“After working in a corporate environment, I started asking myself, ‘If I die tomorrow, what would be my biggest regret?'” Ceramic artist Jeanette Wee recalls with a smile as she pours me some tea. “I felt that after a while, I started telling myself, ‘Maybe this this is an existential crisis!'” Wee is telling me the starting point for her journey with ceramics in her studio just off the vibrant Chip Bee enclave in Holland Village. Her works, and her students’, are neatly stacked in shelves along the open air studio, while her throwing wheels and mini kiln are lined up in rows to one side—a reflection of the discipline that goes into the craft. And this discipline is all but evident as Wee and I spend the next half an hour chatting over tea. Touching on her approach to ceramics, the challenges she’s faced and the biggest takeaway from her craft among other topics, read the artist’s thoughts in the interview ahead.
How did you start Adrienne Ceramics?
Jeanette Wee (JW): Adrienne Ceramics was something I started on the side while working full time in a government agency. It was more like a hobby at the start. But I realised that doing crafts is important to me and creating things was something that I really enjoyed. So, I quit my job to do a residency in Japan, and I took up courses in Melbourne to learn more about the craft.
Where did you pick up the craft?
JW: I picked it up in 2010 when I was a student in Japan. This was when I was first exposed to Japanese culture, and I noticed that no matter where I went, whether it was a restaurant or a small shop, they always served their food in nice ceramics and dinnerware, which you don’t really see in Singapore. So I took up ceramics in this small studio to pick it up as a hobby.
The teacher there was really strict, because he wanted me to be good at my craft. He said, “If you want to pick it up, you should do one thing right before you move on to the next.” So, I spent one year in Japan doing it on the side. Every week when I went, he only allowed me to make a teacup. After three months, I started to get bored, but he would say, “You haven’t gotten this right and you want to go on to the next thing?” He would make sure that I put in the effort to learn one thing right before I moved on to the next project. So for one year, I learned how to make a teacup and a bowl in different sizes.
What would you say are the biggest influences on your style of ceramics?
JW: I think the first person’s works that I was interested in was definitely [Singaporean ceramics artist] Iskandar Jalil. I read up on him when I was in Japan, and his life is very interesting to me. Then, there’s also other teachers, but the first well known female potter this generation is [Austrian-British potter] Lucie Rie. She’s detailed with the kind of lines that she makes on her pieces and they’re very elegant. Contemporary artist, Akiko Hirai, she does beautiful moon jar shapes and creates these rough textures, almost resembling craters on the moon. But she makes it look like it’s part of nature and it’s something I really like as well.
Personally, how would you describe your own style of ceramics?
JW: I came quite a long way to discover what I wanted [from my own pieces]. One of my favourite themes is the sea and the sky. That’s why my work always has blue hues. I always try to create that theme, but through different layering.
What is your artistic philosophy?
JW: I think one of the most important lessons that I’ve been taught is the fact that clay is a material you should learn to respect. I didn’t realise that until much later, when I met Iskandar Jalil, who taught these things that no other teacher has taught me in my life before. You know how to make a pot, but anybody can make a pot.
He used to to scold me and he’s like, “You have no thought in your work. You’re just doing it because you can do it. But, if you don’t like it, you just throw.” He makes a joke like that your boyfriend become ugly already, you throw away also. So, even though it was a bit of a crude joke, it made me really think when I start on a piece. At the end of the day, what you make really determines your identity, and when people look at it, they can see what you are like.
The second thing that I learned from pottery is patience and discipline. I always feel like that the Japanese have a thing for doing something step by step and you get each step right before you go on to the next. You don’t go on and hurry, even if things don’t go your way at the start, you don’t complain. You just continue. That’s something I learned when I went to Japan. That’s something that I started to pay more attention to in my own work. Now, I have fixed a certain list of things that I want to accomplish. This year, I’m focusing on round forms and wide bowl forms.
You want to do it well.
JW: I already know that next year I want to focus on my teapots again. I did learn how to make teapots and I want to get back to it.
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Personally, where do you see this industry going?
JW: I find that it’s definitely trending. Making ceramics and handicrafts is now trending in Singapore. It’s a shift towards the slow life in the midst of our busy schedules, and I definitely see that it will become bigger from here.
My last question is, what is it after so many years of doing pottery, that you still keep on coming back to it?
JW: I think it’s that addiction where you see your work getting better. Clay is such a flexible form and when you think you already know it, you look at somebody working on a completely different technique. I’m also in the midst of deciding what are the techniques that I call my own or want to focus on and I realised that here are hundreds of types of clays and I’ve only touched six or seven of them. There are so many other things that I want to explore.
One day, I want to do porcelain, which is a completely different thing altogether. You can never stop learning, and as long as you are interested in doing whatever craft you’re in, you’ll probably just keep on continuing it and that’s the case for me. Now that I started teaching as well, I find that the community will give you a new perspective because you’re at a certain level and you see a new student do an innocent experiment and it turns out to be something really good. You learn from them as well and that’s been quite a joy for me while teaching these people and it also re-motivates me to do better as a teacher and an artist.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.