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imitation...the sincerest form of flattery?

updated wed 8 jun 05


Maureen Mecozzi on tue 7 jun 05

Reading the posts about ripping off another potter=92s ideas, I thought I
would share a perspective from Asia, where copying is a true art form.
This is the home of the pirated DVD, the knock-off Rolex watches and Louis
Vuitton handbags, the latest version of Windows (at $2 a pop) available
before even Bill Gates has it booted up on his own PC.

For the past 10 years, my home has been in the small island nation of
Singapore. There are three potters here of note: The Chua brothers (Soo
Kim and Soo Khim), and Iskander Jalil.

I had always wanted to learn how to make pottery, and started taking
lessons with the Chuas. Their work is informed by classical Chinese
pottery. It is stunning in its grace, and in the deep, intense, mirror-
smooth glazes they employ.

I noticed other students often asked Mr. Chua to do the final shaping of
their pots. There didn=92t seem to be any problem with this. I also saw his
students exhibit and sell pots in shows under their own names =96 but I was
there when those pots were made, and most of the time all the student did
was wedge the clay and get it centered!

The upshot is, wherever pottery is sold in Singapore, you can tell
immediately if the potter was a previous student of the Chua=92s, or
Iskander. The imitation is so blatant that it goes beyond imitation.

Although the student pieces may have the same =93look=94 they invariably lac=
the refinement of scale, the pleasing balance, the sheer shapeliness of
the teacher=92s work. I haven=92t been potting long, but it seems this sense=

of proportion and =93rightness=94 is one thing that really sets an artist
apart from the duffers.

In another class I took with a different teacher here, I was working on a
large tall pot. I=92d gotten the height up to where I wanted it to be and
decided to take a short break before the final shaping.

When I returned 10 minutes later, the pot had been completely altered by
the teacher, Master Pang, who simply took it upon himself to finish the
pot in the way he thought best. I was stunned and a little angry, though I
tried hard not to show it (=93saving face=94 really is important; it=92s ver=
bad form to lose your temper in public). The other students in the class
thought it was quite wonderful that Master Pang had thought enough of my
piece to finish it himself!

It seems in Asia, the primacy of the individual or the originality of the
idea is not the critical thing. Honoring traditions and teachers through
imitation is.