Her father a physics teacher, her uncle a quantum physicist, Belle Lam thought she would too, inherit the white-lab-coat-wearing occupation. But after years of studying Applied Chemistry, life in the lab did not seem to form a life-long bond with her. What was once a hobby she picked up in her teenage years, Belle decided to pursue a career as a potter. She teaches at Goodman Ceramic Studio and also produces commissioned pieces under her namesake brand, Potto Belle.
“‘Potto’ means pots in Japanese, and Belle is just my English name, it’s just something simple!” she explains.
Today, she sits comfortably amongst the work of her nimble fingers – shelves stocked with glazed pottery in all its glorious shapes, sizes and shades. Fresh-faced, in a mud-spattered apron that bears testimony to the time dedicated to honing her craft, Belle (although most would know her as Manhang) tells us about the beauty she finds in pottery and how it allows her to marry two of her greatest loves: science and pottery.
Tell us how you got into pottery!
I got into pottery by chance actually, one day my dad was driving down the road and a really huge pot that was taller than me caught my interest. So I asked my dad if we could go in and have a look, we drove in and wandered into this garden near the Penang Botanical Gardens and there was this Sensei – a Japanese guy (who would eventually become her teacher) wedging his clay. I asked if he could teach me pottery and the rest is history.
That image of him wedging is still vividly planted in my head to this day.
You have a diploma in Applied Chemistry and Material Science, when did you realise you wanted to pursue a career as a Potter full-time?
I have always been interested in research, maybe because of my family’s background, so I thought I’d go down the same path and study science. I really enjoyed the subject and although I loved all the experiments and writing reports, overtime, I just realised it wasn’t for me when I went into the workforce (she interned at an American company working on reinforced thermoplastic).
Life in the lab was not what I wanted, pottery to me was more exciting because it combined both science and art, that for me was real magic.
Interesting! How do you think pottery is similar to science?
Different types of clay have different personalities: some will work better with more water, some are friendlier to beginners because it can work longer on the wheel or hold at a certain angle – Physics will come in handy here.
Then, we get to the glazing: knowledge in Chemistry is useful when in the kiln. For example, you need to get the right temperature as you experiment with different types of minerals.
Do you need to go to art school to become a potter?
The short answer would be no. But, in art school, you’re exposed to the lecturers, the connections. It’s a one-stop place for learning and networking. But then again, art is something that you can learn on your own, the internet is out there!
Even after you graduate, you have to continue learning. I think that’s what everyone has to keep in mind. Having a degree does not guarantee you will “make it”.
Would you go to art school?
I actually did think about it. But I would need to consider the time invested, and what I want to get out of it. If I want to become a lecturer in future, then yes, a degree would be necessary. Apart from that, I don’t think you need a degree. With the internet now, the knowledge is out there, and the potters are very willing to share their knowledge. It’s up to you to be disciplined enough to take in all this knowledge.
On Being A Potter
What is it about Pottery that you love?
I love how it forces you to slow down, and how you can create something out of nothing.
Everything around us is so fast-paced right now, but when you’re doing pottery, you really have to slow down and focus on the wheel, it’s really easy to mess up![While it may be challenging initially], you create something beautiful and functional out of an ordinary lump of clay at the end of the day. It’s very magical.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I teach a lot of classes. There are fixed days where I teach classes and I also conduct ad-hoc corporate workshops at [Goodman Ceramic Studio]. When I’m not teaching, I’ll work on my own personal commissioned work.
On Challenges, Sacrifices & Lessons Learnt
What were to some challenges you faced in starting your own brand?
Starting Potto Belle wasn’t really a big challenge on its own. I think there are more challenges starting out as a Potter in general. It’s a very niche market, there are not that many people you can look to for advice. I regularly find myself wondering if I’m making the right choice or doing the right thing.
Another challenge is learning how to stop. I get really burnt out sometimes, so I try to limit myself to no more than ten hours a day.
What were the greatest lessons learnt?
The greatest lesson, as an artist, not just a potter, is that your art really shows your personality and your flaws. You learn a lot from making mistakes. Pottery has given me a platform to learn more about myself.
It taught me to be more meticulous with my work. Every little thing matters and can potentially destroy or warp your work. For instance, where you place your clay on the table, or the position in the kiln… all of it matters.
On Finding Inspiration
Where do you find inspiration for your pottery?
For me, I find inspiration in my hobbies—making music, diving, or everything around me.
What makes a good piece of pottery?
I guess as long as it doesn’t break apart. Functionality is key, make sure the pottery performs [its function].
Any potters you look up to you, and why?
I think Potters who start their own studio here in Singapore are very respectable because it’s a very niche market. There’s quite a few studios here: Goodman Ceramics, Ves, Mud Rocks, Arudio, 3arts to name a few.
What is something about pottery that you’d like people to appreciate more?
I believe every piece is special and Ienjoy people using my pieces. I started off making a lot of decorative pieces like huge vases for display. Nowadays, I prefer to work on smaller pieces that people can use or interact with. I also like to make pieces for weddings (i.e. sake cups or sake sets) for the couple’s own personal collection.
Whether you’re a fresh grad straight out of university, or someone who has been in the workforce for years now, navigating career paths can be scary and overwhelming.
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