I was running so late. After teaching a class, a couple of taxis cancelling on me, and a traffic jam, I rushed over to Jalan Besar to Mud Rock Ceramics to take a class. I finally made my way to a row of KTV lounges lining Maude Road and still wasn’t quite sure if I was in the right place.
But lo and behold, a cute storefront filled with colourful ceramic vessels told me that I was. I hurried up the stairs and was welcomed to a beginners’ class led by co-founder of ceramics studio Mud Rock, Michelle Lim.
Full disclosure: I’ve worked with clay before. Having taken a ceramics course in college which focused on hand-building and pinch pottery, I’ve learnt the basics of the wheel thrice and I’ve been humbled each time. I have always found throwing pots on the wheel challenging to master, no matter how good I am with my hands otherwise.
I hoped that this fourth time would be the charm. Lim offered a refresher on how to ‘wedge’ (knead a lump of clay into a croissant-like shape) and centre clay on the middle of the pottery wheel. She also advised me on a few things: to be wary of pressing the clay at the base of the wheel too much, which leads to an unintended wide-mouthed vessel, or conversely pulling the clay up too quickly, which leaves the top of cups thin or uneven.
Following Lim’s clear instructions and gentle guidance made me understand why people can really get into ceramics. It’s addictive, the feeling of wet clay being formed and knowing you’re using your own two hands to create work. When I mimicked her finger movements and followed her directions, something finally clicked.
After the class, Lim asked me how it was, and I told her honestly it was the most coherent and easy-to-follow pottery throwing class I’ve taken. I also appreciated how she advised me to be careful of certain things, such pressing the clay at the base of the wheel too much, which can lead to an unintended wide-mouthed vessel. She humbly told me that after years of observation she has noticed these common mistakes and could easily explain them to students—a mark of a seasoned educator.
I had concentrated in Sculpture for my undergraduate degree, so I’m no stranger to making work with my hands. However, since shifting to a mostly digital practice, it was nice to literally get my hands dirty while making a nice ceramic cup.
A Sustainable Community
During my class, I also noticed there were some other people using the space who weren’t students and I learnt that they were members of Clay Commune.
Clay Commune is a programme where former students of Mud Rock can sign up for time-based packages to work in the studio space, and use its materials and facilities. It’s evident that a sense of kampong spirit is alive and well at Mud Rock, as members also volunteer to keep the space clean and ensure workshops run smoothly. “It takes a community to keep this place going,” Lim explained.
The studio also focuses on sustainability, with many of their glazes being made in-house, sometimes from dead leaves or chicken bones. These materials, which are burnt into ashes or ground into powder, give the wares a unique finish. The studio also recycles almost all the clay that doesn’t become finished ceramic products, meaning that nothing goes to waste.
Of Dragons and Dreams
I headed up to their main workshop area for a quick chat with Lim and her Co-Founder Ng Seok Har. Music from the KTV lounge next door thumped softly, as we settled in to speak and hang out with Lim’s adorable Buddy. A regular fixture at the studio, he was at home amongst the drying plates and other wares on the tables. I couldn’t help but pet him as we chatted about the studio’s beginnings.
Lim played in the mud as a child, and that she loved to make things with her hands, leading her to pursue her undergraduate degree in Ceramics at the Australian National University School of Art. After returning to Singapore and learning that the Dragon Kiln, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, which played a huge role in Singapore’s local history as a ceramics hub in the 1960s, was to be demolished, she wanted to raise awareness of it.
In 2010, Lim and Ng met at Awaken the Dragon, a festival to save the last Dragon Kiln. Lim led the effort to spread the history of the remaining kiln, giving interviews and TED talks on the topic, while Seok volunteered for the same cause. On the other hand, Ng discovered the art of ceramics while working in Toyko, becoming “addicted” at the first touch. This did not subside even after returning to Singapore, prompting her to study under Thai Master Potter Somluk Pantiboon and join his studio as an apprentice.
With shared values of dedication and discipline, it’s no surprise that the two instantly connected upon meeting. With both of them loving clay to the point of wanting to make a living out of it, they founded Mud Rock together in 2013, hoping to ignite public interest in ceramics.
Mud Rock’s name is very tongue-in-cheek, as it references the local subculture of ‘Mat Rok‘ (metal and rock music associated with and consumed primarily by male Malay youth) in Singapore. Much like the alternative subculture’s musicians, Lim and Ng saw themselves as outsiders when they started the studio. Lim told me that, at the time, there weren’t any studios that offered ceramics at an affordable price range.
Most local studios were either family businesses and Master Potters who created high art with high prices. The duo dreamt of local restaurants and families consciously collecting and using Singapore-made tableware in their kitchens. This dream has partially come true with their many commissions from establishments, like NOURI, Meta, and Le Bon Funk.
Benefits of buying straight from a studio include being able to commission unique wares. “Our glazes are all made in-house, so you’ll never find another pot with the same glaze,” Lim explained. “And [customers] save on the costs of shipping and there’s also no carbon footprint aside from the firing. It’s a win-win.”
These assignments have become the studio’s bread and butter, but they still hope to highlight the quality and accessibility of local ceramic wares to the greater public. The studio’s solution to this is their biannual sale, which runs in July and December. It is only promoted on their Instagram, but is known for attracting long lines and happy customers.
Speaking to the duo, it’s evident that they value the community that they’ve fostered. Lim added that this communal approach is required for Mud Rock to work, with many Clay Commune members volunteering their accounting, wrapping, and customer service skills during the studio’s classes and biannual sales.
Highs and Lows
In the past decade, Mud Rock had much to celebrate: from hosting in-demand pottery workshops to being commissioned by former president Tony Tan to make a tea set for the late Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday.
However, the duo have also seen their fair share of struggles. Lim and Ng recalled that when they first started the studio, they would work till five or six in the morning, and they would see the hostesses from next door returning to the KTV lounges to clock out at the end of the night. They were told early on that their idea of running a pottery studio business was “crazy.”
Initially, the studio didn’t start working on restaurant commissions until they gained a reputation with local establishments through word-of-mouth, showing that perseverance does pay off.
In the end, the duo still remain positive, laughing, “everything is a challenge, every day is a challenge.”
Gather Around the Campfire
Mud Rock has certainly come a long way. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the studio is holding a week-long ceramics festival called Clay Camp. There will be exhibitions like Drawing on the Body, a collaboration between potters and street and tattoo artists, where artists like SKLO and The Ratking (fun fact: a former student!) will draw on clay bodies or vessels. There will also be master classes by familiar names such as Greg Daly, Janet Deboos, Somluk Pantiboon, and Iskandar Jalil.
Clay Camp truly represents Mud Rock coming full circle, as many of the Master Potters leading the classes are Lim and Ng’s former teachers and mentors. Getting to see them and connecting with them through clay again, Ng predicts it will be emotional for them both.
With the camp, Lim hopes that people take away “a greater appreciation for ceramics as a labour-intensive craft and art.”
Now that I have some newfound confidence in my ability to shape clay, I will certainly be back to Mud Rock take some more classes at the wheel. All I can think about now is how my friends and family can look forward to their ceramic presents next Christmas!
Feature image courtesy of Mud Rock.