Creative Capital: The ceramic artist who wants Singaporeans to embrace the beauty of time through handmade things
Pottery – and craft in general – is experiencing a revival. And ceramicist and educator Elizabeth Gan, the person behind School of Clay Arts, is keen to be at the heart of it.
Go to any design fair in Singapore these days and you’re sure to meet more than one aspiring ceramic artist showing off his or her wares. An interest in pottery, whether it’s amateur and professional, on the Little Red Dot has definitely been on the rise over the last few years.
One of the leading talents enabling a whole new generation of potters is Elizabeth Gan. In 2016, this accomplished 32-year-old artist set up the School of Clay Arts, which offers one-off workshops as well as longer courses. The school also welcomes studio members.
Since working on ceramic collaborations with local businesses such as Our Second Nature and Apartment Coffee, plus pop-ups such as a recent one at The Glasshouse@CHIJMES, Elizabeth was bombarded with an increasing number of commission requests. That led to the establishment of her retail arm, simply called SOCA.
And, as if she wasn’t busy enough, she also runs what she calls her SOCA Salon, a lifestyle event for the community she’s been building to, in her words, “to interact with the use of locally handmade ceramics through complementary activities and partnerships with local businesses.”
I had a chat with her for our latest Creative Capital feature, a CNA Lifestyle series on creatives making their mark in Singapore.
HOW DID YOU FIRST DISCOVER YOUR LOVE FOR CLAY AND POTTERY?
I didn't think much about it when I signed up for my first pottery class in 2014. I guess I went into it during a very free-wheeling phase of my life and I happened to finally find something that grounded me.
Initially, like any maker, I encountered plenty of frustration because things often don't turn out the way you have imagined. This is very counter-intuitive as a Singaporean. Doing something so menial, that took so many hours of practise, and always with the possibility of things not working out raised a lot of questions for me. Isn’t it far easier to earn a decent living sitting around waiting for emails than working with one's hands? Why are people who craft concepts more valued than the people who are able to employ raw materials and turn them into something desirable?
At the heart of it, I think the main reason I enjoy pottery and clay is probably because it has opened my mind up to all these questions. I am hoping to find answers as I progress.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST START SOCA? HAS IT EVOLVED THE WAY YOU IMAGINED?
I started in May 2016. When I first started SOCA, I envisioned it more as a makers’ space. I thought there was a growing crowd of people who wanted a communal studio to be able to experiment, share resources and create together. However, after the first year, it became clear to me that the market demand in Singapore was inclined towards novelty experiences or, as a friend puts it, edutainment services such as the one-off pottery workshop.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with edutainment services. It has been a great channel for us to meet very diverse groups of people and interact on a personal basis. As a matter of fact, we got our first commission after Lauren from Our Second Nature came to our space for a pottery workshop as part of a friend's birthday party.
A small group of those who begin with our one-time workshops might go on to sign up for longer courses. A small group from those courses then become our studio members. We are quite comfortable with this model of operation.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A COMMUNITY OF PEOPLE INTERESTED IN POTTERY. WHAT DO YOU THINK DRIVES THIS?
I believe craft in general has been experiencing a revival. This is probably a reaction to globalisation and outsourced mass production; a disappointment with modern cubical jobs; a growing unease with lack of self-sufficiency and not knowing how to do simple DIY processes.
Out of all the crafts, clay is the most accessible for all age groups. And it is relatively affordable when you compare it to things like metalsmithing or woodworking, which require more equipment and perhaps some strength, too.
Pottery is also pretty forgiving. A not too well-made vessel can look like an excavated artefact and still be used as a decorative ornament at home.
Finally, the fashion world has definitely helped to make pottery chic with pottery increasingly featured in fashion shoots.
IS SINGAPORE A TOUGH PLACE TO BE A CREATIVE?
Yes and no. The market here is very conservative in its tastes. So big trends that take off in Japan, America and Europe eventually manifest themselves here in some watered down version. If you follow these trends, it is not that difficult to make a living as a creative. But you have to be willing to take what is already trending elsewhere and localise it.
DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF AN ARTIST, ENTREPRENEUR OR EDUCATOR?
At this point, I feel most comfortable with the identity of a ceramist though I suppose I'm a bit of everything you've mentioned.
Being called an artist makes me nervous in Singapore, though. There are generally two extreme reactions after being identified as one here: The first being someone who is temperamental, unreliable and bohemian, and the second, always having to be at the forefront of cool trends. Neither perception helps with building SOCA up so I'd much prefer to identify myself as a ceramist and educator.
WHAT ABOUT BEING KNOWN AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
With regards to being entrepreneurial, it doesn't come naturally to me. I think of it as a necessary action to undertake for anyone who wants to do their own thing – one must create one's own economy. In retrospect, it's a miracle I survived my first year of School of Clay Arts – I was terribly idealistic, had absolutely no business model and was uncomfortable with the idea of selling.
Yet, thankfully, trying to start a small business up in Singapore is almost fail-proof. One would have enough social capital to make it through the first year despite how rubbish one can be. I'm glad I had that span of time and space to hone my craft, attune myself to how other creatives function, get sharper and learn from my mistakes.
HOW DO YOU FIND YOUR CUSTOMERS?
I work primarily through Instagram stories and it has been surprisingly fruitful.
WHO WOULD BE YOUR DESIGN OR CREATIVE HEROES?
Do I have to choose just one? (Noma chef) Rene Redzepi. (Chef and Milk Bar owner) Christina Tosi. (Nendo design studio head) Oki Sato. (Industrial designer) Piet Hein Eek. (Fashion designer) Faye Toogood.
DO YOU HAVE ANY “DREAM” YOU’RE AIMING FOR?
The dream is to work alongside a strong team of designers and makers out of an innovative production lab in Singapore.
I think being surrounded by a small team of people that you respect, trust, and believe would be an asset to push your ideas and execution to new heights. As a small creative business, our goal is to be nimble, experimental and at the forefront of our industry.
I feel it's so pointless doing consumer goods in mass quantities. We simply can’t compete with factories in, say, China.
I've always felt that it's necessary for a developed nation to have niche production outfits whose role is to revolutionise the next wave of consumer ideas and habits. Mass production can always be outsourced but you need people with new ideas to lead the way. I hope we might be able to be one of those companies.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Seasonality in nature and the quality passing of time. Nature is beautifully simple. There is usually only one idea behind each season. In spring, things sprout and flowers blossom. In the fall, leaves fall. Simple ideas, but the spirit moves people because everything in nature is based on repetition. Nature has taught me not to overthink things. Don't fuss over the idea. Cultivate the spirit by executing the daily, repetitively, until it becomes an embodied experience.
One of the most moving things I've come across recently was an episode of Chef’s Table featuring (Korean Buddhist monk and chef) Jeong Kwan. I liked that her secret ingredient was time, because so much of temple food is based on fermentation and pickling.
For most artisan producers, it's easy to start griping that consumers these days do not care for artisan goods as much because mass producers can easily replicate and reproduce a "look" cheaper and faster. But artisan goods are fundamentally predicated on the passing of time. People are not just buying the product. They are buying how a skilled craftsman has spent a duration of his or her life caring for raw materials and using his or her expertise to bring the best out of it. Time is a luxury in the modern world. I think talking about how we spend it will be increasingly part of the storytelling in artisan production.
DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE A HERO PRODUCT?
I do. I think our #thepipitroadcollection plates have achieved some indications of a following.
WHAT’S IN THE WORKS FOR YOU THIS YEAR?
I'm working on putting together my team. By now, I think I have built up for myself a good picture of the demand cycles here in Singapore. I understand the tiers of products and services in the pottery/makers market, price sensitivity, et cetera.
At this point, I am quite certain of the areas that I want SOCA to move into and what we will pull the plug on. Before going further, I have been looking for very adaptable, astute folks with broad skillsets rather than people with specific ceramic skills. Most importantly, my husband – he runs his own design fabrication company Zhen Feng Object Workshop but we run out of the same space – and I must enjoy working next to them in the same small studio! At this point, I have two great team players but we need more. It takes a tribe!