Tell friends you’re off to Geylang for the evening and you’re sure to get some raised eyebrows. For those not in the know, Geylang is Singapore’s red light district. And it’s all legit. As in state approved. But it’s also so much more. It’s foodie haven. Spiritual haven too, ironically- you can’t go far without crossing a Buddhist or Chinese temple, giving coexistence a whole new meaning.
I remember taking double decker buses in Mumbai through the red light area of Kamatipura. That area just reeked of sleaze and trafficking, with women peeking through clothing hung out on decrepit balconies. Geylang is nothing like it. If you’re a first time visitor you’d be hard pressed to see anything beyond the famous eateries and the shophouses and the new developments coming up on the peripheries. It’s only when you go into the lorongs away from the main thoroughfares that you see the more “interesting” side to Geylang.
I walked through these lorongs with my little Fuji X100F trying to blend in. However, a man with a camera stands out quite a bit in Geylang.
We artists define what our art means to us at different points in life. It could be therapy, meditation, or a way for us to withdraw away from the world. It can be a way to quieten the mind or to excite it with the infinite possibilities of creation. Conversely, it could be a way of reaching out to the world, to form a deeper connection and to make some sense of a complex world (that we think misunderstands us). There are days when I’m wrestling with that part of the brain that gives birth to ideas. And others when I’m unable to sleep because the ideas are coming thick and fast and must be written down before they disappear.
The creative process fascinates me and so I’ve come down on a muggy September day to meet my friend, Maya Sohonie. Maya is a ceramic artist who operates out of a pottery studio at the “far end” of Singapore, by the NTU campus in a place called Jalan Bahar Clay Studios. There’s an old world “kampong” feel to these studios. The path is rutted and filled with weeds, and I can’t see any high rise buildings. I can hear the buzz of mosquitoes diving in for the attack. The studios themselves are under a tin roof and Maya tells me that when it rains there’s a deafening racket.
All is quiet today as she’s the only artist around. The mid-day light outside is contrasty and harsh. Inside the studio though, there is all kinds of beautiful light swirling and wrapping itself around objects, as if even the light knows that the studio is a place where things are transformed into objects of beauty.
Maya has been pursuing her craft for the last twenty years or so. She was clear early on in life about wanting to study art, and with a supportive family behind her she found herself pursuing a BA in Art with a minor in Religious Studies at The College of Wooster. This was followed by an MFA in Ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
She greets me wearing a rather battle-scarred denim apron that’s aged quite well over the last twenty years of pulling, raising and thinning clay on the wheel.
I can see where the appeal of pottery lies. There’s a beautiful tangibility to kneading clay, to placing it on a potter’s wheel and then coaxing and cajoling the clay to take shape. Working with clay might be akin to bringing up children- one needs to know just when to nudge and push and pull the clay and go with a strong sense of intuition. And sometimes even despite your best efforts, the clay turns out wonky and misshapen.
We look at some of the pieces that she had made on my last week- including a short lived attempt by me to make a clay mug which ended up as an ashtray (hopefully with the words “stick to photography” etched as a reminder to me).
Bob: You’ve been lucky enough to have been pursuing your art from a young age. Why this compulsion to make art?
Maya: Initially because it was the one thing that I was good at. It was instinctive and I felt the flow while making art, even as a child. And it was addictive. Now it helps me connect my brain with my body. Ceramics is a physically demanding material, and the art is conceptually driven, so it blends several aspects of my being into one process. It engages the mind as well as the body and creates a link or a connection between both.
There is also a desire to give form to ideas. To take something mental and give it a body- taking a lump of clay and using my hands to change it is exciting. But mostly, what is exciting is the fact that changing the clay changes me in some way… that’s where the real excitement lies. I get to discover myself in the process.
Bob: I remember reading somewhere that ceramics are still struggling to gain legitimacy in the art gallery world…
Maya: There is a hierarchy in the art world. Some mediums are a bit more accepted than others. For example, some may see bronze casting slightly more elevated than clay. Some may see using clay as merely a stage to making a sculpture in some other material.
Sadly, there is also a bit of hierarchy within the ceramic world, where porcelain is considered the pinnacle and other clay bodies like terracotta are considered lesser.
However having said that, I do feel clay has over the past few years become more trendy as a material. It has gained some exposure in the art world. I see lots more articles about ceramic artists online. There are biennials and triennials solely dedicated to clay and some of the work coming from these shows is amazing. These artists use clay in all its forms, including unfired clay, creating a really good space to talk about ceramics in a contemporary way.
Bob: Also, who are your influences in ceramics and where do you get your ideas from? For example, I get my ideas from cinema and other photographers of course, but to a more hidden extent from literature too. And a lot of it from lived experiences and looking within oneself (the darker the soul the better for making evocative art haha!)
Maya: I get my ideas from tons of places. Nature always inspires me. My own practice of reiki and meditation inspires me. I enjoy reading fiction and that can also spark a chain of thought. I look at the work of a lot of artists not just those in clay- Eva Hesse, Xavier Toubes, a lot of the surrealists, post minimalists.
Bob: Mistakes. As much as I think there’s joy in the creative process, like all creative processes I’m sure there’s also tons of frustration. Frustration when ideas are blocked or you find yourself repeating the same patterns again and again. But let’s talk about mistakes. I know you make art for yourself and also for clients…how do you find yourself contemplating a piece that should have turned out one way but ended up wonky or defective?
Maya: Yes sometimes that happens. Luckily we can fire clay several times before we have to throw it away. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong, but it’s another exercise in letting go of objects and expectations. I sit with the ‘ugly’ ones and they sometimes stop looking ugly after a while. Other times you just have to laugh at the whole thing.
Bob: You invest so much in the
process of creation. Do you feel a sense of loss when you part with one of your
Maya: With some more than others, but I
don’t hold on to that feeling for long. Most of the time, once I’ve made it,
I’m done with it.
My joy is in the process.
Thanks Maya for spending so much
time and walking through your creative process. To read more about Maya and to
see her work, please follow her Facebook page at:
Maya also conducts personalised and group pottery sessions and she can be reached on +65-81683496
As a Singapore based portrait photographer who shoots corporate portraits
(including headshots, leadership team profiles, employee portraits and
advertising campaigns) among other types of portraiture, I work with a
wide variety of clients, ranging from banking to high tech and to
startups. Recently, I had the great pleasure of being commissioned to
photograph Cialfo’s employees, for the company website and media kit.
Cialfo is a Singapore based education startup. Cialfo’s online platform helps school administrators and counsellors better manage the college admissions process.
Employee photos on a website or in a media kit play an important role in communicating company culture and values and in attracting the right kind of employee. Cialfo being a high energy, vibrant startup, the mandate was to create fun employee photos based on a colour palette that’s tied into the company’s style book.
Portrait photography is as much a performance by the photographer as it is by
the photographed. It is one thing to get everything down technically- the lighting, the backdrop, the composition. I’ve always believed that the photographer is like a director, who needs to give direction to the subject to help the subject relax. Oftentimes, the photographer has to work under a time constraint (especially in editorial shoots with celebrities) and in such shoots both technical and people management skills are put to the test. I personally find I engage better with my subjects when I’m amped up
and genuinely curious about my subjects.
On shoots like this, you definitely want to keep things fun and the Cialfo shoot was lots of fun indeed! While I was photographing one person, all the other Cialfo employees would
gather around and elicit reactions from the subject (aka victim) with wisecracks and funny gestures.
Thanks to the Cialfo team and especially to my awesome client Dee, for giving me the opportunity to create a fun set of images!
Thanks to Lin Lei (Instagram: @blue_peacock) for her invaluable help as an assistant!
To see some of my other corporate photography work, please click here.
Camera- Fuji XT2 with 56mm f1.2 lens (My go to portrait lens!)
Elinchrom FRX400 studio flash
Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa 100cm
Elinchrom backdrop reflector and reflector with honeycomb grid
Savage seamless paper backdrops in various colours