I met Karena Lam in the pottery studio. As we spoke, she began the rehearsed process of throwing. She said she loved the repetitiveness, her face radiating with joy.
Karena’s hobby grew from sending her daughters to pottery classes. Whilst waiting for classes to finish, she would sit and work with clay. Now, she spends three to four days a week hanging around the studio, accumulating more than a year’s experience – from an initial obsession with perfection to total surrender to the clay.
“The more you try to control the clay, the less it resembles your vision,” Karena said of the compromise and commitment essential to the creative process. “I have never spent more than two weeks away from working with clay. You have to build trust, relationship and understanding with the material that you’re working with – to embrace its various textures.”
“My early days in pottery were marked by many failures. I was obsessed with the task to get it right. Often, I would project my own considerations rather than try to understand the materiality of the clay. I tend to avert failures; pottery draws me back to confront my fears – over and over again.”
Perhaps, what Karena has fallen in love with about pottery is the restlessness as such: the hunger to continue, to move forward, occasionally throwing the clay back to square one.
From mixing the glaze to moulding the clay and throwing, pottery is a highly personal, intimate process. Karena is fascinated by the outcome after the ceramics have gone through firing. From her, it demands acceptance: “So many of my final products have turned out broken in some way, but they’ve also made me realise: it is what it is. It’s the same with wrinkles when one smiles, or scars, or cellulite: they all came from a place of beauty – of acceptance.”
Like walking on a balance beam and teetering on the edge of control: you think you’ve found the sweet spot of balance, only to realise it’s only your imagination.
“Yesterday, I opened a pack of Shigaraki clay, labelled as ‘fine stone’ (細目). I bought it earlier specifically to make tall bowls and cups. Whilst throwing the clay, something didn’t feel right. I realised the clay was less fine than I had wanted, but I didn’t care. Finishing the bowl, the fettling knife kept bouncing back and cutting my hands.” The more Karena fought and resisted, the more miserable she became. “It’s as though the clay was saying to me, ‘I am coarse stone, why would you try to make me anything else?’ In the disparity between expectation and outcome, pottery demands one’s acceptance of its honesty.
“I think pottery has really made me a better listener.”
“I feel like navigating life is just like navigating pottery.”
“Like you just can’t throw the clay the same way twice. You can prepare and mix the glaze according to a standard measurement, but the result is always something else, the moments and flashes of transmutations in between never to be repeated. The same goes for life.” Perhaps, then, we should go with the flow, with the pulse of the ‘act of making’ that connects the maker of pottery and its user. Herein lies the tactile memory of rhythmic gesturing and meditative catharsis.
For Karena, pottery is also a lesson in letting go. “I’m still learning how not to hold onto my creation. The more difficult it is, the more I need to let go.” Everything she makes, she sends out with the hope that it will sow the seeds of something nice for others.
“Clay symbolises hope. It nurtures and regenerates, but it also understands the law of nature: everything has its seasons. Because clay understands this, it is hopeful and accepting. Its patience brings a message of rebirth.”