More than three years ago – amid demanding day jobs – Huiwen and Kenneth picked up pottery to spend quality time together. Working with their hands and casting objects out of dust, the lessons triggered a reconsideration of their place on Earth. They asked themselves if they could be the change in their lives. Having worked for a decade in real estate investment, Huiwen went on a sabbatical to Tajimi, Japan to deepen her practice in ceramics. She returned to Singapore and founded Studio Asobi with Kenneth, who was still working as an architect – he has now joined her full time.
Although established for merely over a year, Studio Asobi has acquired a steady variety of work. Customisations and workshops aside, they were commissioned to create the decorative vases and selected dishes of Australian chef Sam Aisbett’s local restaurant, Whitegrass. The studio also created their first installation, I Feel The Clouds Singing, exhibited at the recent SingaPlural. The instrumental installation responds to palm movements harmonised by 4,500 handmade organic clay forms, an expression of the duo’s trekking experiences in Taiwan.
Pottery is a medium to express their musings in life, be it a memory of nature or an emotional sentiment. This is often expressed by a short poetry, which accompanies each piece of work. Besides continuing to take lessons to better their craft, which they perceive to be a lifelong journey, the duo turns to nature for artistic inspiration. For Huiwen and Kenneth, Studio Asobi is more than just a career switch, but a conscious decision to live each day with meaning.
What is it like to reset?
Kenneth (K): It is exciting. When you have done something over and over again, you create boundaries and everything becomes very efficient and controlled. We don't really know our boundaries yet !
Huiwen (HW): There is a learning curve in every project that we take on because we are so inexperienced. The advantage is that you have an open mind.
What are you working on at the moment?
K: We are now working with Whitegrass, who has asked for more pieces. Sam [the chef owner] gives us a lot of creative freedom. I don't see this as a commission, it is almost like our own project.
Is Whitegrass your first F&B client?
HW: Yes. Actually, everything is a first.
K: Whitegrass was very providential. Sam is very established in Australia. When he came to Singapore, he emailed us and asked to meet for a chat. At that time, I still had a bond with my previous company.
HW: He wanted us to work on the whole restaurant but we were not set up to do that. We were working on other projects, which were quite time consuming so we told him to go to Bali. In the end, he got a number of functional items from Bali, while we did the decorative pieces, as well as the small, organic dishes.
K: These things are blessings to us because we are not pottery masters. You can’t fight your way into art. You need to rely on your own skills, as well as the good people around you. There are a lot of craftsmen in Bali who are very talented but do not have the right partners, and hence remain in anonymity. We tell people about Sam because he has given us something great.
HW: We really enjoy getting inspired by other people who are as serious about their craft. When we tasted his food and understood his processes, we were very inspired by the amount of dedication he puts into becoming better at what he does.
HW: We want to be very conscious about what we do and why we do it. We are quite against consumerism and materialistic trends. Making something out of clay, which is essentially worthless dust, and transforming it into something of value gives us a sense of responsibility. Ceramics can last for a long time.
What do you try to consciously impart in your pieces?
K: There is an interesting tension. How do you be a maker, but be against consumerism at the same time? How do we use the beauty of the medium to touch people, starting from ourselves?
HW: At the core of it, the transient nature of life and our responsibilities as humans on Earth inform what we do, indirectly. When I was in Japan learning from a pottery studio, it was winter going on spring. I would ride out to the mountains to see the sunset every day. I really enjoyed being immersed in the wondrous world of nature. As part of our human experience, we ought to really soak these in. How many sunrises and sunsets can you see in a lifetime? Each day that you don't witness it is one less opportunity. When I came back, I really missed it, so I created Snowy Mountains to depict the sceneries I saw.
Art is interesting because it is often a window to a different reality, whether in film, painting or pottery. We are all immersed in our physical reality and we never transcend it. Art takes you to a different world, even if it is for that temporary moment. We try to do that with our pieces. This feeling is interesting to explore with a three-dimensional medium that people can interact with. There is an intimate connection between the user and the art form. We are not into designing something that can sell 10,000 pieces. We want to do it in a more conscious manner.
Huiwen glazed this piece shortly after the Paris attack as an emblem of hope, expressing that light will always prevail over darkness.
Tell us about your workshops.
K: While [workshops] give us steady income, it is also a platform to share our joy. Usually when the guys come to our workshops, they don't have a choice. The girlfriends bring them here. The guys start off by being very quiet, but in the three hours, they can go from being very skeptical to really enjoying the process. I will then imagine that perhaps they will be thankful to their partners for bringing them here. These things can do wonders for relationships. I love it when people don't want to go home. We hope to touch people, but my expectations are very low. If I can connect with just one person, I would be very happy. These things keep us going.
HW: Pottery is very relaxing, but it is also a very focused task. When people come, they spend three hours here without touching their phones, because their hands get dirty. In our hectic lifestyles, we are constantly bombarded with information, you rarely have time to not speak and reflect, or calm your mind down.
K: There is also a co-creation aspect. The participants make their pieces and choose the glazes. Due to logistical reasons, we will glaze the pieces for them. When you open the kiln, there is a feeling of 'is it going to turn out well?' When it is our own pieces, we are not so afraid because we can always do it again!
How do you manage the part you cannot control?
HW: I think that is the exciting part. Unlike a lot of other mediums that are very direct, there is an aspect of pottery that you can never fully control. It is very exciting to let go of the final outcome and be surprised by it. Some specialised pieces can take the firing of 100 pieces just to perfect the elements. It is quite good for character training. You learn how to deal with failure.
K: Failure is a given. You put 100 things in the kiln, and you are prepared to donate 90 pieces. Perhaps it is not so much about ‘dealing’, which has a negative connotation. This medium teaches us to expect things to fail, and be okay with it. The failure will ensure the success. Maybe not now, but at some point.
How do you become better potters?
HW: There are two aspects to this question. One aspect is to better your basic skills and technical know-how. When I was in Japan, my teacher would ask me to practise wedging 15 balls every day. The next thing I had to do, was to keep throwing cylinders and then cutting them up to see the outcome. The other big aspect is, how do you become better conceptually? It is a mixture of both. We keep an open mind to do different types of projects, be it a simple gift, restaurant, installation or a community project. The diversity helps us to see what we can do with clay.
K: I can aspire to be as technically proficient as my teacher is, but I can never be the artist he is. I can copy him but it will never be the same, and vice versa. That is something valuable about being an artist. Nobody can be better than you at being yourself. We always ask ourselves, why do people ask us to make things? We don't really know the answer but we see it as a chance to do something and try to make the best out of each piece that we do.
What enriches you artistically?
HW: One form of art that we do is writing. When we write about a piece, we don't think about encouraging people to buy it, we try to communicate our musings on life, the making process and other random things that affect us as artists. Writing is important to help us communicate and share our thoughts.
K: The act of writing keeps me conscious. It trains us to have something in our minds when we are making.
Do you listen to music when creating your pieces?
K: We listen to two sets of music. One big set consists of worship songs, which puts us in a meditative mood. The other set is by Joe Hisaishi. We play his music during every single workshop and we never get tired of his music. I think the spirit they [Studio Ghibli] embody is the spirit we want to embody. You live in this world, but you have the fantasy of something beautiful. I think Hisaishi fantasises about love, joy, not losing your innocence and curiosity. Every time we listen to the playlist, I know which movie it is and I can imagine the scene.
HW: Music is quite a big part for us. He plays the guitar, piano and we both like to sing too!
Tell us about a typical day.
K: We don't have one yet, since I quit my job recently, but our ideal day is to wake up early, do something that makes us happy, like cycling or having breakfast, and start working at nine. Our space is west facing, so it gets quite hot in the afternoon, although we have a parasol. We try to make in the morning till early afternoon, for as long as possible. When it gets too hot, we will do something else, such as administrative work. At night, we will do trimming or glazing, as well as reflect and plan out what we want to make tomorrow. If we don't plan ahead, we will spend the whole morning just sitting there. It feels bad to waste the day.
HW: We also do a bit of gardening and cooking, in a way we are living an old person's lifestyle! In what we do, we are also trying to raise the question, is there a different way to live your life here?
Photos by @boywhowanders