Throwback to December 2016, our garment studio was running on overdrive and at its busiest from fulfilling customer orders, resolving production hiccups to popping up at various festive events. At the same time, I was facing fresh challenges as a business owner from our transition into a larger workspace, hiring staff, and planning ahead for the new year. It could be safe to say I was swinging between the thresholds of exuberant highs and feeling strangely detached - on hindsight, not a very pleasant person to be around.
So in my scramble for festive gift shopping, I chanced upon a body of work "Rou" (which means 'flesh') by the local ceramist and maker, Chloe of Usually Usual. These small, functional ceramic vessels expressed a clear idea to me, gave me repose and nudged me into having my first conversation with Chloe. Since then, she has shared with me about her various adventures and explorations with clay, and I am constantly reminded by her that the delightful act of making is inextricable from the people you encounter, the memories created and how you learn to comprehend the world around you.
Several years ago, my father and I picked up ceramic hand building at Tanjong Pagar CC, and much later on, I had the chance to try out wheel throwing under the guidance of your partner and yourself at a Weekend Worker's workshop. How did your own personal journey with this craft begin?
In 2012, I walked past Goodman Ceramic Studio while visiting a friend at Goodman Arts Centre. Ceramics was a foreign craft and practice to me then, and I was intrigued by the ceramic pieces lined outside the studio. I remember my partner and I taking a peek into the studio space, and we found the ceramic works, equipment and set-up to be quite interesting. We enquired about their classes and started our very first hand building lesson. After hand building, we proceeded to ceramics wheel throwing. I initially struggled a lot with wheel throwing and could never get the clay to center.
What do you love about the process of working with clay?
I generally enjoy crafting and working with my hands. Working with clay is a meditative process — it slows me down and teaches me to be patient.
When I first launched my label, I attempted to follow the conventional cycle of fashion seasons. Through a process of trial and error and learning along the way, I am happy to be able to make clearer, better decisions today... How has your own body of work evolved over the years?
The first few years was a period of discovery, learning and understanding for me. As I was trying to understand the different clay body and colour glazes available in the Singapore market, my early works were more varied and experimental. I was also working as a barista in a local coffee shop then and it motivated me to create functional wares such as coffee cups and teapots that I can brew and serve coffee/tea in.
Subsequently, I found myself looking to establish an identity and body of work that is symbolic and meaningful enough for me to present. I also found a constant clay body (porcelain) that I'm comfortable working with. Since then, my area of interest has been on exploring and expanding my knowledge in applying different types of pigments into porcelain clay.
Which 3 adjectives would you use to describe your work?
Contemporary, Tactile, Quiet.
I like to distil shapes and textures from the buildings I come across in my surrounding environment. As a maker, do you have an object that you are constantly drawn to?
I love fruits and vegetables for their fun and quirky organic forms and vibrant colours! I am also drawn to objects that appear to be momentarily put to pause. Like a bench that has been lifted up to block a door when the cafe closes, or a broom left in the middle of a shop halfway through its routine. There is a sense of randomness within these objects that appeal to me.
Share with me about a project that is close to your heart.
It has to be the 'Superhero Me — Is Anyone Home?' project.
Part of the Singapore Art Week this January, Is Anyone Home? was an exhibition that showcased the creativity of children-artists through mentorship with 5 local artist. Through this project, I met Zixuan, a bubbly 12-year-old girl with Cerebral Palsy. We spent a few months bonding through clay and produced a series of wonderful ceramic hanging mobile that communicated stories about her family, school, hobbies, and friends.
Working on this project was an extremely heart-warming journey for me. I was touched by Jean and all the volunteers in Superhero Me who worked so passionately and tirelessly to bring the best out of the children. On top of that, the love and support from Zixuan's family (including her helper) were so overwhelming, to the point that everyone felt encouraged and motivated to achieve more than what they usually could.
Which project did you find particularly challenging, and how did you grow from this experience as a maker?
I held an exhibition at The Supermarket Company at the beginning of this year. For the exhibition, I was looking to recreate a supermarket experience within a cafe using hand-casted household objects that were specifically made in Singapore. During my attempts to produce plaster moulds of these supermarket items, I experienced many failures at the initial stages. Ceramic casting was an entirely new technique to me.
My other two partners from Weekend Worker came forward to help with the tools and materials needed. They both took the time to work with me, to troubleshoot, and improve my casting process. My experience with ceramic casting reaffirms my belief that there is simply no shortcut to take. As a maker, it is important for me to take pride and time to learn and truly understand the material and process that I am working towards.
I know you have a love for natural dyeing, and also discovering and incorporating pigments from the earth as seen in your Pigment, The Earth We Stood On series. What do you find interesting and inspiring about the natural world? Does it shape your own ideas and philosophy?
Tang Da Wu's Earth Work ignited my interest and study in natural pigments. I first worked with Yishun clay that I collected from an artist. I remember that my partner and I were awed by the unexpected coloured speckle that natural clay produced post-firing. Working with Singapore clay has since been a fascination of mine. The clay collected from the different locations were all varied in characteristics, including its plasticity. They each give a uniquely different aesthetic appeal, when fired to maturity.
Learning about natural pigment from the earth and in plants has brought me a lot closer to nature, as well as the people who work close to it. I visited a quarry in Malaysia, and received tremendous generosity from workers at construction sites and even made new friends in Chiang Mai while discovering more about natural dyes. These experiences are a constant reminder to be original, true, and real in the works that I present.
At the same time, I've learned to be more environmentally conscious, to be more aware of the implications of natural resources and waste in my practice. My aim is to focus on producing small batches of ceramic works each year; a quantity that is sufficient enough to pay tribute to the environment, and the people that shaped the concept behind the piece.
Connecting with you over casual chit-chats and coffee is really one of life's simple pleasures... it's so therapeutic to sit across from you as you make a fresh batch of coffee. Share with me about your love for the coffee dripper.
I love to brew! And hence, have a slight obsession with collecting coffee drippers. I am drawn to how different makers produce varying interpretation to a simple standard form — coffee dripper. I started buying standard Hario V60 and have since collected different types of wooden and ceramic dripper as I travel.
Share with me some of your daily rituals. Do they relate to your creative process as well?
I begin my day with a cup of filter coffee. There isn't a direct relationship between my morning coffee ritual and creative process. Coffee drinking has become a habitual routine that I look forward to each day, while creativity on the other hand is something I am constantly pursuing to be better in.
How do you see textiles and ceramics connecting? I am interested to explore how these materials can complement each other.
I have always had an intimate relationship with textiles. Growing up, my grandfather and dad were in the textile business. My personal interest in natural dye developed when I was trying to understand the effect of natural pigments on mediums such as clay and fabric. As my study deepened, the discoveries I made sparked a curiosity on the subject. To date, I find it mesmerising how a soft medium like fabric, can complement a hard medium like ceramic so well.
When you are feeling tired, how do you regroup? Who motivates and inspires you?
I am blessed to have a small group of creative friends who make coffee, designs, illustrates, does wood works, and cooks. Every one of them is a perfectionist in their own craft. I am constantly inspired and motivated by their drive and attitude. It brings out the best in whatever they do.
Tell me about a place or destination that you are particularly fond of.
I love India! Particularly Jaipur! It is very much genuine and lively in its own way. I love how so many different animals can coexist with humans within the community, and how colourful and vibrant their trucks and buildings are.
My friend and I joined an art and craft walking tour led by a local banker who was passionate about Jaipur city. Along the walk, we navigated through small alleys to see local craftsmen at work, and tried many delicious local snacks! The wood block printing sessions at Bagru Textiles was the highlight. We both just could not stop printing!
The Weekend Sundries Woman is a series of narrative photos and conversations, featuring authentic, independent women in their most familiar element and craft. We hope this project elicits thoughts and discussion about the nature of the modern woman today - her growth, her challenges, and her comforts. At our studio, we are inspired by the beauty found in the imperfect, the raw — in one's commonplace. We believe finding rest and a moment of pause in this hectic world is the key to thriving.
As the founder of Shop Wonderland, Melissa runs a beautiful cafe and floral studio out of a shophouse along Telok Ayer Street. Aside from the many delectable offerings of hearty fare and indulgent cakes at her cafe, I simply fell in love with her floral studio on the second floor - a space filled with natural light and the lingering scent of botanicals.
In a world that glorifies the pursuit of perfection and novelty, I often return to and seek out inspiration from the most familiar of things, and I wondered if other women shared similar sentiments. Amidst the festive bustle at Shop Wonderland, I had the pleasure of time to catch up with Melissa as she spoke about her craft as a florist, what grounds and motivates her in work and in life, and how she finds respite and joy through it all.