In Conversation with Kenneth Lau, Lee Huiwen, and Lee E Mae (Part 1)

Kenneth Lau (b. 1982) and Lee Huiwen (b. 1981) founded Studio Asobi to try and explore a slower and simpler way of life. From their cosy little home in the heartlands of Singapore, they create handmade pottery and share their love of the craft with fellow pilgrims.

They enjoy watching singing competitions, cycling slowly on cloudy days, and laughing about their son’s antics while they are still cute.

Lee E Mae (b. 1996) is a 24-year-old trying to carve out her own path of creative expression after art school. A librarian by day, she steals every other pocket of time to sink her fingers into a good old lump of clay. She believes that we can inhabit our lived realities in new spatial, experiential and poetic ways through art and making.

This conversation on art, inspiration, and beauty was held in response to framing questions provided by Jonathan Chan. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you first begin practising your artistic craft?

Huiwen: It was during our pre-marriage course that I committed my life to Christ. As we started taking our faith seriously,  we grew increasingly dissatisfied with what our lives were at the time. I had my corporate job, he had his, and it felt like we were spending a good part of our time just trying to make more money for our companies and ourselves. I think there was a lot of conflict between what we were reading in the Bible and committing our energy towards. For us one key verse was Ephesians 2:10:

‘For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.’

What is it that God has created, had made us to be, and what are these good works that He has prepared in advance for us to do? 

We started taking pottery classes after the first year of our marriage after realising that we were spending way too much time at work. It was a way to spend intentional quality time together. Kenneth did some ceramics as an O-Level art student, but I was a complete beginner. It surprised me how moved I was to be able to create a beautiful vessel out of the dust of the earth. As we gradually fell in love with the craft, we began to wonder: if a hobby gives us so much joy and meaning, what’s stopping us from finding something similar in our work, something that can help us integrate our faith with the rest of our lives?

We had no intention of becoming potters as pottery was a sunset industry at the time. However, this question led me to leave my job and go on a sabbatical. During that year of rest and exploration, I spent 40 days in Japan, staying in the studio of an old potter and learning from him. It was during the season of Lent and I was on a social media fast, so my mind was clear and free from its usual distractions. As I watched the lives of the local Japanese, I felt like God was telling me, “Look at these people – they may not know Me, but their lives are so simple, joyful and peaceful. What about you, who claim to know Me?”

After returning to Singapore, those reflections eventually gradually grew into a decision to start a pottery practice from our home. I honestly wasn’t thinking much about becoming a professional ceramic artist, but it was more Kenneth and I setting out to answer the question of whether there’s a way to live our lives more aligned to biblical values, even in a place like Singapore. How could we integrate our faith, our marriage, our work, and our ministry in a manner that pleases God and brings us sustainable joy?

Rise (2015) by Studio Asobi

Kenneth: We met Pastor Benny Ho at a church camp, and at that time we were already thinking a little bit about going into pottery. When we told him about some of our ideas, he was actually very excited. I remember him talking about how the creation of beauty is a bit lost in the Christian tradition. While the rest of society is very much focused on expressions of creativity, the Christian world holds back. In that sense, we are not able to engage with people in the way they are engaging with themselves. 

It really struck me because when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist after O-Levels, they were very against it. Now I’ve gone in one big round. I always felt like art was something special but never felt like there could be a use for it. When I looked at beautiful works of art, they would really move me, but I’d always felt like they’re just feelings and those are not important. 

So when I heard Pastor Benny talk about this value of beauty and how that pertains to Christianity, this was something new for me. I think that’s where we wanted to start to explore. We never felt like we were cut out to be ceramic artists…

Huiwen: Yeah, we are extremely unqualified. (laughs

Kenneth: Yeah, it’s an exploration or experimentation. I think because we came from stressful corporate jobs, being able to slow down was also very valuable. Time is a resource that’s lacking in Singapore. I think it was also around this time that I saw a few examples of how life is very transient. We had a friend who passed away at 30 and everybody was shocked. Another friend, 37, who was an ex-colleague had a cancer relapse. Now she’s okay but it suddenly made her feel like, wah, any time I can just be gone. 

So we just felt we needed to look at time in a different way. In this period of our lives when we have energy, we have resources, we have intellect, we are educated… This is the best time for us to use our time wisely, rather than wait for when we are weaker, a bit older, and a lot more burdened. If we want to go and tire ourselves at an older age… it’s a risky move. Some people can contribute a lot at that age, but you never know how it might be like for yourself. 

See You Latte (2020) by Studio Asobi

Huiwen: Actually, what I discovered in that sabbatical year is that time is a non-renewable resource. Money is a renewable resource, but time is not. And because we are also quite involved in the Young Adults ministry in our church, when we see a lot of people feeling very trapped by work, we’ll try and help them ponder: what are you trapped by? Sometimes we’ll ask them, if you’re 50, how much would you pay to get back one year of your youth? I think when you think about that, and then you think about how much you are sacrificing now just to earn that extra amount of money a month… To start like that… are you going to regret it? But not everyone takes our advice la (laughs

So for us, this foray into arts is not really like “arts” per se… but actually more about life and relationships. I think that’s more core to our identity as artisans. Even in the workshops we run, oftentimes the pottery is just a means to spend time asking our participants about their lives. I think this path into the arts is like a third space between the secular world and the church where people are a bit more willing to talk about deeper things. 

And the name “Asobi” actually means “play” in Japanese, and the kanji word is 遊 (you), which means “journey” in Mandarin. To me, pottery is not the end goal. I always felt that way even when we started. It is just a means – who knows what we’ll do 10, 20 years down the road? I see the importance of art, as it has the power to transcend time and space and it also gets people more in touch with their inner thoughts. It’s now our seventh year so we’re actually doing a lot of reflection. What is it that God wants us to do for the next seven years? 

I Am Open (2019) by Studio Asobi

Take this jar of clay
And place me where the rain falls
Till I overflow


Do you have any reflections about the weaving of faith and art?  

E Mae: I did Art and Art History in joint majors at the University of Reading, but the art there was not traditional at all, so we didn’t specialise at all. It’s very theory-based, very critical, contemporary art-focused… and I enjoyed it la, I thrived. But after four years I was just pretty exhausted. I was just very sceptical and apprehensive about the art that I saw there.

Huiwen: Like the typical cynical art student.

E Mae: Yes! Everyone who graduates from art school is like, “This is not all I thought it would be”. I think from there I’m still finding my way. In art school I was very process- and medium-driven, always working with clay, but there’s also that weird segregation between art and craft. At first, I was trying to wrap my head around it. I was like, “Is there some kind of colonial undertone to this…” Like, who was the one who separated fine art and craft? 

Even in art school when I was pinching pots on my table, just having a good time while my other friends were wracking their brains on their computers, they would stop by and be like, “Oh, that’s so cute! I wish I worked with clay.” And then I’m like, “Excuse me?” (laughter) I was just very tired of that. I came back to Singapore and went to a pottery studio to continue throwing, and then I felt, wah, this release. I didn’t have to think about anything. I could just think about improving my pottery skills and enjoying the process and that was very freeing for me. So I’m still honing my craft in that sense. 

Part of Leaky Vessels (2019) by Lee E Mae
Ceramic, paper, graphite, ink, plywood, mild steel

But also, in uni, not many people knew I was a Christian. I was a bit scared la. I mean the environment there was quite hostile… 

Huiwen: Art school especially it’s like when you say you’re religious… and they’re like, “Oh my goodness.”

E Mae: Yeah! I was like, “What does that even mean?” If I believe in God? Does that make me religious? I didn’t really understand that concept either. It was quite hard for me to find community there as well. It was very small, liberal, and I was the only Singaporean in my department, one of very few Asians. It was tough as I felt like I was going against the current.

It’s quite a pity that I wasn’t able to integrate more of my faith into what I studied, into my uni life, but it’s still something I’m trying to reconcile now. I never thought it would clash so much until I went to uni. 

Huiwen: Was it because of the ideas? 

E Mae: Yeah! In art history, a lot of thought that goes into it is already very post-Enlightenment, post-religious, post-living with God, post-Jesus… it was quite a cynical place. It might come as a surprise to my course mates now actually that I’m a Christian. But if they ask I’ll be like, yeah la I am la, I pray la (laughter) I love Jesus. Do you? (laughter) Then they’re like, “I do yoga”. (laughter

Space (2017) by Lee E Mae
Hessian, plaster, clay

Kenneth: In a way, it’s good that it clashed. For me, the fact that it didn’t clash actually speaks a lot about my faith back then. When I was there, I could on one hand go for Christian Fellowship, then, on the other hand, my architecture faculty’s culture was very… carnal. (laughter) Looking back at my life then, I could feel very spiritual on Sunday, and it didn’t matter to me on all the other days. 

Whereas now there’s a lot more tension because we really want to see what the rest of our lives will look like since we’ve decided to be more integrated. When COVID happened, it made me realise that going to church doesn’t really mean that I’m a disciple of Christ. I remember listening to various sermons before COVID that talked about how the first century Christians showed examples of what Christianity really is during the plague. They were out in the streets sacrificing themselves and loving each other and people saw that this is very different from seeing everybody fighting for their own lives. I’m sure every church has probably preached about being salt and light, but the church in Singapore has still pretty much stuck to the status quo in this period. There are definitely responses in parts of the church that say, “I’m going to stand up and be counted”, but the same is happening in other religions. Everybody in Singapore has naturally become a bit more attentive to various social issues. I think we are still constantly trying to get a grip on what discipleship really means. 

And that’s why we come back to art. Recently I’ve been reflecting: do I call myself an artist? Or do I call myself more of an artisan or craftsman, just like how you were thinking about that dichotomy? I find it hard to call myself an artist because of the way I approach my craft… I don’t try to make a statement. Rather, I really treasure the connections that we can make with the people who commission us to do something or the people who come to our classes. And on our Instagram page, we make something and then just reflect about it and our lives and the process of making it. It’s because we want to connect with people, to feel like we all share some stories, some common narratives. 

Huiwen: I guess one of the struggles that we also had is that we don’t want to add on to this culture of consumerism. I think how we manage that is that we actually don’t create collections to sell. Rather it’s more of when people approach us to make something, we make la. We try not to encourage a desire to consume. But it’s still a journey of figuring out how to properly live out our faith in our work.

Kenneth: Yeah, so, what’s an artist? I also don’t really know. But for us, even the act of making something to sell, as long as it’s meaningful to the person, that feels very nice. 

Making Our Mark (2015) by Studio Asobi
Made out of 2500 pieces of handmade ceramic tiles, this was a community art project co-created with the people of Hougang.


A Mirror Darkly
Kenneth Lau

There’s a fog in my eyes and I can’t see
Where the earth ends and begins the sea
When the dusk gives up its light
When the shore fades out of sight
Am I alone or are You with me

There’s a weight on my chest and I can’t breathe
As I follow Your voice in the wind
Will my world be left behind
Or is there life for me to find
Am I in chains or am I set free

Though now I peer, into a mirror darkly
Oh that one day, Your face I will see
Though now I know, in broken pieces
Oh to behold You, like You’ve always known me

There’s a limp in my stride and I can’t run
Long is this race I have barely begun
Will I stumble round the bend
Or will I make it to the end
To be called a son, a friend

Though now I peer, into a mirror darkly
Oh that one day, Your face I will see
Though now I know, in broken pieces
Oh to behold You, like You’ve always known me

Cover image: Slippage (2018) by Lee Emae.
Terracotta, paper, ink, acrylic, fluorescent lights.


Studio Asobi:

Lee E Mae:

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