Features & Interviews
Kim Whye Kee of Qi Pottery: “Each time the pot cracks, my heart bleeds”
Qi Pottery was initiated in 2016 by Kim Whye Kee - but this story stems from over a decade back when he fell in love with pottery behind bars. He openly talks about how his time in prison has shaped that same aforementioned love with pottery, leading him to where he is now. Having since graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts, Kim Whye Kee is also the co-founder of Beacon of Life (BoL) and Beacon of Life Academy (BoLA), an initiative working with ex-convicts and at-risk youths, respectively, in the community.
The Artling speaks to Kim Whye Kee about how he’s grown Qi Pottery to what it is today, how it’s been the catalyst behind his love for tea and teawares, and the art project he’s most attached to:
I started learning pottery during the last three months of my prison sentence in 2007. At that point in time, I joined the pottery club to kill time. After a couple of months, I actually fell in love in pottery. It gave me a sense of calmness and helped to keep my mind clear. I relate pottery to my life experience - if we do nothing to the clay, it is just a pile of mud; but if we put in the effort, it can become a beautiful piece of art.
In 2009, I went to LASALLE College of the Arts to pursue a degree in Fine Arts. I was lucky to have many benefactors supporting my studies. To pay back in kind, I focused on doing community projects from 2008 to 2016. After a long time, I eventually realized that I had spent too much time and money helping others; I forgot about helping my future and myself.
Three years ago, I started Qi Pottery and decided to be a full-time potter who specializes in teawares. I was naive and focused on making bigger (200-250ml) teapots and played with glazes to create "beautiful" colours on "pretty" forms. I must admit that my colorful background and story helped to sell my products but along the way, I also felt that it is more important to be who I am now and not who I was before. It is all about strength and hard work, and not telling fancy stories. After all, I am here to make functional wares. During this three year journey, there have been so many tea drinkers (thankfully!) who have selflessly shown me their prized teaware, shared their personal thoughts and ideas on what can be better and how to improve my wares.
Each time I would learn and accept all the flaws of my teawares and try my best to improve on the new pieces.
Compared to other art forms, there are relatively fewer potters in Singapore, much less someone who focuses on teaware. One might wonder - if there is a big enough community for me to build a niche on? My answer would be to focus on what you really love and do it well, the path will be figured out for you. How do we stay relevant? The key is to not hole yourself up in your own space. Go out meet new people, talk to the experts, look at different work, thrash your bad wares and keep making new things. That's how we can all grow.
Three years ago, I took a 10-lesson pottery-throwing course from Mr. Chua Soon Khim. Three years on, I daresay that my wares have improved quite a fair bit and are a lot more refined from when I first started. When I choose to look at things on the micro level and lament and wallow in missed moments or unsuccessful experiments, which for your information I have a lot of, I lose a lot of precious time which could otherwise have been paid forward to making even better items. I work towards making my wares, lightweight and refined, and in the process must have broken hundreds of teapots, but I truly believe that only through my mistakes can I learn and progress to greater heights. Sounds cliche, I know, but each time the pot cracks, my heart bleeds a little, but I just keep fighting on, even more determined than before.
Business wise, Qi Pottery is growing slowly but steadily. I have a lot to work on - new ideas, more product developments and I also count my blessings knowing that I am gradually expanding our work beyond my own circle of friends. I didn’t ask for grants and subsidies to start my business because I believe that only by working profusely, especially when my future and lifeline depends on it, then will I be able to successfully run my studio with the confidence and knowledge I acquire along the way through setbacks and experimentation.
This is something I have learnt to do with my own bare hands - that very same pair of hands that used to land me in deep trouble is now building my future meaningfully.
Starting your own pottery studio, or any business for that matter, means incurring initial fixed costs like buying a kiln and electric wheel that easily costs more than half a grand. Materials in Singapore like clay, tools, and glazes are astronomical too when you compare with what you can get in the region. When I was in Korea, the Korean potters were surprised at just how much I had to pay for those basic materials, when theirs would cost a fifth of the price.
To keep my pocket from bleeding, I decided the way forward was to keep cost lean by utilizing the home as a studio. This way, I would save on rent and commuting time. I have to make the best of it if I choose to be economical.
The first few months were rocky but I was mentally prepared for months of financial insecurity and I had some savings to tap on, so that eased some burden and stress. I spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas, concepts and tried to figure out the market, until I finally decided the best way through that, really, is to keep making and making and making. Once I started producing more teawares and cups, I was able to generate some interest and it was through all these experimentations that I was able to identify what the market liked, and what they didn’t.
I started to drink tea after I decided to focus on making tea wares and since then, I began to love tea. It is a far cry from my lifestyle of alcohol and drugs, but this would be the future where I will be heading and focusing on - tea wares and tea.
If you love what you do, and even if it is tiring, it will be meaningfully tiring and lovingly tiring.
Sg clay, also known as Hwi Yoh clay, is the combination of clay dug out from Tampines quarry, Ulu Pandan and Jalan Hwi Yoh area during the 1960s - 1980s. The remaining few hundred kilograms of clay was crushed from actual large pots and vases that were about to be fired.
The remaining Sg clay was safely kept and stored and very few know of its secret existence since 1996 when Sam Mui Kuang Pottery was asked to evict from Jalan Hwi Yoh in a short notice. We managed to snag a few packets of this treasure to make some exclusive teawares with this.
Family dinner, 2015
Family dinner, 2015.
Back when I was still in prison, there were many times when I was reminded of the very few meals I ever had with my family. I had many friends around me, but the warmth of a family was missing. During my last imprisonment, I had this longing – I longed to have a meal with my family every day, even if it was as simple as having instant noodles together. I looked forward to that day. But then my father passed away in 2007, less than six months before I was released.
Family Dinner is an artist-in-post-residence cry-out to his fellow friends in prison to keep home close to their hearts; harness the family as their strength when they re-embark on their journey back home.
The installation comprises a dining table with four bowls as a representation of an inmate’s longing for an intimate family dinner whilst a lone chair has been placed at the table as a reminder of the reality that the inmate sits isolated from his/her family. Three of the bowls are halved with texts inscribed on the concave side and are installed such that the writings are reflected and readable on the surface of the highly glossed black table.
There are plans for an exhibition on tea wares for brewing Gyokuro, Japanese green tea, at Hvala teahouse at Chjimes in mid-2019.
What's next? Besides the local market, we hope we can keep on producing better teaware for the international tea scene. Since last year, there have been tea drinkers from countries like United States, Spain, Germany and Russia who have bought and like our wares. Hopefully, we will be able to carve a name for ourselves internationally.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
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