Profile: Wee Hong Ling

Published on 29 February 2016

From space science to ceramics, Dr Wee Hong Ling’s journey involved a wee bit of luck and a whole lot of guts.

BY pamela ho

“As a gift, an American friend signed me up for a class in a small pottery studio in downtown New York in 2000. I went into it kicking and screaming because I’d already told myself I’m not artistic,” recounts New York-based Singaporean ceramicist Dr Wee Hong Ling. “But the moment I laid hands on a lump of clay, I felt as though I’d walked out of a black-and-white world into a world of colour.”

Falling in love with clay was completely unplanned for and highly inconvenient. The self-confessed over-achiever was on her way to getting her PhD (Geography) from Rutgers University, New Jersey, and was then a research fellow with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), exploring how space technology could be applied to civilian uses.

When the NASA scientist found herself spending more time at the ceramics studio than the lab, she knew she was in trouble. Then 9/11 happened. Wee was just 3km from the World Trade Center. “I realised life is not an entitlement; ‘someday’ or ‘one day’ doesn’t appear on a calendar. If you love something, there is only now,” she says. “So I chose to dive in headfirst, like my life depended on it.”

She has not looked back since, flying the Singapore flag in competitions and exhibitions around the world, including the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Korea and China. In 2012, Wee was invited to exhibit at the Pop-Up Singapore House during the London Olympics. A year later, she received the Outstanding Achievements and Contribution to Community Empowerment award from The Society of Foreign Consuls in New York City, and was a finalist for Singapore’s President’s Design Award.

Her works are in public collections in Japan, China and Singapore. ‘Lineage 34’, inspired by soy sauce bottles, was acquired by the National Gallery Singapore; ‘Four Seasons’ (colourful vases) by Raffles Hospital; while ‘Moxie’ and ‘Black Swan’ grace the Singapore Mission in New York City.

“Having lived away from Singapore for 23 years, my work is about my longing for home,” she shares. “It looks at very ordinary objects and gives it extraordinary importance.”

Her strong ties with Singapore also saw her initiating the first group exhibition featuring Singapore art and design in New York in 2005. Last year, in celebration of SG50, she organised Something to Write Home About: Singapore Arts Festival in New York, an 11-day showcase that brought together 50 Singaporean creatives and attracted over 1,500 visitors.

On hindsight, Wee reflects, “You know how we’re unwilling to try something because we don’t see what the benefit is? Maybe because we’ve said no to so many things, we’ve missed out on so many opportunities. So now, I say, just try it.”

For more on Wee Hong Ling’s works, visit www.ceramicus.com.

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