Singapore native hones her craft

Published 3:30 pm Friday, July 1, 2011

Lynne Tan’s pottery is on display and also for purchase at Chartreuse. Photo by Kathee Kiesselbach

I met Lynne Tan several years ago at the Krasl Art Center where she was making pots. I met with her recently at her studio at the Box Factory in St. Joseph and asked how she became a potter, and how she ended up in the St. Joseph area.

Tan was born in Singapore and was most interested in reading, drama and athletics, including swimming, when she was young. As a teen, it was clearly sports. In college, when she had to narrow down her interests, she chose economics and psychology. By her senior year she had decided to major in psychology and minor in economics. She went on to study experimental psychology at Oxford University, where Tan received her doctorate. Tan had already met her husband at Oxford, but had to return to Singapore to fulfill a contract to work there as a psychologist for five years. She told me that experimental psychology was very creative when she was designing experiments. But she soon discovered another way to create.

While there, dealing with a lot of free time, she found that the university she had attended had a new ceramics department and there was a man teaching in it who came from a long line of potters. She was curious so she signed up for a class. He taught her how to throw pots — but was very traditional in his techniques and his teaching theory. He stressed fundamentals and demanded a lot of practice. He believed that if one mastered the fundamentals, one could construct anything. He believed it was more about skill than natural ability. Tan knew that she would be leaving eventually and wanted to learn all she could, so toward the end of her five years there, she doubled up on her classes. She agreed with her teacher that the more of the fundamentals that she mastered, the more skilled she would be at designing what she wanted to make.

“I had a lot of time on my hands, too,” she noted.

When she first met her husband at Oxford, they both thought they would work in England after her five-year contract in Singapore was up. But, unable to get work in England, he ended up in Florida, and eventually took a job at Whirlpool and moved to Michigan. Tan feels fortunate that she was able to find several places nearby where she could pursue ceramics.

Her favorite thing is throwing pots on the wheel, but lying in bed at night, she dreams of new shapes that she wants to make. She said to her husband, “I’ll just never get all the things made that I dream of making.”

She likes to develop new techniques to make the new shapes and forms she dreams of.

“Usually it is the form that drives the piece,” she told me.

Then she has to figure out how to make it. She does not like to draw so she has to make them before she forgets them.

“There are things you make to sell, and you have to sell so you can make more,” Tan said. “It is always a tradeoff making things that you hope might sell when you really want to make what you want to make.”

Tan’s work is a sophisticated mixture of cool pastel hues and contemporary shapes with an oriental flavor. The “undecorated simplicity” of her work, as she calls it, is very appealing. I saw her work several years ago, and again several days ago, and the difference was clear. I believe that she has left a more timid time behind and is maturing into a potter who takes more chances with her work. She has developed her own style and voice, and she enriches it daily as this style emerges. Her pieces are often functional, yet not always so. Her voice is clear, and calm, and not afraid to be heard. And all to our benefit.

Her new show, “Concrete and Clay,” hangs on Aug. 12 at the Anna Russo-Sieber Gallery in Benton Harbor. The opening reception for this two-person show (with Matt Sieber) is Friday, Aug. 26 from 6 to 8 p.m.

You can see — and purchase — her work at Chartreuse, an artists’ cooperative, and at Lubeznik Art Center in Michigan City, Ind. Tan also has a studio at the Box Factory for the Arts in St. Joseph, and is often there. Or go to or

Kathee Kiesselbach loves to hear from people and artists who read this column. You can reach her at