Fong Choo

The annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts welcomes more than 270 artists to display and sell their art in Northport, Alabama every third Saturday in October. Attending Kentuck for the first time, this year, with my creative writing class was an enlightening experience.

The morning started off with anticipation. My mother and I sped down the road to the school to make it on time so I wouldn’t be left. I held my notebook tightly, not being able to contain the excitement that rested inside of me. We arrived, and after a few minutes of waiting for other people to get there, we were on our way.

My buddy Molly and I were riding with Mr. Dickson, our creative writing teacher, who’s a friendly know-it-all. His pickup truck, which looked big from the outside, was surprisingly cramped on the inside. Beginning our journey, road games, pretty scenery, and interesting chatter kept me from being bored. The excitement of meeting Fong Choo rang in my mind, keeping me awake for the ride. That and it was difficult to sleep with my knees pressed to my chest.

When we finally arrived at the festival, I was dreadfully disappointed. I had been expecting a vast park with large white tents, but Kentuck was relatively small. Mr. Dickson parked the truck, and we unfolded ourselves from it then went to find our other buddy Keyanna.

After we found her, we walked to the admission tent, bought our tickets and entered the festival, where we could hear country music playing. Surprise, surprise . . . Tall pine trees towered over everyone, and various tents were around, including a kid’s area. We took out the map, provided to us at entrance, and we began looking for the artist that Molly was going to interview: Connie Ulrich.

Then, the abominable sneezing began.

To my absolute horror, my allergies began acting up almost immediately. I was still trying to be in awe of the festival, so I pushed it down, and we trudged past the tents toward Section C, where Connie Ulrich would be.

We found her, and I stared in amazement at her beautiful jewelry. These necklaces and rings were fit to be worn by movie stars! There were mixtures of colors, blues and greens, and I could see why Molly would have wanted to meet her. (Molly has always been one to enjoy things of elegance and beauty.)

Keyanna and I, on the other hand, walked around, occasionally looking back at Connie Ulrich, who seemed to be very invested in answering Molly’s questions. I saw this one woman with these paintings with people in colorful Victorian-era clothing who were either doing weird things or standing in weird poses . . .

After Molly was done, she bought some earrings, and we were on our way to see the acclaimed Fong Choo! When we reached Section E, I kept my eyes peeled, looking around for his beautiful teapots.

When I finally found them, I rushed over! Seeing his teapots “in person” seemed like an honor, and out came the man himself. Fong Choo wore a white t-shirt and jeans, and looked very casual. I introduced myself and he invited me to the back of the tent, where we would start our interview.

“You were born in Singapore. What was it like? Why did you move to Louisville?” I asked him.

He answered, “Singapore is a small city in Indonesia. I moved to Louisville to get my college degree.”

I nodded before asking my second question. “What’s your family like? Do they support your artwork?”

He shook his head, “They didn’t at first, but now they do.”

I suppose that whatever pays bills deserves a little support.

“I hear your works only take a few minutes at a time to make. Is that due to skill, or is it that easy to shape amazing pottery?”

He chuckled a little and said, “It takes a long time to learn something, before even coming to Kentuck. So I feel like asking an artist how long it takes to make their work is an absurd question.”

I also asked if Fong Choo had any role models. There had to be someone he admired or thought of, when creating these clay masterpieces. He thought for a moment before saying simply that he admired many contemporary artists.

I had read that Choo had graduated from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, and I asked him, “You used to be a business major, and you began taking art classes, and you loved pottery so much you never looked back. Why did clay enamor you so much?”

“Why does anyone do anything different?” he asked me in return. “Everyone is drawn to different things.”

I suppose that’s why everyone in that festival was selling different things, bringing new ideas for our infinitely curious eyes to see.

I then asked Choo if he remembered the first ceramic he had ever created, and he told me, “It was in fall of 1983. It was crude and awkward but everything is, at first.” Out of all of the true things he said, I liked this best, flashing back to the first story I had ever written. It was funny to think of Mozart sounding like absolute trash the first time he ever sat at a piano!

“As you continued to pursue a career in art, why did you choose to style teapots?” I was unsure of this question, thinking it to be a bit rude.

But he didn’t seem offended, which relieved me. “When you walk this event, you see thousands of ideas, and I picked a teapot. It’s unique and focused.” Basically, he wanted to stand out, and he did.

I asked him about the obstacles he faced beginning as an artist. “Long hours, very low investment and pay, not as rewarding as it should be. However, you get to travel and meet other artists.”

“What color patterns do you enjoy using for your art?” I asked him and he gave me a friendly smile.

“Answer that question yourself,” he said, and at first I was confused. “Go inside the booth and see for yourself.”

I did as he instructed, going into the booth where the sunlight fell on these beautiful teapots. There were some that were one solid color and others on which colors were mixed perfectly, fitting the petite nature of the pot.

I then asked him whether or not porcelain was the best material for pottery, and he gestured to an artist across from his booth that used clay different from his. He told me that there are lots of types of clay, he just happened to pick porcelain.

I asked him if there were things he did other than ceramics. “Fishing, woodworking are hobbies of mine. I used to paint but not anymore.” He told me, raising my curiosity about seeing a Fong Choo painting.

Fong Choo has won many awards, including the Silver Award at Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington DC, first place at the St. Louis Art Fair, and many more. I asked him which of these he was the most proud of, and he told me that he “doesn’t rank awards,” and I suppose no one should.

Fong Choo had also taught in many places – Canada, Israel, Indonesia, and in Singapore – and I asked him if any of those places has inspired any artwork. He told me, “Whenever you teach, you share.”

Fong is currently a resident-artist position at Bellarmine University, so I asked him whether or not that experience has changed his life. “Yes and no because I work alongside my students. I want to inspire them to work harder. I am present while the students work. I walk the walk and talk the talk. They can’t mess with me or say I can’t teach art because I can.”

I then asked Choo if he had any advice for any aspiring artists, and what he told me was inspirational. “You have to have a good work ethic and understand it takes work. Keep working, your time will come.” And they were words to live by.

“Last question then I’ll be out of your hair,” I said. “If you could change anything that happened in your journey as an artist, would you?”

“I wouldn’t, because even though it has ups and downs, it’s been a good life. I do it for the money and the love of art that I have.”

Fong Choo then asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated, and I told him that I wanted to be a screenwriter, something he smiled at. He told me that I should try painting, and after a moment’s thought, I decided maybe I could.

It could be a little hobby until my time came.

After walking around and viewing the other amazing and unique artistry, including the artist that Keyanna had come to interview, Kerry Leasure, it was time to go.

On the ride home, I was completely silent, reflecting on the festival, which hadn’t been too great . . . but not too bad either.

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