How Amanda Tong finds her balance in life and ceramics

Amanda Tong had no plans to move to Japan.

Known for her hand-turned marbled porcelain works, the 30-year-old ceramic artist has always been interested in Japanese craftsmanship. She had traveled from Hong Kong in early 2020 to visit fellow ceramicist and partner Jun Matsumura, testing the waters to see if she would like to work between Japan and her hometown.

Neither had counted on the pandemic. When the borders of Japan and Hong Kong closed, Tong found herself unexpectedly stranded in rural Saitama, far from her family, friends and her studio. She should start over.

Tong is no stranger to new beginnings. At 13, she moved to the UK for boarding school and began her career in London after training in ceramic design at Central Saint Martins, then returned to Hong Kong in 2017, struggling with all the complications that come with the career change and practice of ceramics.

Japan is the latest – albeit unforeseen – iteration of a series of uprootings. Nevertheless, she is optimistic about the situation: ceramics has taught her to get up again and again.

This lesson is ever-present in the process of developing and refining “The Perfect Imbalance,” an ongoing collection of monochrome porcelain informed by an interest in traditional Chinese medicine. Each piece, Tong explains, is a material metaphor for our unique blend of yin and yang energy.

As any ceramist knows, seemingly insignificant variables can have huge ramifications on the final product. Each change of location forced his process to evolve for the collection to survive.

She started with a mixture of white porcelain and black stoneware clay when developing her graduation project, which initially proved disastrous: the two clay bodies shrank to different rhythms during firing, which resulted in most of his pieces cracking. Persistent trial and error reduced the proportion of cracked works to 30%.

But moving back to Hong Kong and working with a different kiln forced her to rethink her whole process to achieve the same effect. Eventually, she switched to a mix of white and black porcelain, which eliminated the problem of uneven shrinkage.

Amanda Tong’s endless experimentation with clay is akin to laboratory testing, but the balance between artistry, rigor, technique and consistency is the key to the 30-year-old artist’s success . | ANAZAWA MANAMI

“I’m like, shouldn’t I have been doing this all the time?” she said laughing. “But it all depends on the process. He’s trying to teach me something.

She experimented with local clay – from Seto to Arita – before settling on Kutani-style porcelain from Kaga.

Ceramics may seem surprisingly technical to non-ceramists – Tong’s endless experimentation is akin to laboratory testing – but balancing artistry with rigor, technique and consistency is the key to success. This is especially true for those whose livelihood depends on their trade.

The question of how to balance creative expression with practical livelihoods is a question every artist will know. For example, personal projects often take precedence over paid work.

“I feel like I have all these ideas, but I don’t take the time to execute them,” she says.

The same question has also informed Tong’s adjustments to his process over the years. His initial attempt to combine black stoneware and porcelain embodied the yin-yang concept of harmonizing two different forces, but was ultimately incompatible with the realities of selling ceramics.

“The consistency and stability have to be there,” she says. “I can’t just sell cracking work.”

Tong’s swirling, marbled signature uses the neriage technique of laminating clays of different colors together and throwing them on a wheel. The nature of the technique, however, prevents her from precisely determining the final result, which she takes care to emphasize to her clients.

“I can try to control the proportion [of colors], but it’s not 100% guaranteed to be the same as what you see on the website,” says Tong. “It’s just the nature of the process.”

Series
Amanda Tong’s “Perfect Imbalance” series is an ongoing collection of monochrome porcelain inspired by an interest in traditional Chinese medicine. | COURTESY OF AMANDA TONG

In this sense, making ceramics is similar to fermentation: you can try to control all possible variables, but ultimately you have to surrender the final product to something greater or beyond yourself, than this. either the heat of the oven or the microbes in the air. . In other words, leave it to fate.

The idea of ​​fate comes up frequently during our studio conversation that she and Matsumura share in the Saitama countryside, especially the pivotal moments that led Tong to her current life’s work.

For example, the initial plan was for a degree in public relations, which her parents thought suited her bubbly and outgoing nature. A chance conversation with an older high school classmate and mentor the day before the deadline led her to include a ceramics class in her college application.

“I didn’t know if I could make a living from ceramics, but he told me not to worry about it,” she recalls. “If you love something that much, you’ll make it work. Don’t worry about not making money and all that before it actually happens.

Another fork in the road was meeting Matsumura in 2018 at a workshop in Hong Kong, which led to – among other things – working together on an exhibition exploring the culture of mahjong and the dying art of stone carving. tiles.

“I always wanted to come to Japan, and meeting Jun was like a bonus,” she laughs. “The universe heard me.”

Being thrust into a creative partnership without warning during a pandemic has been a challenge for Tong and Matsumura, who both work with porcelain.

There are the day-to-day conflicts and compromises of sharing studio space, like mixing up each other’s tools or potentially getting dust and stains on each other’s works. (Try getting black dots on pure white porcelain.) It’s hard to separate work from life, especially when producing large batches of work: “When working with clay, it’s hard to separate work from life. is like a marathon.”

Examples of Ceramics by Amanda Tong |  ANAZAWA MANAMI
Examples of Ceramics by Amanda Tong | ANAZAWA MANAMI

More fundamentally, a lack of social contact during the pandemic, exacerbated by a language and cultural barrier, has been particularly difficult for the naturally extroverted Tong.

“It’s like my only friend is Jun,” she said with a wry smile. “I try not to think I’m stuck here, because I’m lucky to be here. I can explore all of these things. But the reality is that I don’t know when I will be able to return home.

Like many others whose lives have been turned upside down by the pandemic, Tong is making the best of her situation. His Japanese has improved. Without the constant external stimuli of city life, she was forced to slow down, with more time and space to reflect on her work.

Living in the Japanese countryside and being surrounded by nature brought a new depth of understanding to the idea of ​​balance in her ceramics. She always had to adapt, and being here is a continuation of that journey. This place, she says, teaches her a lesson.

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