I’m always looking for opportunities to give back while I’m travelling. It’s not exactly hard to do in Cambodia – a country with one of the highest NGO-to-citizen rates in the world, where social enterprises lie (literally) around every other corner. To be honest, we didn’t know the Khmer Ceramics Centre in Siem Reap was a not-profit when we booked in for an afternoon pottery class – we just felt like doing something different and hands-on.
I have joyful memories of sitting behind a family friend’s pottery wheel when I was seven or eight years old. I’ve always been drawn to creative processes, and shaping child-sized bowls out of craft-shop clay was one of my first encounters with the handmade.
Seems I’d forgotten just how difficult wheel throwing actually is. Clay looks so soft and yielding; what starts off as an impenetrable raw material becomes more fragile with each spin of the wheel before its final transformation back into solid form. Anything less than a firm touch fails to leave a mark. At the same time, you must be cautious of the potentially ruinous effects of a misplaced forefinger. Working the manual wheel was a real challenge for me – I can’t fathom the level of skill needed to craft the mammoth ceramic water urns that are made in Kampong Chhnang and used throughout rural Cambodia.
The Ceramics Centre focuses on Angkorian pottery techniques (high-temperature ceramics and engraved porcelain), which are decorative rather than purely utilitarian. Expatriate Serge Rega founded the Centre after artisan pottery, like many other fine arts, all but disappeared under the Khmer Rouge. Artisans create homewares for the Centre’s shop in downtown Siem Reap using a blend of red, yellow and white clays, which are all found naturally in Cambodia.
Whereas pottery is a inter-generational vocation in Kampong Chhnang, teachers start out at the Khmer Ceramics Centre as lay students themselves. Part of the Centre’s vision is to provide employment opportunities for disabled or orphaned Cambodians, and all eight staff who currently teach classes are deaf. My instructor, a young woman from Battambang, had only been at the Centre for a few months, but she already knew her way around the tools like it was second nature. Ross’ teacher was lauded as the best artist. He showed us how engraving is done, drawing lotuses into the freshly molded clay by flicking a skewer in long, fluid sweeps; hands twirling like an Apsara dancer.
A two-hour pottery class at the Khmer Ceramics Centre costs 20 USD, including a tour of the studio, the chance to throw and engrave five clay pieces, and one fired vessel to take home. For more information or to book, visit their website.