Profile: Kim Whye Kee

Published on 1 March 2017

Artist Kim Whye Kee shares how pottery helped to turn him over a new leaf while behind bars.

Artist Kim Whye Kee shares how pottery helped to turn him over a new leaf while behind bars.

By Melanie Lee

When 37-year-old Kim Whye Kee had to attend his father’s funeral in handcuffs and legcuffs in 2007, he came to the realisation that his years of being a secret society headman had to end. At that time, it was his third imprisonment for unlawful activities such as drug abuse and extortion.

“I did not want it to be like this anymore. I quietly told my father at the funeral that I would never shame my family again,” he recalls.

Soon after, back in prison, Kim started taking pottery classes as a way to pass time and discovered a therapeutic outlet through this art form.

“As I created pottery, I would go into this quiet zone where I would only become aware of my hands touching the clay. And it was in this space that I was finally able to reflect upon the wrong I’d done and how I could be a better person.”

Later, one of the vases he made was displayed at a Yellow Ribbon art exhibition and his talent got noticed by established abstract ink and wash painter Chen KeZhan. Chen encouraged Kim to study art formally upon being released in 2008, and even partially sponsored Kim’s fine arts degree at LASALLE from 2009-2013.

Artist Kim Whye Kee shares how pottery helped to turn him over a new leaf while behind bars.

“Back then, I didn’t even know what a portfolio or a sketch was. The day before my LASALLE admissions interview, Chen showed me how to sketch in two hours. After that, I sketched through the night. The next day, the interviewers were impressed with what a thick portfolio I had and let me in,” he says with a laugh.

While studying and after graduation, Kim worked in a woodworking factory and also set up Beacon of Life and Beacon of Life Academy to help ex-convicts and at-risk youths. However, in June last year, he decided to set up a pottery studio at home and become a full-time artist.

“Before that, all my money went back to the youth and I wasn’t saving anything. I decided it was better to help people within my own means,” Kim explains.

For now, his current preoccupation is experimenting with teaware, and already, Kim is getting regular sales and commissions for his work. Being a tea potter is a personal challenge for him given that it is the hardest form of pottery.

“I see how my teaware has become smaller, thinner and more intricate over time and it is an indescribable feeling to see that growth and improvement.”

Kim hopes his journey provides a real-life example of how it is possible to start life anew after prison and gangs. “Don’t be stuck or try to forget your past no matter how bad it was. It can be used as a strength,” he says.

Video: Qi Pottery

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