The Ceramic Bridge
News | 09 November 2012
The following article is a contribution by Dr Wee Hong Ling, a Singapore Ceramic Artist living in New York City, USA. Dr Wee was working as a NASA research fellow when she discovered her passion for ceramics. Since 2005, she has exhibited in the United States, Australia, Japan, Korea, China, United Kingdom and Singapore. Among her accolades include the First Prize at “Ceramics Biennial 2006” at The New Hampshire Institute of Art (New Hampshire, USA), an Award of Excellence at the 3rd China-ASEAN Youth Creativity Competition at the Guangxi National Art Center (Nanning, China), an Honorable Mention at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale (Cheongju-si, Korea). and the Third Prize at "The 4th Contemporary Clay Biennial" at The Western Colorado Center for the Arts (Colorado, USA). Her work has been published in numerous books and journals, and they are also in the permanent collections of The National Art Gallery (Singapore), The Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), The Fule International Ceramic Art Museum (Fuping, China) and The Guangxi National Art Center (Nanning, China).
Twenty years, but who's counting? When I said goodbye to family and friends at Changi Airport back in 1992, it wasn't in my plans to live in the United States for more than 4 years.
On 11 September 2001, I was living 3 kilometers from where the World Trade Center used to be. The lesson on impermanence taught me that life is a privilege, not an entitlement. The first two calls that got through the busy phone circuits that morning really put my ties to Singapore in perspective. In the state of shock and chaos, the earliest call came from the first boy I ever went out with. He was watching the news from his Thomson Road flat and immediately thought of my safety. The second was from The Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations in their effort to account for every Singaporean in this metropolis. I was grateful to receive both calls – ‘my people’ were looking out for me.
Having benefitted from a rigorous Rafflesian education, I always did well in the Maths and Sciences. Growing up, I didn't consider myself a creative person and I never imagined becoming an artist. It wasn't till I was doing my doctorate studies in Geography at Rutgers University that I stumbled upon ceramics by chance.
The clay experience shifted what I thought of myself and what I could do. Because I wasn't used to working with my hands, the learning curve was very steep in the beginning but the joy I derived from the process was clear. When I completed my doctorate degree in 2005, I saw that as the perfect time to pursue my passion. I believe in seizing the opportunity when it presents itself, instead of waiting for ‘one day’ or ‘someday' to do it. I felt that I had spent the first part of my life fulfilling my parents’ expectations; I wanted to live the rest of it fulfilling my own dreams.
'Summer', ceramic vases, approx. 25 cm (H), 2011.
I am often asked if all my years of formal education is "wasted" on this career. My belief is that learning is never wasted. I think that a good education trains one in a specific skill, but a great education helps one grow into a learner and a critical thinker, which can be applied to all areas of life.
As an artist, I maintain a very simple lifestyle. My apartment is 450 square feet on a fifth floor walk-up in an old Chinatown tenement building. My neighbors are Chinese immigrants who have lived in the building for 30 years and still do not speak a word of English. I don’t have a living room or a dining area; instead I have a studio space and a kiln which fires up to 1300 degrees Celsius. Every time I return to Singapore, I'm amazed at the stark contrast in material comfort from my life in New York. I've always said that if my brothers were to see my living space, they'd laugh; but if my mother were to do the same, she'd cry.
'Venus', ceramic vessel in 3 perspectives, 40 cm (W) x 28 cm (D) x 38 cm (H), 2010.
So, what's the appeal of living in the Big Apple? It is the myriad of opportunities to pursue one's passion, the possibilities of making it work, and the ease of finding others with the same interests or commitment. Despite the fact that I have never had any formal art training and that I'm not a U.S. citizen, I’ve received numerous scholarships to different art schools to work alongside prominent American ceramicists. To my relief, as an artist lacking in pedigree and diplomas from world renowned art colleges, paper qualifications are secondary to portfolios. There is a greater willingness in the U.S. than in Singapore to support emerging artists. Art, especially the contemporary work, is collected based on how it appeals to the buyer, not so much on its resale value.
'Winter', ceramic vases, approx. 25 cm (H), 2011.
The vibrance of the arts scene in New York is also unmistakable. From the Museum of Modern Art to the Metropolitan Museum to the smaller private galleries, from the Picasso and Matisse exhibition to a Chuck Close Retrospective to works by emerging Icelandic artists, you’ll never wish for more to do, only for more time to do it all. Being at the center of this art mecca, I was inspired to spearhead a multimedia group exhibition for Singaporean artists in New York City in 2005. Personal accomplishments are sweet, but to help advance Singapore’s standing in the international arts arena as a group is a game worth playing.
Dr Wee Hong Ling at the No Place Like Home solo exhibition, Sculpture Square, Singapore, 2011.
Twenty years is a significant length of time to have lived abroad. In a sense, I am an outsider or ‘legal alien’ in both places because I have lost some familiarity with the Singaporean ways and as yet, have not fully immersed in Americanism. But I have learned to focus on what I love most about Singapore and New York, embrace their similarities and differences and call both cities home. When I said goodbye to family and friends at Changi Airport back in 1992, I'd never have predicted my life to turn out the way it did. I'm relishing the journey.
© This article was written for Raffles Alumni Portal.