‘Imperfect’ pottery taught cancer survivor acceptance

‘Imperfect’ pottery taught cancer survivor acceptance
Ong Hwee Suan surrounded by some of the 174 pottery pieces she created for her exhibition titled Beginnings. Photo: Wong Casandra/TODAY
She created 174 pieces of pottery — symbolising the number of lymph nodes that were removed in surgeries
Published: 10:40 PM, May 12, 2017
Updated: 11:39 PM, May 16, 2017

SINGAPORE — Lying in a hospital bed after her third and final operation due to stage 4 thyroid cancer, Ong Hwee Suan could not rest.

The PR professional and ceramics artist — who picked up the art of pottery 22 years ago — wanted to somehow express her fight with cancer through her art.

It was then that she first came up with the idea of creating 174 pottery pieces to represent the total number of lymph nodes that were removed from her neck and chest.

“When you survive the third surgery, you tell yourself it’s a closure of a journey — I survived and I’m still alive... It was a transition point where I looked at and took stock (of my life) again,” said Ong, 49, who is currently the director of communications and development at the Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS) Medical School.

She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — listed by the National Cancer Centre of Singapore as the eighth most common cancer here amongst women — in 2011.

The news came as a shock to an active and healthy individual who, by her own admission, saw a doctor only once “every five to six years”. There were no tell-tale signs save for fatigue, which Ong initially attributed to work.

To fight the cancer, she had to go through three major surgeries and two radioactive iodine treatments.

Physically weakened, she took a year off from work after her final operation in 2012. She was also unable to make “heavy duty” pottery pieces, but while she was recuperating, she could not stop thinking about her art.

She decided to fine-tune and experiment with different ideas. She struck upon the idea of making 174 bean-shaped pieces resembling lymph nodes and started the process in 2014, when she returned to work.

They are on show from Saturday (May 13) at the Visual Arts Centre. Titled Beginnings, the pieces took three years in total to make, and cost Ong around S$15,000 in materials. The pieces come in varying sizes. They are all unique and different, and can be glazed, textured, or carved.

While she was working on the collection, she learnt about the Japanese concepts of kinsugi and wabi-sabi. The former is a design technique that repairs broken pottery with a special lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum; the latter represents the acceptance of imperfection.

Ong had a piece, titled Enlightened, that she was planning to chuck out, as it had three cracks.

A friend pointed out that it was still a lovely piece, precisely for these imperfections.

When she gained the understanding of the concept of wabi-sabi, Ong decided to include the piece in the collection.

“Japanese people believe that you can give new life to objects that are broken,” said Ong. “In Singapore, you don’t exhibit broken pieces, right? It’s not typical for me to accept such imperfections and do such a thing; it’s not how I am brought up and wired as a Singaporean,” she said.

But her cancer has shattered many pre-conceived notions, such as how she views broken pieces such as Enlightened — or how she views life.

Accepting the piece as it was, and embracing it, has been a major turning point for her.

It is “about being open... accepting the unfamiliar and (letting imperfections become) a part of your life”, added Ong.

The pieces shown in Beginnings will be on sale, from S$150 to S$2,800 each. All proceeds from the sale will be donated to Singapore Cancer Society and used to raise awareness for thyroid cancer research at the Duke-NUS Medical School.

Ong is hoping to raise about S$100,000 in total, from both donations and the sale of the exhibited pieces.

Since 2013, Ong has been declared cancer-free by her doctors.

“Cancer is definitely not easy, but it is not a death sentence. I believe there is hope, if one choose to believe and have faith. I think there’s a possibility that life goes on again and I tend to think that life can be perhaps prettier than before despite the scars,” she said.

Beginnings is on from May 13 to 20, 12 to 8pm, at the Visual Arts Centre. Admission is free. Donations to the Singapore Cancer Society or the Duke-NUS Medical School can be made at