A sign in Jeanette Adrienne Wee’s studio implores you to “Reclaim Your Own Clay!” It’s a practical instruction for her students, but also works as a guiding principle to understand how she works as a ceramic artist and potter.
Wee should be in Korea right now. If all had gone according to plan (or, more accurately, if it hadn’t been for that global pandemic), she’d have started a residency in the countryside there in April. Hers is a career marked by steps taken off the planned path, though. Her time at Bunka Fashion College in Tokyo—where a pottery class taken out of curiosity was how she was first introduced to the medium—was derailed due to the 2011 disaster in Fukashima.
After coming home and graduating from National University of Singapore, she spent two years in a government office before leaving to pursue pottery, which she’d left behind in Japan and returned to in Singapore several years later, full time. She hasn’t looked back since. And since the circuit breaker period, she’s returned to her studio with a calm vengeance, experimenting with her practice in new ways inspired by the dark and anxiety-inducing previous year of our lives.
There’s a quiet reverence in her outdoor, open-air studio, broken only by the whir of an electric fan, which almost sounds like the spinning of a potter’s wheel. But Wee is over in the opposite corner, hand-building the functional sculpture she’s designed and created just for Vogue Singapore. Someone bumps into the table she’s seated at, and she jerks out of deep concentration, needlessly apologising to them as she does so.
Behind her, small tins and boxes and pots, speckled with clay dust, crowd the shelves, with oddly clinical names like Bentonite, Dolomite, Silica, and Potash Feldspar scratched into their labels. Cups, bowls, and one or two fairy houses line the shelves, too, their outlines made incorporeal by the heat rising from a small kiln in the back of the studio. Beyond it, you can see papaya trees, flowering lobster claws, and one particularly subdued rooster. Also visible, above, is a mid-sized scrap of blue sky, which turns slate gray over the course of our conversation.
When did you first have the idea for this piece?
I studied fashion design a long time ago, and textiles have always been something I had an interest in. Even before I was approached by Vogue, I had the idea of trying to portray ceramic as more fluid than it actually is. The idea of mixing mediums came into play; having fabric incorporated into the clay, or weaving thread through it.
I’ve had this idea for a while, since last year. I went to Korea and saw this artist, Kyungah Ham, exhibit her work. She got North and South Korea to work together on a piece—she printed out designs and had them smuggled into North Korea, where artists there would turn them into embroidery and send it back. I was very inspired by her work. Why couldn’t we think of ceramics or clay as a canvas? Obviously the idea isn’t as grand as hers, but that was how it came to mind. So when Vogue asked me to create something around the subject of ‘touch,’ I thought this would be perfect.
What is it you love about clay?
It’s so fluid. Even though it’s a craft that started centuries ago, people are still trying to push the boundaries of what clay can do. Even me—I’ve done it for six years, and I feel like I’m still getting started. From tableware to functional ware to decorative ware to sculpture, there’s so much you can do within this medium. I feel like it’s kind of like studying science; there’s so much to it that people haven’t yet discovered.
With science, even if you get into a specialty, there’s so much to explore, within both the theoretical and practical aspects of your niche. It’s the same when it comes to ceramics. With glazes, it’s like a chemistry class, all the materials that go into it, and their percentages and proportions, and testing to get it right. I think even if I do it until I’m 80 years old, I’ll still only have touched a small aspect of it. That’s why it’s so much fun to experiment. You never know when you’ll find a new technique or way of looking at things.
Have you always been this experimental in your work?
I’m somebody who sticks quite closely to the foundation. I was trained in Japan, where you had to make one thing 10 to 20 times before you could move on to the next thing. It was only in the last couple of years that I started experimenting with new techniques and shapes. Clay itself has this technical element to it where a lot of errors can occur if you don’t stick to the foundation. So I don’t really stray too far from those fundamental techniques.
Can you tell us more about your training?
I went to Osaka in 2010, and the clay was very… How should I put it? To me, it was a very stagnant thing. I was 18 or 19 years old. Making the same thing over and over again with the same technique, never moving on, because the teacher said it wasn’t good enough. I also did fashion design in Japan—it was the exact same thing, lines of embroidery like writing lines.
At fashion college, I slept four hours a night on average, because at night I was busy messing with my sewing machine, just picking and unpicking my thread. To get where you want to go, in any discipline, I think it takes a lot of patience and a lot of reminders to yourself as to why you’re doing it in the first place. That’s become a part of me. One time is never enough. I have to keep doing it until it’s ingrained in my muscle memory. That’s how I’ve gained confidence as a craftsman.
So would you say you’re a perfectionist?
Perfectionist isn’t the right word for me. It’s more about the discipline to keep making sure the foundation is right. I’m always open to making a new mistake, though. I’ve learned not to beat myself up if things don’t work out—when you’re working with something as unpredictable as clay, failure happens more often than you’d expect. Besides, when it comes to what makes a good piece, there has to be some sort of imperfection to it. I like to have that handmade touch in every piece I do; there’s beauty in the asymmetry.
“Besides, when it comes to what makes a good piece, there has to be some sort of imperfection to it”
Even though you’re not a perfectionist, you did go through multiple drafts to create this piece for us. I think that’s something that the general public associates with writers and painters, perhaps, but not so much with potters. Is there a lack of appreciation for the work that goes into pottery and ceramics?
I totally think so. There’s this expectation that it’s easy to do, which comes from watching Instagram videos, or even the movie Ghost, which has… [laughs] It’s surprising how little people think of clay. Whenever I tell people I’m a potter, they ask if I play that song from Ghost when I work. I’m like: “Dude. You have to stop using that as a reference point.”
I’m in my third year as a teacher in my studio, and I see students come in with the misconception that it’s going to be easy to mould clay. I’m able to correct that impression pretty quickly. That’s the only way to really get people to appreciate handmade ceramics, is to ask them to try it for themselves.
What’s the number one thing you try to impart to your students?
That’s hard. One of the things I try to get them used to is the idea of not being afraid. Every student, at least once, they’re too scared to try something new. If you’re scared, though, you can’t do pottery. If you’re scared, then you can’t push yourself to try something that you’re actually capable of, but you’ll never know it without risking failure first.
That’s something my mentor, Iskander Jalil, taught me. He moulded my practice to be more about trying, without the fear that it won’t work out. Of course, if you do, and it doesn’t, then he’ll scold you. [Laughs] But that’s something that stays with you in your daily life, too. You have to push yourself to do things you’re afraid to do. You can’t get better without doing that. But there’s a stigma against it, especially I feel in Singapore’s very stressful culture. We’re taught that we have one chance to succeed, and if it doesn’t happen, people get stressed out or depressed. But that’s what’s so therapeutic about clay: you can always try again. It’s so cheap! What’s there to be afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?
Do you get a sense of liberation through your pottery, then?
Yes. I think the reason why I started doing it full-time was because I found it was a way of expressing myself, and putting a part of myself into a pot. I’m not the best at articulating my experiences or my emotions. Pottery is a form of release that lets me manifest my ideas more concretely. That’s what sucked me in.
Is there something inherent to making pottery that helps you understand more about yourself, or the way you relate to the rest of the world?
It’s a form of escape for me. I want to tell a story, either of something that’s moved me, or of an experience I’ve gone through. And there’s always a certain emotion that I like to put into my work. Even in my studio; you can see the sky out the back. It’s the same sky, but it changes every day. I try to put that idea into a certain piece. Things change, but your practice stays the same. When anybody looks at this piece, I hope they can see this, the sense of calmness that I get from the sky.
Or this other piece I have, called “Feels Like Winter.” I wanted to portray the sense of loneliness I’ve felt in doing my work ever since I started doing it full time. It’s a craft that… you work in solitude, right? And you don’t have a team around you. I do miss that. And there are so few people doing it full time, there’s few you can actually share the experience with. “Feels Like Winter” is about the isolation I sometimes feel—it’s similar to what I felt during my first winter in Japan, when I was very far from family.
But that’s why I’m so grateful when someone likes my work, or relates to the experience, or wants that emotion to be in their home. It’s gratifying that something that started out negative can be turned into something beautiful and appreciated. And if I hadn’t felt that or experienced that, then I wouldn’t be able to do the work that I do.
“It’s a form of escape for me. I want to tell a story, either of something that’s moved me, or of an experience I’ve gone through”
Somebody you can share the experience with, though, must be your mentor, Iskander Jalil. What else has he taught you?
When we met up for the first time, I wasn’t expecting that he would take me on as a student. He was one of my role models, and it was a dream for me to meet him. It was a very scary moment, because he’d told me to bring a piece of my work along. And from the moment he saw my work, he was already critiquing it, which was amazing. From the moment we met, he was already teaching me. Then he said, “Why don’t you come and work here [in my studio]? And do your own thing. I’ll mentor you.”
He’s 82 years old. And I really admire the fact that he still has so much passion for what he does. He always says, “I could die tomorrow. And if I could choose, I’d want to die on the pottery wheel.” To have that kind of dedication, even at that age, I think it’s something that a lot of us need to learn.
What is it that you hope your audience will take away from your work?
There are traditional ideas of what pottery should be, and what you expect to see in a pot or a bowl. Especially with my new work, I want to break those ideas by doing something a bit more unconventional. Sticking to fundamentals of technique, of course, but simultaneously playing with people’s expectations of a material, for example. It’s like when I worked with porcelain recently. What’s the impression you have of porcelain? That it’s Chinese and fairly smooth and refined and easily breakable. So I purposely wanted to work against those impressions, to make it into something you might not expect. Something rough and tilted on its axis, so it looks like there’s always a threat of it tipping over and shattering.
What I really hope that people will take away from my clay pottery is that clay is really fluid, and we have to accept that and go along with it. You can’t always keep on trying to force it into the shapes that you’re used to. You have to open yourself to the possibilities of it becoming something completely different.