ASKING A MAKER: VIVIAN SHAO CHEN

I’ve always loved to make things, whether it’s sewing or drawing or cooking. 

I became obsessed with ceramics because there is something completely satisfying about making something utilitarian that also makes you appreciate your physical environment more. I look for simple shapes with refined details and textures. 

Meet Vivian.

 

She's an architect and a ceramicist. 

Photos by Vivian Shao Chen

WORK

Why ceramics?

Ceramics gives me freedom in my thoughts. It frees me from outside voices, and I only have to listen to what the natural materials tell me. 
I first took a wheel throwing class because I felt I wanted to make and design things, but didn’t have a medium that I loved yet. I am an architect, and while creative thinking and designing are essential in my day job, we don’t build the buildings, we make drawings of them. I was searching for a way I could design and make for myself. What started as an initial desire to find an alternate creative outlet from my day job turned into a realization that I had an underlying need to find quietness in life. Quietness from outside opinions that influence the design process (there are a lot of those in architecture), and quietness from the daily routine and struggles that comes with a day job. I think people are drawn to ceramics and pottery because it has a quality that makes them slow down, to feel the weight, see the depth in the glaze. I love the freedom of thought that clay allows me, and I work to make that clarity translated into the final product in its simplicity and elegance.

 

What inspires ideas behind each new line of products you make?

I always make things that I would use myself or need in my home. I love making functional objects, and actually, have a hard time making anything that couldn’t be used as at least a vase. I am inspired by textures and light, so each new line or variation on a line is in search of those things. 

When I see how light falls in a corner, on a piece, I always want to take my camera out. 

Your photography is very scenic, makes me want to look at it for a while. Does the need to make content comes first or something else inspires you to take a photo?​

I love taking photos, sometimes more than actually making, which comes in handy when I don’t feel like getting messy with clay. When I see how light falls in a corner, on a piece, I always want to take my camera out. I do feel pressure from social media to constantly be creating visual content, which I think can be negative if I think of it that way. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about how my Instagram account looks. But it can be a positive influence since it pushes me to think of how I want to present my work, and what I can learn about light and textures through photography. Now that we are exposed to a constant flow of images that are all beautiful, perfectly styled and magazine-ready, it can be difficult to remove one's self from that parade and think about really what we want to contribute. It’s been on my mind lately and my answer will probably be constantly evolving. ​

Was there any particular person who helped you to pursue a ceramicist career?

All my friends, family, and strangers that have ever said words of encouragement. Thank you!

What is the most productive time of the day for you?

Morning! I have become a real morning person, and love to work in natural daylight. 

What social media do you use to showcase your work and why?

Instagram is a great platform to put yourself out there. There is a great community of people encouraging each other to be better. Though I am guilty of comparing myself to others, which is easy to do on social media, I always remind myself that my reason for being there in the first place is to listen to myself and do what will give me freedom and avoid the stress of wanting to please others. I’ve had so many positive interactions on Instagram, I can only say thanks and try to give back. ​​

At the end of each session, I wipe all surfaces and mop the floor. This way when I start my next session, I can sit down with my notebook and collect my thoughts before starting. ​​

Do you practice any consistent routines to get the job done?

The very practical side of having a ceramics studio is that you have to clean constantly to keep harmful clay dust out of the air. This helps me stay organized and tidy in my workspace because I am not naturally inclined to work that way. I do love that it forces me to have blank space to think and work. At the end of each session, I wipe all surfaces and mop the floor. This way when I start my next session, I can sit down with my notebook and collect my thoughts before starting. ​

What is the most challenging thing about your work?

Ceramics is based on chemistry and can be very unpredictable if you don’t understand the science behind the medium. The color and texture that you see are not what you get after firing. Clay and glaze colors change drastically after coming out of the kiln and you learn through experience how to control what seems like chaos. I don’t currently own a kiln, so it is difficult for me to run glaze tests and get feedback quickly enough for it to be productive. It takes a long long time to feel like you’ve mastered any one small skill in ceramics. The hardest thing about ceramics is also the coolest thing- you can never stop learning about it. There are so many different cultures that work with clay in various ways, so many ways to treat clay. One of my goals is to learn more about how to dig up and process my own clay.​

BODY

Is physical shape important to you? If yes, how do you put yourself in the right mood for a workout on a busy work day? 

Yes, physical health is as important as mental health to me. They are two sides of the same coin. I am a rock climber, and train intensely to be a stronger and smarter climber. Having goals outside of that one workout routine helps to motivate when I am tired from a long day, and I think that can apply to many things in life. I keep my long-term goals in mind and know that the pay off will be on an amazing climb out in a beautiful natural setting. 

Your favorite clothing brands/makers and why?

I’m always amazed by small business owners that put all of their passion into their work. I love Elizabeth Suzann, because Elizabeth Pape is so transparent about her process and growth, and values using ethically sourced, natural textiles. The belief they have in themselves and their dedication to work is inspiring. ​​

MIND

Do you have any morning and bedtime rituals?

I now no longer allow my phone in the bedroom before I sleep. Instead of browsing the internet, I just think. Maybe this is called meditation? I don’t know, but I would recommend it to everyone. ​

How do you avoid stress and deal with it if it already happened?

It would be easy for me to say just put your head down and work through the stress, but honestly I do struggle with it and have lows. I usually let myself cry it out, and then get back to work.

Do you always listen to your intuition? What do you think intuition is?

Yes, I think educated intuition is what guides my decisions. Learning from mistakes is what shapes our intuitions, helps us understand what feels right or wrong. For example, making objects with clay is a totally different design process than I was used to. I struggled a few times and failed to make something that I had designed with pen and paper, it just didn’t feel right when I shaped it in clay. My favorite pieces are those that happen while I'm throwing on the wheel, intuitively. What I like is finding the subtle nuances in shape and detail that make a piece interesting and beautiful. These are things I could never design on my own and that come from the process itself.​​

Was there any particular decision you’ve made in the past year that you consider a life-changing?

I moved to Philadelphia from Brooklyn, and now have a studio space of my own. I can’t begin to express how amazing it is to have more control over my workspace. It is a lot of work to keep it clean (with no dedicated clay sink!) but so worth it. ​

What I like is finding the subtle nuances in shape and detail that make a piece interesting and beautiful. These are things I could never design on my own and that come from the process itself.​​​

INSPO

If it wasn’t ceramics, what else would you do? 

I am an architect, full time, so I am a weekend warrior of sorts in my ceramic studio. I love both jobs, they balance each other out. When one gets frustrating, the other is there to give me a break from it. They are both “design” jobs but are so different from each other, it is a really interesting combination. 

What’s on in the background when you work?

I like to keep it quiet in the studio when I’m working. I sometimes will put on classical music, but mostly enjoy silence.

If you were given an opportunity to open a physical studio/shop anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would it be?

It would be on a multi-acre piece of land near the mountains where I can have a wild garden and throw on the wheel outside.