Challenging Stereotypes

Dr. Hong-Ling Wee is a Singaporean ceramicist who is based in New York City. Her solo show "In Flux" is currently on view at The Private Museum, Singapore, from 16 March to 6 May, 2018. Titled In Flux, the show presents three series of ceramic works, Brooklyn, Moxie, and My Family Portrait, and showcases the first-ever blacksmithing works by a Singaporean female artist. Dr. Wee kindly gave SP Blog an interview about her show and practice.

SP. Thanks very much for agreeing to the email interview. You were a geographer before you were a ceramicist. How and why did you make the switch? Is your former training as a geographer useful to your art practice in any way?

HLW. In Geography, I was specializing in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems…the kind of scientific research that brought us Google Earth and Google Maps. I was a Science student all through school.  Art was a foreign language to me. In the middle of my doctorate degree, an American friend signed me up for a Beginners' Pottery class as a gift to me, at a small studio in downtown Manhattan.  I thought, “I’m not creative or artistic!”  I already disliked it even before I started. But the moment I touched clay, my entire universe shifted. I didn’t know what “passion” meant till then.

HLW. In both art and science, problem-solving is the common denominator. Even though the skills involved in analyzing a satellite image and creating a ceramic vase may seem very different, many are in fact transferable. I bring the same rigor to art-making. A great education teaches critical thinking and problem solving. So yes, my former training is useful in my art practice.

SP. What were the first ceramic works you made as a full-time, committed artist? When you look back on these works, what are your thoughts and feelings?

HLW. I actually don’t remember what works I was making at that time because I was already exhibiting my ceramics while I was still doing my PhD and I transitioned overnight once I completed my doctoral degree to being a full-time ceramic artist. Even though I have developed better skills and ideas over time, I am still pleased with the older works because I know that I did my best with each piece with my vocabulary at that time. I still feel happy about them and I still re-visit those series occasionally. Early works are like old friends…familiar, comforting and a reflection on how far you’ve come.

SP. How have your works changed or developed in the past few years? What was the stimulus for change?

HLW. Five years ago, I had a neck injury that forced me to take a break from my work and that really scared me. After a period of physical therapy and treatment, I was able to return to my studio practice but I had to work on a smaller scale. Even though the injury has imposed physical limitations on what I can do, it has actually made me think more creatively about the work. I have learned to value my studio practice even more and I am very pleased with how my work has developed. A breakdown can sometimes present an opportunity for a breakthrough.

HLW. Last year, after I received the invitation from The Private Museum (Singapore) to do this solo exhibition to celebrate International Women’s Day, I learned about the huge gender gap in the arts—less than 10% of the world’s collected works are by female artists. It was through looking at archival images of North American and European pottery studios, as well as visiting five times the world’s porcelain capital, Jingdezhen, in China, that I observed a prevalent division of labor with men as makers and women as decorators.

HLW. Given this opportunity to challenge the stereotype, I started making bigger pieces again. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I wanted to create large ceramic vessels and steel works, which would typically be considered “men’s work” because the processes are too difficult and too grueling for women.

Moxie Ebony

Moxie Ebony

SP. Why title your Singapore show "In Flux"? What do you hope viewers will take away from the show?

HLW. The title of this show, “In Flux,” carries a double meaning. Fluxes are chemicals used in glazing and welding. The word also references my continual state of transition—as I go back and forth between Singapore and New York, between my Eastern heritage and Western education, between my mother tongue and the English language, between tradition and change, between science and art, between function and form, between social expectations and self-actualization.

HLW. Because the creative process for making the works for this exhibition had high failure rates, what I also wish to convey through the works is courage. This body of work is about conquering fears, overcoming obstacles, expanding capacities and shaking off shackles. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible. How else do we break new ground if everyone adheres to stereotypes?

SP. Splendid question! Which ceramicists inspire you most? What about visual artists in other fields? Do you get ideas from other arts, such as music, film, or literature?

HLW. I love the works of American potters Mark Shapiro, Ron Meyers, Jack Troy, and Julia Galloway. Besides their beautiful works, these artists inspire me with who they are as people. They are educators who have influenced so many people, and their generous willingness to share their knowledge and experiences is truly a gift to the world. Because art-making is self-indulgent and artists can be extremely self-absorbed, these artists are my role models in bridging art and community.

HLW. I also love film and literature. Many times what’s unsaid is even more powerful than the dialogue…like in Wong Kar Wai’s films. Occasionally, I’d catch a random line that melts my heart into a puddle. Recently I saw a graffiti on a wall, “I miss you so much I could kiss your voice.” I love that imagery. I can think of people I miss that much. Last year, I experienced the powerful language of the monumental Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber. Words and objects that remain relevant after hundreds or thousands of years never fail to blow me away.

Moxie Ivory

Moxie Ivory

SP. Speaking as a poet, I love the imagery in the graffiti writing too. You are based in the USA, in New York City. What are the advantages, artistic and practical, for your practice? Are they the same in Singapore?

HLW. Philosopher Alain De Botton’s book The Architecture of Happiness talks about our happiness being a function of our physical environment, such as the buildings and streets that surround us. As an artist, I’d say that my creativity is a function of my surroundings, be it physical, social, or cultural. Being in a place with creative energy helps one generate other good ideas. New York City suits my practice because it has plenty of art and culture, as well as creative individuals in various fields. I have met so many interesting people, from a retired pattern-maker to world renowned fashion designers. I have even met a crate builder who builds crates for museums. Fascinating minds! Even the musicians busking in the NYC subway are extraordinary sometimes. I’m inspired and stimulated constantly. From Qin Dynasty artifacts to Michelangelo’s drawings at the Met Museum, I never wish for more things to do…only for more time to do it all.

HLW. Over the last 50 years, Singapore has developed economically and structurally at an amazing pace but its creative sector is still in its infancy. This is to be expected of countries with a colonial past. Basketry has never been a reason for colonization. The nation’s focus had not been on building our own repository of Singaporean arts and culture. But growing that creative environment takes time and a shift in values. It’d take a more diverse society accepting a broader definition of success beyond financial gains and material comforts, and developing a greater appreciation for talents beyond academic achievements. I do believe that Singapore is gradually moving in that direction.

SP. What advice would you give to a young Singaporean visual artist? What advice have you been given that has proven most valuable?

HLW. I’d tell a young creative that art-making is 90% failure + 10% success. Take risks but be prepared for things to not work out as planned even if you’ve done everything perfectly. If you can’t live with uncertainty or failure, art-making is not for you.  Adaptability is an important muscle to train.

HLW. The best advice that I’ve received is “it’s better to give it everything you’ve got and fail than to die with regrets and full potential intact.”

Moxie Espresso

Moxie Espresso

SP. What's next for you? Do you have another project in mind?

HLW. While the “In Flux” exhibition is on view at The Private Museum till May 6, I’ve given myself the ambitious task of doing educational outreach at 20 schools in Singapore. The first talk was last week at Paya Lebar Methodist Girls’ School to 1200 students and 100 teachers during their assembly at 7:40 am. I gave another talk to the Nayang Academy of Fine Arts students last Thursday and to St. Nicholas Girls’ School last Friday. I’m hoping to reach 10,000 students with this outreach initiative. The purpose of the talk is not to sway students towards the arts but to let them know that there is a world beyond academic achievement, that it is important to find one's passion and purpose. When I was a student, artists were like unicorns—we only read about them in books, we never met one in person. I wish I had been exposed to more career options as a young student; hence, my commitment to speaking to Singapore schools.

HLW. When I return to the US in the summer, I hope to do more blacksmithing in June/July at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine. They can only accept 10 applicants for that class. If I get a spot, I’ll be hammering away joyfully. Otherwise, I’m happy heading back to my studio practice.

Dr. Wee's artist talk at St. Nicholas Girls School

Dr. Wee's artist talk at St. Nicholas Girls School

Dr. Hong-Ling Wee's website.