changes when you produce art.
For instance, when I’m engaging in a really repetitive behaviour, like the spinning of the potter’s wheel, or very repetitive brushstrokes, that can create a sense of ease and make me feel more balanced. It shifts me from a very chaotic state of mind to somewhere very balanced. But on the other hand, if you’re engaging with very fluid-based mediums like watercolour, acrylic, it can be very cathartic in a different way.
On a sensory level, I feel more in touch with my primordial state when I’m making such works. As human beings I believe that we always want to make stuff and there’s just this innate desire to engage with very raw mediums like clay.
What do you enjoy about clay as a medium?
I really enjoy the sensory experience that it gives me, and how I have grown to have a deeper relationship with it. When I’m throwing on the wheel I really appreciate how balanced and centred it can make me feel. It’s very calming, and you get this very intimate and tactile relationship with clay because you can sense every single movement of the walls. Over time, you’d grow sensitive with how thin the walls can get. You just know the relationship very deeply and you understand the limits of the clay and how it reacts to your touch.
It’s a very humbling material because it’s difficult to learn, especially when you’ve just started throwing or when you start glazing. The process is very tedious because oftentimes the colours you envision don’t come out and unexpected things happen, like clay warps or it breaks, or it shatters. So I think it is a very challenging material to work with. But at the same time, I appreciate this very intimate sensory experience that I get with it.
I think clay also has very primordial roots in a sense that our ancestors used it as one of the first materials to make art. In a lot of creation mythology, clay is representative of new life and birth, so to me, that symbolism is very significant.
What is your first significant memory of clay? When did you first encounter it?
There was one day where I was fifteen and studying in SOTA (School of the Arts Singapore), I was very sad – as was typical of being a poor suffering teenaged soul in art school, weighed down by life. One of my friends asked if I wanted to try throwing, and she snuck me into the pottery studio during lunch time. It was then that I made my first piece, which was an utter failure despite my friend conveying what little knowledge she had to me.
Despite how that turned out, I think there was something that clicked, and I felt that determination to try again. This process is super tedious and taxing and it’s very humbling, this whole experience of failing again and again – and this was just a glimpse of what was to come. So I went back to the studio the day after and the technician actually taught me how to throw better. I just kept going back during my lunch break whenever I had a chance. Even if I had just a half an hour break, I would go back. That’s when it all started.
What made you keep wanting to go back?
There’s something in the experience itself that is quite difficult to describe. It’s just very cathartic and it’s really addictive.
What was it like to encounter art from such a young age, to grow up so close to art?
I think there are two clear points. One of it was that I felt very privileged because my parents were so supportive. They sold my art when I was eight years old on charity auctions, and enabled me to have my first exhibitions when I was nine to twelve years old. There were maybe four to five exhibitions before I entered SOTA.
I guess being very privileged also comes with a lot of criticism. There were many peers at school saying that I didn’t deserve my portfolio, that I wasn’t not talented enough, and there was quite a bit of bullying in Year 1, so that was the other aspect of it: having to deal with a lot of other voices telling me that I can’t do it.
And another thing that is pressurising is that my parents and I have set up a very high standard for me to meet. There is the expectation that I always push my boundaries, whether technically or in terms of the form of what I’m creating, every time that I have an exhibition. It stresses me out, and now when I’m creating a new piece on canvas, it’s very stressful to produce good results instead of being able to experiment and play like a child.
I think play is a very important aspect of art, and I just need to reconcile that within myself. To be able to balance pragmaticism and creating as well, to be true to what I’m creating. Whenever I’m staring at a piece, as an adult, I’m thinking, “if I mess this up I’m going to waste one canvas, I’m going to waste four hours of time, I’m going to waste all these resources.” Worse still, all these people who have bought my art are looking at me and waiting for new pieces. That’s a very big pressure and the inner critic can be quite strong as well.
How do you deal with that?
I’ve been trying to speak to myself kindly and celebrate small wins. Like whenever I’m making something, I try not to be too harsh. But at the same time, sometimes I will just fold my arms and stare at what I’m making and be like, “it’s not good enough”. This can be limiting, but it can push me as well. So it has to be a balance between these two voices. Like, “well done” versus “try again”.
Is that balance something that you’ve gotten better with over time?
I’m not sure, I just started trying to look at things like this this month (laughs).
How was it before that?
Before that, maybe I was just not very mindful, not really understanding why I’m feeling so frustrated or scared.
Let’s talk about your style of glazing your pottery, because it looks like you had a lot of fun with it. How did it come about?
Yeah, it’s a bit galactic. They feel very different from the paintings in my latest exhibition, the Synthesis exhibition from ION Art Gallery in 2017, which were more contemporary and modern. For the pottery, it’s very much galaxy and pastel and rainbow colours. Different mediums call out to me differently, and this is just how I relate to ceramics I guess. I’m exploring the more childlike side of myself that I was not able to engage with when I paint. Because I think when you paint since young, and you sell your art, there’s always this expectation to produce what people want to buy. For pottery, it’s more like “okay, I think I can take the chance to produce what I like,” and if people like it then great.
What is your philosophy around art?
I approach art in the same way that I do towards life. I want to be known as someone who is vulnerable and strong at the same time, and I think that is shown through the medium of clay. Clay is such a fragile and delicate material. It undergoes all the different firing processes, and it’s a very taxing and tedious process that eventually shapes you and moulds you into a stronger person, someone more resilient. You become more familiar with the different processes, and it’s a very trying process because many of the things that you make do not make the cut. You have to throw away a lot of things. Smash them, or break them in the process of filtering out what is good quality work. This process of continuously detaching and attaching to your work is a constant cycle. For me in life, I try to be someone who is very vulnerable and strong at the same time by being very transparent and honest. I can be real with people and at the same time I take pride in my sense of resilience.
Note: Interested in Dawn’s creations? Click here to check out a limited selection of her ceramic vases, exclusively available at Shop Plural.
Feature image credit: Jasbir John Singh. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.