How it all began: an interview with NASA-Scientist-turned-ceramicist Dr Wee Hong Ling

(Image courtesy of Dr Wee Hong Ling)

Dr. Wee Hong Ling is a ceramicist that has had numerous exhibitions and featured works under her belt. The award-winning ceramicist’s pieces can be found in permanent exhibitions in the National Gallery (Singapore), the Ministries of Law and Foreign Affairs (Singapore), the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), the Fule International Ceramic Art Museum (China) and the Guangxi National Art Center (China).

1) Share with us the activities you took part while you were studying in NUS.

Before entering NUS, I was a science student all my life.

Upon entering NUS, I decided to try something different and went into the faculty of arts and social sciences (FASS). I majored in Sociology and Geography and did my honours degree in Geography.

I was really hoping to do well enough to get an offer to do honours in Sociology but was offered Geography instead. As I did not know what to do after that, I took the path of least resistance and went on to complete an honours degree in geography, with my thesis specialising in satellite remote sensing and geographic information systems.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in FASS. My hall life in Raffles Hall added on to the amazing campus experience. I stayed in Raffles Hall for four years and had always encouraged students to experience a dormitory life because it is where they will cultivate independence.

I was quite active and participated in the production team for hall musicals, choir, sports and was in the keyboardist in the RH Band for a year. It was tremendously fun!

One of my all-time favourite NUS professors is Dr Chua Beng Huat from Sociology. His lessons were always interesting and broadened my mind. He was one of the first few who came and supported my first solo exhibition as a ceramicist back in 2011 and he bought the first piece of my art at that show! A great teacher can grow a student’s interest in anything and Prof Chua was that! It was a good time acquiring new knowledge at NUS and more so when the Profs were inspiring.

In my final year at NUS, I appreciated the experience of having only roughly 15 students in the Honours class as that gave us the chance to know our classmates more and our Profs could also get to know us better. It was a spirit of camaraderie I did not have in the first three years outside of Raffles Hall life.

2) Share with us about your post-graduation education in the US.

My boyfriend at that time had started his doctoral studies in Physics in the United States so I thought it was a good time for me to head to US to further my studies as well. I applied to graduate school and I met Prof Scott Madry at Rutgers University who just got funding for his research project for NASA on finding civilian uses for publicly funded data collected by satellite imaging. Because I was at the right place, at the right time with the right skills sets, Prof Madry offered me a research fellowship right away. That was how I came to work for NASA. That fellowship fully funded my three-year Masters Degree at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

During my doctoral journey, a good friend gave me the gift of a beginner pottery class as he felt that I should take a break from my intensive research. I was reluctant at first as I’ve already decided that I did not have any artistic or creative vein. But, I fell in love upon the first instance of touching the clay. They say that there are no coincidences. My dissertation research came to a screeching halt and all I basically wanted to do was to spend more time at the studio learning as much as I could about ceramics. I took three to four years off my PhD program to develop a whole new set of skills and knowledge.

Since I was always a science student, Art was something very subjective and nebulous to me. The learning curve was steep but I found the process enriching. It is a self-discovery journey and in doing ceramics, I started to look at life in a different way. I started to figure out who I am and what I want.

Art making is exploration and experimentation which involves risk and unpredictability. With failures, I learned to accept my own limits and imperfections. I also learned that in working with clay and in life, timing is everything. When an opportunity presents itself, you somehow have to grab it by the horns sometimes, regardless if you were ready for it at that point in time. The great thing about an avocation is that I do it by choice and therefore, I am fully accountable to myself.

3) What is your greatest takeaway from your experiences?

The biggest takeaway is that there are many paths to the same destination.

There is no such things as a wasted education. Learn as much as you can and enjoy every bit of learning you can do. There is so much to life and most of it happens outside of classrooms and textbooks. There is no such thing as taking the wrong class or choosing the wrong path; all those things I’ve learnt comes in handy every single day and I really appreciate all the classes that I took, whether it be Geography or Chemistry, and the skills developed, whether it be empirical research methods or writing skills.

My formal education has equipped me with knowledge and skills in choosing the things I want to do. The path that I took to becoming the artist that I am today is a long circuitous one, but I loved every bit of it. I am thankful for the education I’ve received and I’m grateful to the teachers I’ve had. If you’re open to growth, a teacher comes in many forms.

4) What are your hobbies?

I love watching movies – not mindless blockbusters or senseless entertainment, but rather, the ones that are thought-provoking, those that make me think and question. To me, the things that are unspoken are very important too. It is like poetry – you read between the lines and there is no need to say too much.

I also love travelling and exploring. I like to visit places off the beaten path which has a lot of history. I let my interests determine the itinerary, so there is not too much planning in advance. I am easy with food and accommodations as well. My friends consider these experiences to be “hardship travels.”

When I travel, I do a lot of photography, street photography to be exact. I want to be as non-intrusive as possible, and capture images that show the place and the people who live in it. I don’t want my subjects to know that I am taking a picture of them as I prefer to capture the candid moments!

I enjoy writing as well. Writing for me is another channel for introspection – you need to be quiet and reflective to write. Over the last two years, I have been writing for a Chinese monthly publication in Singapore, the PIN Prestige magazine. The magazine determines the topic for each issue and I’d only write about the topics that interest me. On average, I write roughly 1,800 words per essay every other month, presenting my perspective on the things I care about.

5) Growing up, did you have a role model you looked up to?

My parents were my role models. They were Chinese-educated and I was raised very much with that traditional mindset of filial piety, strong emphasis on values, work ethics, thriftiness, respect for your elders, etc.

My father was an intellectual who read all the Chinese Classics. He cared deeply about community, politics and world affairs. He would be very affected by global disasters and would donate money to help the victims. He taught me that there are so many ways you can be of help despite the physical distance.

Among my teachers and mentors, Dr Scott Madryis a role model for me. He is an academic who has such charisma. He was the favourite professor among students because he has a great sense of humour and he could make any topic interesting.

A few artists I look up to are Robert Ebendorf, Ron Meyers and Mark Shapiro. In addition to being amazing artists, these role models are people of great character who care about mentoring young people. They generously give their time, share their experiences and create opportunities for many people who are on the creative journey. I have great admiration for their egalitarian ideology – they also treat others well regardless of whether you’re a beginner in the craft or a world-renowned expert.

6) Share with us the transition from being a NASA Scientist to a ceramicist?

In the beginning, I treated it as a hobby. Even though all I wanted was to spend more time at the clay studio to learn this new medium, I had to give myself time to experiment and explore and make plenty of mistakes. Treating it as a hobby felt safe because no one will criticise you if you did badly.

But 9/11 happened 3 kilometres from my apartment, and I needed to re-examine my life and the things that are important to me. To switch careers and to start again from the ground up was a total leap of faith, but I felt extremely fortunate to have found my avocation. Not knowing what the future might bring, I just did not want to play it safe anymore. It was that life-changing event that made me take the plunge to do what I love most. Nothing excites me more than the opportunity to create and I could not be more satisfied with the choice I’ve made.  In many ways, I am an accidental artist.

7) What is one quote you live by?

“It’s better to aim high and miss the mark, than aim low and hit your target.” – Michelangelo.

8) Where do you see yourself five to ten years down the road?

I no longer make that kind of a plan. Life is really unpredictable and my life has taken so many expected turns.

I only plan to do the best work I can. No matter what you do, do it to your best capacity as you never know where that will take you next. While you are at it, learn as much as possible.

When I left Singapore in 1992, my plan was to be away for only four years. I would never have foreseen myself becoming a full-time professional ceramic artist and living in New York for 26 years.

I have learned to enjoy the ride with all its ups and downs, and cherish the experiences along the way.  I believe that I can do many things well – it is just a matter of where I choose to spend my time and energy. By aiming high, hopefully, you build some confidence for taking on bigger things. For instance, I never thought that I could be an arts festival director but I challenged myself to do it for SG50. We must not forget that it is human to fail and that we are not defined by our failures. Just keep aiming high.

9) What is one thing you would tell you future self and your past self?

I would tell my past self to be less result-oriented and enjoy the journey more. I would tell my future self that I have often forgotten to be kind to myself. I think I push myself really hard, and that is the overachiever in me. I like to make sure that I have given everything a hundred percent. But something has to give sometimes… It is not possible to do everything and be perfect in every area of your life. When I set my mind to create a piece of work, I sometimes push myself to the point of injury and I compromise my health. I would tell my future self that I should have been kinder.

10) What advice do you have for young undergrads who are still looking for their meaning, purpose and calling in life?

Be open and explore! Go and try different things! Because if you’re not open to trying new things, if you’re afraid or judgmental, you may be shutting yourself out of a precious opportunity.

And if you don’t try, you may never know if you like it. Take for example the hobby class that I attended: if I did not walk into that studio, I would never be the ceramic artist that I am today. And for that reason, I encourage everyone to go out and try new experiences! You never know what you might fall in love with, or what you might be good at.


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