If you’ve ever dabbled in pottery, then you’ll know that the art of ceramics is one which takes gruelling hours of practice. Master potters can dedicate their whole lives to the craft, as they learn how to create different objects, express themselves through form and colour, and tame the various kilns that determine the appearance of their final products.
But what happens when beginners with full-time jobs pick up the craft and devote themselves to it?
Today, we speak to talented ceramicists Mok Yee Hui (MYH) and Jow Lee Ying (JLY). By day, Mok is a doctor and Jow a tax professional, but that doesn’t stop either of them from developing their own creative practices. The two have studied for years under Master Potter Lim Kim Hui, building their skills from scratch.
Currently, Jow’s functional, wheel-thrown ceramics draw on the versatility and the organic nature of clay while Mok’s fascination with finding beauty in imperfection is evident in her works’ rugged textures and purposeful glazes.
Read on to learn about how Mok and Jow have grown as people while developing their skills and their distinct styles, and how they juggle their creative practices alongside full-time jobs.
If you’re curious about their works, be sure to drop by P.S. It’s Christmas, our Christmas pop-up shop with SEED the Art Space to check out their ceramics in person.
How did you begin making ceramics and how long have you been making them?
MYH: My first foray into ceramics was in secondary school where it was offered as a new extra-curricular activity (ECA). At the time, only basic skills were taught and I didn’t pursue the craft further after graduating.
I rekindled my interest in ceramics about five years ago. I had muscle weakness and pain in my right arm, so I wanted a hobby that would allow me to exercise my hands and arms regularly while incorporating fine motor skills as a means of physical therapy.
JLY: My journey with clay started in 2016. As a docent at the National Gallery Singapore, I wanted to learn to make ceramics to better understand the creative process and improve my guided tours. Little did I expect to fall in love with ceramics so much! However, I only started taking a more serious interest in ceramics after I started learning from Master Potter Lim Kim Hui in 2019.
What was the process of learning to make ceramics like?
MYH: During my first class with Mr Lim, I spent over an hour just wedging clay (a process of kneading the clay to distribute the clay particles and remove air bubbles within), wondering if this was all there was to the lesson!
To an outsider, creating ceramics seemed very easy, like playing with Play-Doh. You grab a lump of clay, mould it into something creative and ta-dah, you have a beautiful ceramic piece.
In reality, creating a ceramic piece is a painstaking, multi-layered process requiring skill, expertise and attention to detail at every step. As a beginner, I was intimidated by how much I had to learn. Not only did I need to master preparing and shaping clay, but I also realised that the glazing process was crucial.
How glazes react with different clays and temperatures in the kiln is alchemic. Knowing how to get the desired glaze effects required lots of trial and error – which is why I have a lot of ‘failed’ pieces at home with ugly glazing!
JLY: Many students want to start throwing on the electric wheel straight away, but I feel that it is best to start with handbuilding. Handbuilding allows you to fully understand the properties of clay and how the clay may be transformed by your hands.
Specific handbuilding skills, such as slab building and coiling, will also prove useful as you develop your practice with more expressive forms like sculpture and non-cylindrical works. This knowledge and familiarity with clay are useful when learning to throw on the electric wheel.
What challenges did you face while learning to make ceramics?
MYH: Overcoming my disappointment at perceived failure was the main challenge, as I have a perfectionist streak. Initially, I would be disheartened if the shape was not perfectly symmetrical, if the piece cracked during firing, if the glazing was not what I envisaged, or if I couldn’t reach the lesson’s targets set by Mr Lim.
I have since learnt that there is beauty and grace in the process of creating art, regardless of the outcome.
JLY: When making ceramics, you must acknowledge that you can never fully control the whole process and outcome. No matter how hard you may work towards an envisioned end product, you will need to leave it to the elements during firing. Some firings are more predictable than others, but there will still be an element of anticipation when opening the kiln.
This leads me to another key challenge in making ceramics – the need to let go and appreciate the beauty in the unexpected – when the outcome may not be what you had originally envisioned. Often, we can fixate too much on the idea of the final product, that we fail to see the beauty of what emerges. Sometimes what emerges could be even more beautiful than what was planned.
But, interestingly, it is precisely these challenges that make the world of ceramics such an intriguing one.
Both of you trained under Master Potter Lim Kim Hui. How did you come across his work and what were your experiences like working with him?
MYH: I went for a trial class at Studio Asobi, which I enjoyed tremendously. The potters there were Mr Lim’s students and they introduced me to his studio when I enquired about regular ceramics classes.
I greatly admire and respect Mr Lim, both as a master potter and as an educator. He breaks down the craft of ceramics into bite-sized pieces, one skill at a time. He has lesson plans for hand-building, which are the building blocks for the transition to the electric wheel.
Mr Lim is also a very generous teacher who shares his expertise and experiences with his students. Ceramics, to him, is not only an art form but a life philosophy. This is evident in his ceramics style. He favours organic, deconstructed forms and embraces the wabi-sabi aesthetic.
JLY: I was looking for a ceramics teacher and studio to learn from on a long-term basis, and some friends recommended that I learn from Mr Lim. I was drawn to his emphasis on both handbuilding and throwing, as well as his self-formulated glazes and gas-firing skills.
When learning ceramics, there are bound to be ‘bottleneck’ moments where you may feel stuck and unable to move on. Mr Lim is very acute in pointing out to his students exactly why they are stuck and giving advice that takes his students to the next level. It could simply be a comment on directing your movement upwards or keeping an eye on your finger, but sometimes that’s all you need to achieve a breakthrough.
For that, I am extremely grateful.
For Mok, your works are deliberate yet organic at the same time. Could you tell us whether there is always an idea of a finished product in mind when you start on your pieces? If not, what is your artistic process like?
MYH: There is always a basic shape of the finished product in mind when I begin because specific forms require planning. How much clay [I use] and how I shape the clay on the electric wheel differ depending on whether I want a moon jar, cylinder, bowl or plate. My works reflect the dichotomy of my life experiences: my professional work (as a doctor) requires a lot of precision and attention to detail, whereas by nature I’m a bit of a free spirit!
I focus on completing the basic shape to my satisfaction before considering additional components, such as alterations to the basic form, textures and colours. I gravitate towards functionality in my works, and earthy tones such as orange, green, white, black, grey, and brown.
For Jow, your work seems to have an element of playfulness and free-form in it. Could we know more about your inspirations and processes when it comes to making each piece?
JLY: Thank you for that observation! I wish to instil a sense of purpose and discipline into my works but recently realised that I find immense joy in expressing myself more freely as I make the form. Glazing is also important as it creates added layers of not just colour, but also textures and finishing. There are many aspects to consider even for a free-form work.
I like to work in small-batch collections, usually with a theme that I want to explore. In the Tougei 2022 exhibition, for example, I focused on sgraffito and sculptural works depicting cats. I have quite a few cat-related works because I was first motivated to sell my ceramics in 2020, when I needed to raise funds for a special-needs rescue cat of mine that needed long-term boarding and medical care. Now I try to donate a portion of my proceeds towards other cat rescue cases as well.
For the P.S. It’s Christmas pop-up, I’m presenting works that I transformed dramatically through form and glaze, but which still retain organic qualities. For my next collection, I’m working on purely functional porcelain ware that highlights the material’s pristine quality. Changing each collection’s theme prompts me to continuously innovate and develop new ideas.
I find that the beauty of handmade items is the ability to see the maker in the object. It could be as minimal as a small design element on the foot, or as obvious as the marks from the [maker’s] hands on a sculptural form. This is what distinguishes a handmade work from other functional ceramics that can otherwise be mass-produced.
Aside from being ceramicists, you have full-time jobs. Could you tell us more about that? How do you juggle working and making art?
MYH: I am a doctor in a public institution and have been in the medical practice for about two decades. Making art is my happy place: it’s a mindful process that helps me de-stress and allows for self-care. I set aside time each week for ceramics classes, and those three to six hours are vital to maintaining my mental health.
JLY: I believe that every person has and should have multiple interests. I’m certainly still very interested in tax as much as I am interested in ceramics. I have to confess that sometimes I think about ceramics during work, but when I’m creating ceramics, I’m definitely not thinking about work!
Both work and art can coexist and help to fuel each other. [The acts of] consciously putting aside time, and the setting of personal goals help [me] to juggle commitments between the two.
Do you compartmentalise your frames of mind for work and art? Or do the experiences from your jobs affect how and what you create?
MYH: Work and art are complementary aspects of life. It is through art that we can express and share the stories of our lived experiences—whether it be our personal or work lives. Creating ceramics allows me to express myself and the ability to practice self-care through creating art rejuvenates me to continue to do my work.
JLY: Inspiration for ceramics can be drawn from many experiences, issues, and encounters. As a medium, clay is so versatile and the possibilities are endless. It could well be that experiences at work prompt an idea for the next ceramics collection.
What are your takes on functionality in ceramics? How does this affect what you decide to create?
MYH: I am a big believer in the functionality of ceramics. It’s the Singaporean in me – we live in small homes with little space for non-functional sculptures. Practically speaking, we look for ‘value for money’ objects that serve the dual purpose of both being beautiful and functional. As such, most of my pieces start as forms that can be used (such as bowls, plates, platters, vases, and containers) unless there’s a specific theme for an exhibition.
When not planning for an exhibition, I usually wander into the studio and decide to either create functional wares — for friends or something I don’t have — or challenge myself with new skills by working with heavier clay weights and new forms.
JLY: Functionality creates another challenge because then the maker has to ensure that the work also serves its intended function well. Case in point: teapots. There are many things to take care of if you want to make a good teapot – the dripless pour, the snugness of the lid, the ease of holding, and its weight and volume. If I make a collection of functional works, I will usually plan which types I want to include and decide on their respective forms before making them.
Do you have any advice for people who might want to learn ceramics and join the ceramics community?
MYH: Just try it! The beauty of ceramics is that we can create them to express our creativity. When I first took up ceramics, I wondered if I’d be able to create anything given that I wasn’t fully able-bodied at the time and might “fail” to gain the necessary skills. But clay is a wonderfully forgiving, versatile medium that allows for a lot of self-expression regardless of skill level.
JLY: Start…with an open mind. Don’t rush the learning!
Get your hands on ceramics by Mok Yee Hui and Jow Lee Ying at P.S. It’s Christmas, our Christmas pop-up shop with SEED the Art Space! The pop-up runs from 18 – 20 November and 25 – 27 November, from 11am to 7pm at SEED the Art Space, 46 Kim Yan Road Click here to find out more about the pop-up.