A conversation with Huiwen & Kenneth, ceramic artists

28 April 2017 - interviews

“Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.” – Haruki Murakami

Many ceramicists are keenly aware of and take comfort in the parallels between life and the craft of pottery. For one, the bittersweet unpredictability that comes with the craft mirrors this fact of life that we know so well: We can’t control a lot of it and we often don’t end up where we think we will.

For Huiwen, one-half of the Singaporean husband-wife team that makes up Studio Asobi, being a full-time ceramicist wasn’t what she set out to do. At 12, she wanted to become an architect, and at 18, a poet. She eventually began a career in real estate investment that lasted 10 years. But what began as a desire to question the meaning of a life well lived eventually led to her putting aside her comfortable corporate career and surrendering to the uncertainty that comes with pursuing passion and purpose.

In 2014, she spent a month in the old pottery town of Tajimi in Japan and fell deeply in love with the art form. Together with her artist husband Kenneth, she now runs Studio Asobi full-time. Asobi (遊び) means ‘play’ in Japanese and its Kanji word ‘遊’ means ‘journey’ in Mandarin, alluding to how the couple sees life as a journey of exploration. We speak to both of them about the beauty and challenges of a career switch, as well as the life lessons that pottery has taught them.

The Mindful Company (TMC): At what point in your life did you discover pottery? What called you to it?

Kenneth (K): I first held clay and fell in love with it in secondary school as part of my ‘O' Level art course.

Huiwen (H): I previously had no contact with clay. Shortly after we got married, we bonded over pottery as a hobby as it provided a welcome escape from the dreariness of our busy work schedule.

Slowly we discovered the spiritual aspects of pottery—being saturated with the water of life; being centred; surrendering to the will of the Potter; and being transformed from worthless mud to a beautiful masterpiece. These are powerful metaphors for the human existence and have captivated us ever since we started.

TMC: Could you describe the moments leading up to your decision to make a career switch?

H: My newfound Christian faith gave me the first impetus to reevaluate what life is all about. Being the practical Singaporean, I would not have otherwise considered quitting a stable and growing career to enter unchartered waters. I knew the road ahead would be tough. A severe pay cut was to be anticipated. It really challenged my values, sense of identity and self-worth.

But love and joy won out over fear. Kenneth joined [Studio Asobi] full-time after his scholarship bond ended. We have no regrets, as there is so much joy in pursuing the same goals together and being able to enjoy the flexibility of time.

TMC: What’s the best advice you received when you first started Studio Asobi?

K: The best advice came from Huiwen's former boss, who cautioned us that married couples should avoid working together. We disagreed of course, but it alerted us to the risks and made us more determined to build a strong foundation for our marriage [that would be able to weather] the uncertainties of life.

TMC: What traits do you value the most in others?

H: Kindness. The world has a shortage of compassionate people who seek to build a better world for others.

K: Joy. A fundamental joy and gratitude for life is the fountain from which all other virtues can truly flow.

TMC: What’s a quote that gives you strength or peace?

H & K: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

TMC: What’s your favourite film?

K: At the moment, Logan, for its bittersweet, spiritual take on the meaning of life, love and loss in the guise of a superhero film.

H: Studio Ghibli films!

TMC: What would you tell your 20-year-old self that you wish you knew then?

H: There is a way of truth and life, and that it can be discovered.

TMC: How do you overcome moments of self-doubt or adversity?

H: The creative road is not an easy one to walk. Ideas and inspiration are not always forthcoming. When that happens, the question we ask is not whether we have faith in ourselves, but whether we trust in God. The winds and storms can come in life, but if we build our lives on a rock with a strong foundation, we will always be anchored and safe.

TMC: What’s a fear that keeps you up at night?

H: The fear of losing each other can get pretty intense at times but it seldom keeps us up at night.

TMC: What does success mean to you?

K: I don't think anyone in this world has been able to say with complete confidence [that they] have succeeded. [So] what point is there to aspire towards a destination that has no objective definition amongst mankind? To me, a consistent growth in the right direction is of much greater importance than any definition of success.

H: Godliness with contentment is a great gain. To be able to have inner peace and joy in spite of changing external circumstances—I believe that is a precious gift to understanding life.

TMC: Do you have any advice for people who wish to embark on a similar path?

H: Don't be afraid to start exploring, even if it is just a hobby, so that you will start to be sensitive to what makes your soul sing. If you can, save up a bit of money and take a break from your regular job to give yourself the time, space and peace of mind to really consider what you want to do and how you want to do it. Starting with the right mindset is more important than starting fast or starting with all the material resources in the world.

TMC: What are 3 things you do to lead a meaningful life?

K & H: 1) We serve alongside our church community. 2) We make use of our flexibility of time to keep ourselves engaged in the lives of our families, friends and younger folks that we mentor. 3) We enjoy our creation process and immerse ourselves in the beauty of nature all around us.

Enjoy reading interviews? Read our previous conversations with Yip Pin Xiu, Theresa Goh and Dipna Lim Prasad, Singapore Paralympic and Olympic athletes and Yiannis Mukta Om, yoga master