Alden Boon

Ceramication Founder Rayn Leow Talks the Art and Science of Pottery Making, Coming Out and Privilege


Nestled in the industrial fringe that is Sungei Kadut is an austere workshop, and here a ceramicist is hard at work. Flanking him are wheelable steel racks, the shelves filled with a hodgepodge of pottery pieces both petite and bulky, mould parts and containers of minerals. He does not work on a whim; instead, his approach is highly methodical. First, he softens the liquid clay by mixing it in a polyethylene drum, and then he scoops it up using a jug and pours it into a composite mould. He sets the timer for one hour. He sidles up to his desk, where containers labelled with chemical symbols are arrayed on an abutting steel rack. He ensconces a few containers in his arms. With the meticulousness of a baker, he then weighs the materials on a scale before mixing them using a hand-held blender. Next, he reaches for a test piece and immerses it into the prepared glaze. Once the glaze has set, he places the ware in his trusty kiln. Now he prays to the kiln god. The quietude is ever rent by the noise of drilling emanating from next door and the periodic sound of the train careening along the track yonder. Morsels of hardened residual clay lie on the floor; his shirt and apron too are carelessly daubed with white. This is Rayn Leow in his element.

Other artists would be wont to call their workshops or workspaces their playgrounds, but you are loath to do so. Why is that?

The working conditions are not very ideal. Plaster and silica dust flies all around here, so I have to don my respirator when I work, and each workday is up to sixteen hours long. When I am in production mode, I work seven days a week. When the weather gets hot, my eczema will flare up. There is also the physical labour — imagine having to move forty sacks of twenty-five kilograms of materials.

An artist’s ineluctable sacrifices. Now, tell us more about your design philosophy.

I believe in function before form. I was having dinner with my family one evening, observing that my nephew was dropping food all over the table, when the thought came to me: ‘Why aren’t plates hexagonal with no gaps in between?’ It was at once obvious and yet novel. I wasn’t sure if hexagonal tableware would sell but as I gave it more thought, it evolved from a matter of function to a symbol that parallels the story of my life. A very Singaporean one in fact: my upbringing was steeped in Asian traditions, but I was also exposed and am receptive to liberalism. As a non-conforming person, I fit into our Confucian-style social structure, yet at the same time take refuge in modern passions, preferences and perspectives.

That birthed Ceramication’s signature shape of hexagon. It is a recurring geometry found in atoms, crystals and honeycombs, and it provides stability to the structures. When fitted together, hexagons form a perfect network, symbolising unity in diversity and representing the coming together of unique individuals to create partnerships, families and communities. I wonder: could liberation come at no expense to inclusivity?

If hexagon symbolises structure, then as a self-proclaimed non-conforming person, would you be exploring its antithesis?

The opposite of a hexagonal structure would be formless things like time, water and gravity. Such an exploration bucks the idea of establishment. But because my company is still new, established on 9 August 2020 — a date all Singaporeans are familiar with: National Day — I am still very much in the statement-making phase. So, for now, every collection will feature a hexagon-shaped piece. It is the brand’s signature. That said, this year, I am trying to obtain a government grant to create artistic, interdisciplinary work that combines porcelain, sound, light and water. Wish me luck!

Rayn Leow Ceramication Singapore Entrepreneurship Coming Out Gay Singapore Pottery Porcelain
The hexagon shape is Ceramication's design statement. (Photo source: Crate and Barrel)

What sparked your fascination with porcelain?

I belong to one of the last generations of Singaporeans who still remember the vestige of rural life, of living in rustic houses with zinc roofs. When I was young, my siblings and my relatives would play in the wilderness. One of the earliest playthings I had was mud, which I used to make mud-men. It’s a long-gone way of living. I was a natural at origami and I’ve always loved sculptures and architectures. Pottery became a natural go-to as it was at a scale that an individual could achieve. It is a culmination of skill, sculpting and sensuality (that sense of touch).

But I didn’t immerse myself in the arts, not at first. I was conditioned by my family members and the government to think that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to pursue science. I went to Australia to study biomedical science, a field of study that seeks to understand how the body works and how that knowledge can be applied to medicine. Some topics included gene therapy and gene editing. I majored in evolutionary biology and wrote a thesis on the evolution of Anopheles mosquitoes in Papua New Guinea. I took a special interest in immunology, such as how HIV affects the body, as it is a matter that afflicts the gay community disproportionately. Were I to be born one or two decades earlier, and had I contracted HIV, with the scarce resources and slow medical advancements back then, a diagnosis would have been a death sentence. Following my degree programme, I worked for two years as a researcher. The humdrum routine of laboratory work, of working with a microscope, got to me.

When I returned to Singapore, I was at a loss to know what to do next. So, I enlisted into the army as a combat engineer officer and gave myself three years to think about my next move. The army taught me the value of freedom.

That is a rather curious paradox. How exactly does rigid regimentation teach you about freedom?

Because of the lack of it. Freedom of thought, freedom to take action — in the army, there are many red tapes that bind you. You know you are taken care of: your career progression is mapped out; it gives you a stable stream of very good money. But the price I paid to ensure I had a future was defying my authentic inner self. I learnt the importance of freedom, knowing who I was, and of having a sense of agency in life.

I was already dabbling in pottery during the first year of my service and by the third I had converted a spare room in my parents’ home into a studio. I bought a second-hand wheel and a kiln that was older than I with my own savings and started my own practice. Working with clay brought me back to the carefree days of playing with mud. It was second nature for me. Yet leaving a respected job to follow my passion was not so easy a decision to make — I might starve.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.