A Master Potter’s Philosophy & Process

With progress Technology Enabled Learning, it is inevitable for traditional industries like education to grow with the digitally driven 21st century learner. The Visual and Performing Arts, National Institute of Education NTU together with technical partner Fraunhofer Singapore was responsible for the digital preservation of 32 ceramic artworks of renowned Singapore potter and Cultural Medallion winner, Dr Iskandar Jalil. The works were scanned using a 3D structured light scanner to create a 3D framework and then augmented to high resolution photographic captures. These models were subsequently cleaned and further processed to ensure realistic virtual representations of the artwork were created. The end product of this collaboration is a high resolution interactive display set installed in level 4 of the NIE library as well as on a web optimized version presented here. We hope this platform grants you greater appreciation for the beauty found in Dr Iskandar’s work and we encourage you to explore and study each artwork in detail harnessing the ability to view, interact and manipulate the artworks in ways that would not have been easily permissible with the actual object. A selection of works from this collection are on display at the 4th level of the NIE library. Special thanks to NIE In-Learning, Mulan Gallery and Silver Rue Art Consulting LLP for the design and content input.


People exclaim at how passionate I am about pottery. I see myself as a teacher first and then a potter. It is in my blood, my DNA and in my family; my father taught at the Anglo-Malay Evening School and recruited me to assist him, my wife Saleha was a teacher and both my children are educators. The way I have evolved my pottery practice cannot be separated from the way I approach the process of educating and mentoring.

Discipline and Freedom

Many assume that I learnt pottery in Japan on my scholarship in 1972 but I had started more than ten years earlier at the Teachers’ Training College (TTC) in Singapore. That was the name it had then; it is now known as the National Institute of Education (NIE) and an independent entity of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). I was recently ‘recalled’ to accept an honorary doctorate at NTU and told that a tribute exhibition for me would be presented at the Art Gallery, NIE. Life has again come full circle!

I first encountered the potter’s wheel at TTC; the touch of clay felt familiar and reminded me of playing with mud in the kampong. I learnt pottery under Sng Cheng Kiat, a TTC lecturer who also designed the TTC logo. People know him as Junie Sng’s (1) father but he was an artist and educator in his own right. He was trained in London, spoke with a British accent and his English name was Albert. He wore white, drove a Mini-Minor and was meticulous in his artwork. He did good art work but immigrated to Australia in the 1980s. I met with him when I visited Brisbane and he has also come to my studio in Singapore.

I would reclaim clay at his residence in Stevens Road which was incredibly hard work. It is recycling used clay and reprocessing it so it can be used again. Once, I reclaimed 36 bags of 5 kg each only to find that the other pottery trainees had swiped all the bags leaving nothing behind for me. When Sng found out, he recalled everyone who had not helped to reclaim but had taken the clay bags. 34 bags were returned and I could have just picked my clay from there but Sng refused to let this matter go until all 36 bags were returned. No one owned up to the missing bags. We were dismissed for lunch but Sng insisted on re-grouping after lunch to continue this ‘face-off ’. When we returned after our meal, we found that the two missing bags had been silently returned. Sng then allowed me the ‘first pick’ from the 36 bags and released everyone only after I took my clay. It was a lesson in ethics for the clay workshop where there should have been more thoughtfulness and sharing.

It was also at TTC that my love for literature was further fuelled. The Catholic brother teaching literature was impressed with how I was devouring the classics and could quote Falstaff from Henry the IV. He would entrust me with the keys to his car to bring him his flask of whiskey. My love for literary works come through even today as I name several of my works after poems and prose. The NIE collection has a piece inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ novel on the iconic musketeers.

In addition to Sng’s classes, I learnt about pottery kilns and firing through reading manuals and experimenting on my own. I was a ‘pure sciences’ student from Victoria School and the science and technical aspects of pottery fascinated me then and still do. At that time, I was also tinkering with motorbikes at the TTC workshop and another mechanic workshop near the college. I was earning about $180 per month then and was supplementing this by cleaning carburettors. It was also feeding the costs of my other passion – my bike! I was participating in many rallies and races during that time. I remember the newspaper headlines then – that a teacher had won the Vespa Rally (2).

It was not easy juggling the schedule at TTC. It was not for nothing that we nicknamed TTC, the Teachers’ Torture Chamber. We attended TTC in the mornings, taught school classes in the afternoons, marked students’ test papers and ploughed through the school’s ‘admin’ work and TTC homework. My TTC classmates included the late batik artist Jafaar Latiff and also Angela Khoo (later principal of Katong Special School for handicap children) who would come into the TTC class singing ‘It’s the End of the World’ – the hit song by Skeeter Davis.

At that time, I recall studying educational methodology and principles, psychology, English literature and even voice training. One of our textbooks was the Principles of Education by Ryburn and Forge3. We also studied Freud and Pavlov’s principles of conditioning or ‘Pavlov’s Dogs’ where dogs were conditioned so that they salivate the moment they hear the sound of a bell. We had speech training once a week by Mrs. Aileen Abisheganaden, the mother of the singer Jacinta and wife of musician Alex Abisheganaden. She taught us how to control our diaphragm and throw our voice during classes.

It was gruelling at TTC but even more so on my scholarships to India and to Japan. My scholarship in textile weaving was based in Nashik (sometimes Nasik) in Maharashtra, India, the hub for khadi or handwoven cloths. Training conditions for preparing yarn or working the loom were harsh. There were times I would work eight hours straight without a break on tabby-weaving, which is a basic or plain weave. I was also trained in patterned weaves on the dobby and Jacquard looms. The instructors all said I worked too hard. Food was a problem. I had to gather cow dung in a rattan basket, dry this in the sun to use as fuel in the stove for baking poli, or what we call chapatti. Some of us would have a bidi, a hand-rolled spiked cigarette that makes you lose your appetite and forget your hunger.

The training regime in Japan was equally arduous and expectations were high. The Japanese are protocol-conscious and regimental in their instruction. Kikomomi or chrysanthemum wedging for instance, was very stressful on the wrist joints and my arms and shoulders would ache terribly every single day. It took me a few years to get it right but when did, wedging became as easy as slurping my Haagen Daz ice-cream. Likewise, it was onerous to perfect ‘centering the clay’ on the potter’s wheel. The process exerts a lot of physical stress on the wrists, muscles and tendons and I had to produce countless chawan and yunomi (tea bowls and cups). Once I mastered this, ‘centering clay’ could be completed in minutes.

There are no shortcuts and no escaping the gruelling phase of such foundations or training. Young people these days are too much in a hurry and want everything fast. It was only in the year 2000 that I was designated a Master Potter by my Japanese sensei. Just to get the rudiments right takes four to six years, and another five to ten years to find and develop your own style. It takes about twenty years to be a decent potter and at least thirty years to be a master potter.

A lot of younger people who seek me out to mentor them in pottery want things fast and they care too much about recognition or selling their works. There are courses and instructors who offer ‘fast lessons in raku’ but the meaning of raku is totally lost. Raku-yaki (raku ware) should be appreciated in the context of the Japanese chanoyu or tea ceremony which is governed by ritual and etiquette. Even the act of adding sumi, the charcoal, to the fire in the tea ceremony is led by many rituals, with different types of charcoal added at different stages. It cannot be hurried.

People think of freedom in art as ‘anything goes’ and of discipline as curbing artistic freedom and limiting you; but discipline is the root of your freedom. True discipline is not something enforced or imposed on you from the outside. It is about dealing with yourself, and when you master yourself, there is true freedom.

This is why I have always been so hard on my students and apprentices. During my teaching years, I have been called names and have had my motorbike tyres punctured by students who detested my approach; but I have never wavered from the stance that I will not tolerate shoddy work and lazy or cavalier attitudes.

1) Junie Sng (b. 1964) is a Singapore record-breaking swimmer & the youngest and first female Gold medallist for Singapore at the Asian Games in 1978; her record-breaking spree culminated in 38 gold medals from four Southeast Asian Games and was awarded the Public Service Star in 1982 for her contribution to sports. She retired in 1983 and had immigrated to Australia in 1980.
2) See for instance, Teacher Wins Trophy at Safety Rally, The Singapore Free Press, 14 December 1961, p. 20; and Teacher is Winner of Vespa Night Rally, The Singapore Free Press, 23 November 1961, p. 12.
3) Likely Ryburn W.M., Forge K.B., Principles of Education (UK: Oxford University Press, 1948).

The Global Craftsman

As I grow older, I lean towards a method of mentorship that involves immersive environments to stimulate a deeper form of learning as opposed to surface instruction or training in a classroom or studio.

I myself had been totally changed by my two scholarships to India and Japan so I understand the effectiveness of immersive programs. I was planted in environments that were so different and had to learn new languages and cope with unfamiliar working and living conditions.

In Maharashtra, I learnt Hindi and Sanskrit and read Gandhi-ji’s philosophy on non-violence. I went outside the parameters of my training centre and on my own, visited New Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi and Kashmir. What I saw affected me deeply and this came out through the figurative works in my first solo exhibition at the Alpha Gallery (4). Brother Joseph McNally, Rosihan Dahim and Ng Eng Teng bought some of these works but I stopped doing figurative works because of other concerns. The NIE collection has a piece that features the limb of the leg with a foot and toes.

Similarly, my scholarship in Tajimi Japan was not just about ceramics engineering. Classes in language, phonetics and culture would star t early in the morning. In the evenings, another Japanese cultural activity such as ikebana (5), would be organised. The approach was to immerse us in the entirety of the Japanese culture and not just be sent there to be instructed in pottery engineering. It was highly effective.

I also grew attached to my foster family, the Miwa family and to a ‘Japanese way of life’. They even gifted me with their family seal and am only one of 3 people outside their family that has been granted this trust and privilege. Although there was little specific discussions on ‘aesthetics’ in my program, my philosophy was influenced by the ideas of wabi sabi and shibui which run through the Japanese approach to life and which I will elaborate on in this essay.

To develop my pottery, I would travel and record my observations with notes and sketches. When I was younger I would make these road trips on my motorbike. I have ridden over 20 different types of bikes on these pottery road trips across the world.

I advise my students to travel extensively but always tell them – ‘DO NOT explore like a tourist. Take the road less travelled and go off the beaten track, stay longer and immerse in different potter y cultures. These interactions will lead you to develop exciting glazes, new forms and bodies of work. My own glazes became more colourful after visits to Bendigo and the Blue Mountains in Australia; and my ‘Iskandar Blue’ glaze emerged when I was overwhelmed by the intensity of the sea during a trip to Scandinavia. The apprentice will uncover significant differences for instance how Asian pottery wheels rotate clockwise while those in the West are counter-clockwise. He or she will also be amazed at the similarities or shared principles of diverse pottery communities and workshops.

4) Solo exhibition Raw, Pliable and Earthy at the Alpha Gallery c. 6 Dec to 21 December 1984. For further reading see Quek, Swee Peng. The Face of Poverty in Pottery, The Business Times, 17 December 1984, p. 11.
5) A form of flower arrangement in Japanese culture, sometimes referred to as kado (Way of the Flower) that constitutes more than a physical floral display but encompasses philosophical and symbolic meanings and hence regarded as a discipline and art form that has prompted numerous schools of thought and approaches.

Roots & Identity

Even with all the travelling I do, I return to my home and roots for creative stimulation. There is no running away from your own culture even as you imbibe other cultures. I advise my students to do the same as our heritage, which includes ethnic, religious, cultural, national and personal histories, is an endless and authentic source of inspiration.

A number of my vessels carry Jawi writing on their surface, which I would apply with a calligraphy brush. Some of these writings are al fathiha, the Koranic recitation that Muslims make at various junctures – as they eat, leave the house or travel. It is a prayer for Allah’s guidance and protection in all these ventures, be they significant ones like going on a trip or seemingly small ones such as preparing for a meal.

I have made different series of works inspired by motifs in Malay culture including the Bangsawan adventures and legends. So you will find that I reference the shapes of keris (a dagger with a unique ‘wavy’-shaped blade), baju kurung (traditional attire) and even toys we played with like the gasing (spinning top).

Other vessels have motifs or significance that relate to my own lived experiences and observations. I grew up in different kampongs (villages) and am very conscious of the loss of these dwellings with Singapore’s urbanisation. I once made a pot inscribed with the names of the kampongs that have been demolished in Singapore. While they have been physically erased, I wanted their names to be immortalised in fired clay. It is not just a physical loss we should lament but the loss of a social space and community and a particular way of relating to each other. Even today, when someone calls me ‘Dan’, I know immediately where he comes from. He is from my kampong days. It is these ties that are lost.

Other forms that I have produced can be traced to kampong life. In early days when we resided in Kampong Chantek, there were no taps or piping system in our kampong; we would even use kerosene tins to lower into the well to draw water. This kind of bucket is found in so many parts of Asia and our region. I was re-inspired again when I saw the bucket system recently in Langkawi in Malaysia. The NIE Collection has a work that was based on this bucket form.

I return to certain forms that I find appealing and would produce variations of these. Many of my forms are inspired by functional objects or utensils used in everyday settings – the tingkat or tiffin carrier, the biscuit caddy, the kuali used for roast-frying coffee beans. The Satay set of containers is a tribute to the outdoor satay stalls like Glutton Square near the Specialist Shopping Centre in the 1970s. The receptacles are meant to hold satay kuah (gravy), cucumber and ketupat (pressed rice cubes) as well as used sticks.

I have also been influenced by popular culture – comedies, films and music – and a number of my works reflect these interests (see Comedian (A.R.T)). My works would be named after P. Ramlee films or the musical score of popular Japanese serials. I could play the difficult keroncong (6) but also loved Ricky Nelson and Doris Day, Mancini and big-band music, Sinatra and Nat King Cole. I also liked the Rolling Stones and The Kinks, and really enjoyed the Singapore bands. We had Jeffrey Din and the Siglap Five and the Esquires and their music would be played over local radio.

It is not just motifs or subjects that relate to artistic identity but also material and technique that we have to discover our affinities to. I have no deep love for porcelain even though I will be the first to admire how exquisite and elegant it can be. It is a kind of suffering to produce porcelain because it is ‘not me’. I prefer the clay bodies of stoneware and earthenware which are earthy and robust and not dainty and delicate like porcelain. Porcelain clays have kaolin (a pure form of clay) and low plasticity. It is troublesome and fussy – it can wobble or warp during firing, so porcelain is seldom produced in a large size. The sound or resonance of fired porcelain is absolutely beautiful but it just does not fit my character or identity. Stoneware subtly changes over time and acquires character or tsuchi-aji (literally flavour of clay) whereas porcelain does not become ‘seasoned’ in this way.

6) A Javanese stringed instrument with five strings that has been described as similar to a small guitar.

Beauty & Imperfection

Time and again, I have been asked to elaborate on my philosophy on aesthetics or beauty. My ideals of beauty find affinity with the Japanese concepts of shibui and wabi sabi. Both concepts involve philosophies and principles for which there are no precise translations or definitions in English or Malay.

Shibui or shibusa is an aesthetic that emphasizes an unassuming beauty – it embraces simplicity but may have subtle details or textures. The object may be enriched but not flamboyant. Wabi sabi sees beauty in the passing of time as well as in imperfection. This philosophy acknowledges the natural cycles of nature and time – where there is growth, there is also decay and then regeneration. So the weathering or erosion of things are not necessarily ugly and impeccable appearances are not necessarily beautiful. I have told my students repeatedly that strict balance or symmetry can appear stiff and artificial. It is like someone parting their hair perfectly in the middle. It is neat but may not be artistic.

I prefer the effects of natural weathering and organic imperfections. The surfaces of my vessels are ear thy, rough and craggy. There may be irregularities that result from intentional decisions or by chance. I sometimes use a crackle slip that gives the vessel a blistered or seasoned appearance. The NIE collection has a number of pieces that show surfaces that are crusty or weathered like Alibaba Jar and Tall Bottle. Others like Water Bucket, Old Age and Leotards are good examples of how the crackle slip can produce mottled and fissured surfaces.

I also like the natural heft and presence of hand-built works although I do not do many of such pieces any more. My slab building pieces are rare (see Slab Work and Slab Form). In another hand-building technique of coiling, I prefer the aesthetic effects of leaving visible the natural coil patterns of my hand-built vessels rather than smoothening them out. Leaving them natural exposes the crevices and spaces between coils as seen in Comedian (A.R.T.).

The handles that I use for many pots are not manufactured but unique. They are small boughs or branches that I gather wherever I walk or explore. Some are old and hardy, others have lovely ‘deformities’ that have a distinctive visual rhythm. I would tie them to my pots with leather straps or rough string. Wabi sabi would see beauty in these misshapen forms and they make uncommon, beautiful handles (see Square Holder & Water Bucket).

In later years, I have included the potter’s ethics and values in defining the paradigms of beauty in a pot. As I was meditating and writing on the idea of the ‘ethical pot’ (7), I came to conclude that the paragon of beauty in a vessel lay not just with its physical attributes but with how it is imbued with the qualities of its maker. Its features reveal the time, discipline and endurance necessary to attain the skill level that is evident; its form, type of clay body or embellishments would disclose the cultural legacies and aesthetic sensibilities of the potter. This kind of vessel possesses tsuchi-aji (flavour of clay) – an earthiness and character which deepens over the years. Its owner or user will observe the mellowing of its glaze colour and perhaps the appearance of fine crackle lines, giving pleasure to the user. It is not a static vessel but one which subtly transforms through the seasons as it is being used or as tea is being poured into it. This is, to me, the paragon of beauty in a vessel.

7) Iskandar Jalil & Poh, L. In Pursuit of the Ethical Pot (Singapore: Japan Creative Centre, 2015).

Research and texts by Silver Rue Art Consulting LLP.

Special Thanks

Dr Iskandar Jalil: A Master Potter’s Philosophy & Process