What kind of stories can you make of the minutiae of everyday life? One ceramic artist is here to remind us that the best of them are found in our daily humdrum, where the modest details reveal our deepest truths.
Behind the romantic veneer of ceramics is an art form that exacts assiduous and methodical demands from its artists. And if the philosophy that life imitates art is anything to go by, then Michelle Lim’s career thus far exemplifies the rigorous journey of carving one’s definition of beauty. In 2012, she co-founded Awaken the Dragon to bring awareness to the plight of Singapore’s remaining two dragon kilns and rekindle Singaporeans’ ties to their homeland. The festival project brought together 3,000 members of the public to fire their artworks, sculpted with locally sourced clay, in the dragon kilns, and it was there where she met Ng Seok Har, a fellow ceramic artist in the making. Armed with their love for ceramics and the success of Awaken the Dragon — that eventually led to the lease renewals of both dragon kilns — they came together to form Mud Rock Ceramics in 2013 with the ambitious goal to bridge the gap between art and the masses.
The sentimental artist and co-founder of Mud Rock Ceramics opens up about the studio’s philosophy of elevating the everyday object, how ceramic art can sustain itself beyond trends, and why accidental mistakes can sometimes create your best work.
Let’s start from the beginning. You were going to pursue a law degree after your stint as an industrial designer. How does that work?
My dad always wanted me to do law even before I was doing industrial design and he was always asking me to go back and do a law degree. At that time, it felt like it made a lot of sense because it was social justice. There was a very short point where I got depressed teaching in ITE after realising for the first time how our education system impacts the young people here, their self esteem, how they become adults, and this cycle of them producing children who enter the system over and over again. At that point, it was no longer about design and I felt that there was a certain soul lacking, not just in the industry but myself.
None of that made sense anymore when I was faced with children who were abused at home, or families who could not afford electricity bills and couldn’t turn on the lights at night. In contrast to those things, designing handphones or doing rendering — none of that made sense anymore. Cases like these are few, but I think it took a physical toll on me. Short of handing them money, I couldn’t do anything else. It felt like there were more things I could do outside of design. My dad also said I could consider the arts, so we went to do a recce trip at ANU [Australian National University] because that’s where he did his bar. I went to check out the law and art school and thought [I could do a] double degree.
In law and ceramics?
Yeah. There were a lot of students who did a double degree like english and ceramics or law and painting. It felt okay until I set foot into the art school and realised how completely immersed everyone was, and I also found myself completely immersed in the craft. I could not see myself doing well in either of them if I had to straddle both. I also attended this exhibition — and I tell everyone this — where it was a little gallery of the graduates who had graduated from painting. The person who gave the opening speech was the head of the painting department; she was congratulating everyone in a very serious tone and said that the works that we were looking at in the gallery that night were nothing but the best, because these people who finished their degree in painting had nothing to fall back on. They didn’t do accounting [with a double degree] or have a trust fund. They gave their all and that struck a cord with me. I was trying to have a backup plan, knowing that my backup plan was going to screw me over because I wouldn’t be able to give it my all. There was also a lot of money involved and I was on a bank loan, so less than a term later I decided to stop [pursuing the law degree].
She was congratulating everyone in a very serious tone and said that the works that we were looking at in the gallery that night were nothing but the best, because these people who finished their degree in painting had nothing to fall back on.
What drew you to ceramics?
I went to the wood workshop and [all the departments of] painting, print media, textiles, glass, gold and silversmiths, and photography, and I spoke to all of the students and professors. The main thing that got me disengaged with industrial design as I got into it professionally was how I got further and further away from the actual making. Knowing that you can’t handle a lot of the materials without tools other than ceramics, I really, for once, wanted to handle the material face on. I didn’t want there to be anything between the material and me.
What’s your work process [at Mud Rock Ceramics] like?
Seok — the other co-founder of Mud Rock Ceramics — and I met at Awaken the Dragon and we realised that we both enjoy doing domestic ware. We wanted to elevate the everyday object, the everyday cup and bowl that you are intimate with. It’s precious because you share so much time [with it] and we wanted to change person’s mindset of what’s precious. [For example] this costs $700, therefore this bowl cannot be used. It’s precious because it’s expensive. But all that is very relative and binary, right? When we came together, we wanted Mud Rock to be the place that had people come and buy handmade bowls and cups that they use everyday and not think too much about it; [to have it] affordable between your department stores and the pieces that you buy when you go on a holiday. We also wanted Mud Rock to be very Singaporean, hence the name. We thought, “Quite fun ah, mud and rock, and it actually sounds like Mat Rocker.” Yeah, so Singaporeans would get it and it’s important that they play with that idea and pun.
Same thing goes for plates: we think about what is trending right now because Singaporeans eat like how they devour fashion — it’s very trend based.
When we make works for functional ware, we’re always thinking about how Singaporeans eat and drink. When we think of the bowls that we make, we’re thinking of the hot soup and how they’ll be drinking or eating out of it, how they will lay their chopsticks, things like that. Same thing goes for plates: we think about what is trending right now because Singaporeans eat like how they devour fashion — it’s very trend based. Every time we make a new cup, we bring it to the coffee shop and ask the auntie to use our cup so we can see if it fits their glass type, whether it is the exact fit, and how well it holds when someone is drinking it. So functionally, that’s how we approach it.
Aesthetically, we’ve never followed any culture. It’s just been what we can make in our glaze laboratory at the back and what appeals to us. Knowing that we don’t have that in-depth understanding of ceramics like the Japanese, Chinese or Taiwanese, we cannot work with glazes that are too traditional. We understand that while the general crowd in Singapore is willing to embrace it because it’s all the rage, they might not be able to express it so easily with their wallets. So we concoct our glazes based on what we feel is acceptable to the Singaporean crowd. We still want to make sure that our glazes exude the craft and homemade feel of it, so they tend to have more character. There will never be two cups that will come out exactly the same even with the same glaze, clay and firing.
How do you keep the balance between trendy and something [more traditional]?
We make a lot [for each type] and both things are equally satisfying to us. We like the traditional like tenmoku or oxblood glazes. At the same time, these trendy ones are exciting for us because they’re new concoctions from our lab. It’s really nice to see people appreciating it because you won’t be able to find our glaze anywhere else. Sometimes when we make 50 to satisfy the traditional side, we’ll do 10 pieces in tenmoku just to see how it looks. When it’s well received, we’re happy because the young people can understand. Every now and then, some tourist comes in and it’s curious how they pick up what the locals don’t.
Why do you think that’s the case?
I think they come from countries that are more mature in the ceramics culture. Their eyes are also a bit more trained. This craft has only really been reinvigorated [in Singapore] in the last 5 to 8 years. When older potters like those in Sam Mui Kuang make those big pots or whatever, it’s always a very striking colour because it’s a gallery piece. They also seldom use a tenmoku glaze and it’s something that I think our eyes are not used to seeing. Singaporeans wouldn’t be eating out of these kinds of glazes in restaurants; they’ll be eating out of IKEA wares that are white and glossy, so that’s their reference. Or they might go to Common Man Coffee Roasters and pick up a plate that looks spotty and matte. It’s just what their eyes understand.
You mentioned in your Ted talk that even a ceramic artist like yourself didn’t know that dragon kilns existed in Singapore at that time. Why do you think there’s such a big gap between our history and today?
Singapore is extremely curated. Every citizen, what we study, what we think about, what we think about the west or china, what we think about ourselves and our history — all of that is already curated. The dragon kilns were not part of this curated history even though it was part of [a thriving] industry. We chose to put samsui women in textbooks — who are important — but clay, being a very utilitarian medium for bricks, walls and cups, were so functional that it was not considered important. The other thing is that we were moving at such a [fast] pace given the amount of growth we’ve had since our independence. It’s like bulldozing through, literally. Bulldozing kampungs and stuff like that. There probably wasn’t a lot of time to romanticise and think about how to preserve this particular thing. It was also hard to convince some ceramic artists that we had to [save the remaining 2 dragon kilns in Singapore] because they’ve had their own struggles. Those who were convinced however, were fully supportive all the way.
Singapore is extremely curated. Every citizen, what we study, what we think about, what we think about the west or china, what we think about ourselves and our history — all of that is already curated. The dragon kilns were not part of this curated history even though it was part of [a thriving] industry.
What did you takeaway from that experience?
I have to say, to have it so successful, to have so much attention, to be able to have it preserved — the only and only placed preserved in Singapore because of its people, shows that there was a lot of good energy put into it. As a Singaporean, one of the best ways to handle situations like this is not to confront too stubbornly, but to learn how to manoeuvre around it and understand why they would want to demolish it. When we understand their point of view, we will know how to convince them. The easiest people to convince were your everyday Singaporeans because everybody wants to find a way to connect to the land. We try to hold on to anything that’s local and claim it as our identity, and even foreigners and tourists all wanted to feel connected, so we had a lot of support. We had two expats who would come back every weekend to volunteer to help clean up the dragon kilns and carry bricks for the renovation. Everybody just wants to belong.
Also, I realised that a lot of things don’t need money. I was thinking that I needed money to house my artists and pay for their hotel, but they just needed a place to stay. So someone offered their house and said, “My children are studying overseas now so I have two rooms free.” And two artists got to stay there. People who own restaurants and cafes would also sponsor food for lunch. Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s why I try to support [Barter Market] if I’m not too busy. We’re very strict about where we sell our things and you won’t see our things being sold anywhere else, but Barter Market is a totally different thing — we really believe in that spirit.
Do you think your everyday Singaporean is getting more acquainted with ceramics, or is it a passing trend?
I spoke about this in another talk at the National Gallery when they had the Iskandar [Jalil] exhibition. I knew that the audience I would be speaking to would either be there because it’s a trend, or because they’ve always been interested and it had to be addressed: “Am I involved in it because this is part of who I am, or is it because everyone is doing it?” My answer is that it can be a trend or long-lived depending on the artists who are involved right now. It depends on how we manoeuvre this and educate the students who come in. If we teach and promote them the right way, then it won’t just be a trend. But if we just buy things from China and Taobao and sell it for double the cost of what it actually is worth in a flea market, then it will just be a trend. Even though they might feel happy buying a $60 mug, they lose out on the whole story and the maker’s experience.
I knew that the audience I would be speaking to would either be there because it’s a trend, or because they’ve always been interested and it had to be addressed: “Am I involved in it because this is part of who I am, or is it because everyone is doing it?”
That’s partly why we have not put our things anywhere else for 5 years. Even when you want to buy a mug, we will ask you to come and make an appointment with us so that we can explain to you how this mug was made. I’m happy with telling you the process and I think that’s important. Another thing is pricing. We’re very careful about how we price things. We want to make sure that your teenager who saves up a bit of pocket money over a few weeks can afford a mug if they put away $2 for 2 weeks [everyday]. And the auntie or uncle who doesn’t think it should cost more than a certain amount can also buy it.
In doing so, do you ever feel like you devalue your work?
That’s a struggle that we constantly talk about. Sometimes with the amount of work that we put in, we think, “Is it worth it or not?” If we think about it long-term, then yes, it’s definitely worth it. No, we don’t devalue our work. If anything, we give it more value because we’re looking at more people being able to afford it versus your privileged high-end market. If it’s priced too low, they might think maybe it’s not good enough. If it’s priced just right, if people up there can see that maybe this is good and affordable and beyond a status symbol, then I think we’ve achieved something. They buy not because they can afford it but because they feel it is something they really want. The pleasure that you get out of having masses of people being [able to afford] handmade things is something that I cannot explain. It’s worth more than me selling one vase for $2000 to give that one person. I’d rather have $2000 and that satisfaction is spread through hundreds of people.
Do you struggle with any part of the process?
I wouldn’t say I struggle with the process, but I struggle with the business side of it. Seok and I of course enjoy the process, whether it’s glazing or different types of firing, different forms, different types of clay that you’re playing with and how it reacts with different glazes. Even if it’s a mistake to the client, we’re like, “I know he didn’t expect it so he didn’t want it, but wow this is great and we’re going to use it for something else next time.” The struggle is when it doesn’t meet their expectations. That’s always something that we have to sit and think, “Okay, we have to put in extra hours and that means we have to work till 5am.” And it means we have to work in the heat because we can’t let the kiln cool down before we put in the next batch. So it’s physically tiring for us, not just the hours but also maybe the environment that we have to deal with.
Do [your clients] always want something very specific?
I think it’s their expectation. Everyone has something they have in mind. But I learnt early on in the process that [it will never come out the way you expect it to be]. That’s why when we do production, if you order 10, we’ll make maybe 13. If you order a 100, we’ll make 120. So that percentage has some leeway. It’s okay because restaurants expect some sort of uniformity, right? But when it comes to the individual, you just want to buy one bowl. So we sell the 20-30% that is kept after that batch is sold in our sale.
This plate was not matte green or light blue; it was a turquoise sea green and it was just beautiful, except that my plate had a crack but the glaze sealed it. It sounds cheesy but the more I looked at it, the more beautiful it became. At the exhibition, it became the most expensive piece that I put on. Everything else was sold for $100 and that plate was sold for $400.
How did you come to terms with that uncertainty [of not knowing how it’s going to turn out]?
In my first solo exhibition, I did my glaze recipe and instead of 0.5% of copper, I put 5%. When it came out of the kiln, instead of light blue, I had glossy light blue and matte green and there was nothing I could do about it. I had to accept it. Actually there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just my expectation. So I was, I don’t know, I had that kind of feeling where your whole heart sinks and you’re just like, “My life is over.” I had to ship everything back [to Singapore] and it wasn’t even what I wanted. So I just closed the kiln and went back to my dorm and slept. I came back the next day, looked at it again and [thought], “Actually, it’s not bad.” In fact, it’s nice to have variety. Aside from me, no one else expected this. So that’s when I learnt early on. You know Leonard Cohen and his famous quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”? If anything, that plate was the literal manifestation of it. This plate was not matte green or light blue; it was a turquoise sea green and it was just beautiful, except that my plate had a crack but the glaze sealed it. It sounds cheesy but the more I looked at it, the more beautiful it became. At the exhibition, it became the most expensive piece that I put on. Everything else was sold for $100 and that plate was sold for $400.
What’s more important to you, beauty or function?
My brain would say beauty, my heart would say function. It’s almost the opposite. I’ve always wanted to make things so if you switch my brain off, I will still be making things with my hands. It’s what I want to do. But my brain will tell me that even if the thing is not functional, it’s beautiful [and] you’ll keep it. At the end of the day, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
So it’s half-half?
What’s your biggest fear?
That I won’t be able to make things with my hands anymore. I used to work in production factories in China. I didn’t want to just read or be that privileged [artist] sitting in the studio so whenever there was an opportunity, my professor would send me to China and I would work with the factory workers day and night, eat with them and stay in the same housing. When I was working in Jingdezhen, there was one time I was really freaking out because it started to snow. When you go to countries that snow it’s usually on a holiday, except this time I was working in a factory and I was meant to finishing sanding. I was still throwing and my hands were still in the icy cold water. There’s no such thing as a heater there. I wasn’t prepared for it and I started getting frostbite and I was like, “It’s the end of my career, I’m going to lose my limbs.” I know it sounds very trivial, but I think that might be my worst fear. My lack of usefulness to society.
Would you go back to ITE to teach ceramics?
I’ve been [doing adjunct] teaching on and off at Lasalle and NAFA, but I don’t think I can do full time. I think it’s less taxing on myself emotionally. I have opinions and I won’t be able to keep it away from my students. I try not to have too much of my own opinions when I teach. One day when Seok and I are not around anymore, we hope that Mud Rock remains as Mud Rock and that it’s not about Michelle or Seok, but this community and the craft.
Photographs courtesy of Michelle Lim