Master Somluk Pantiboon, nurturing the craft heritage
Master Somluk Pantiboon remembers being passionate about the arts in his childhood days. As a youth, he wanted to study in Chiang Mai, but at the time no faculty of liberal arts had been established, so he chose to study the nearest related field he could find, which was industrial design at the Chiang Mai Vocational College, Payap University. It was as a student working at a pottery factory to pay for his tuition that he became interested in pottery. Today, he is an artist, the master potter who founded the Chiang Rai’s renowned Doi Din Dang Pottery.
When Master Somluk graduated from college, he moved to Bangkok and worked for the UNHCR providing care for refugees and stateless persons at a camp in Sakaew province, where he spent six years being responsible for pottery and teaching arts. His experience in that camp again sparked something that set him on a new path. This time, it was to Japan, where he spent five years studying pottery in Karatsu, a city famous for its ceramic wares since at least the 16th century CE. Eventually, it became time for him to return to his homeland.
“When it came time to come home, I set up in Chiang Rai,” said Master Somluk. “I bought a plot of land in an undeveloped area that had no road access nor electricity. My house was the only building around. I started building a pottery from wood saved by my mother from our old house in Chiang Khong. That was the very first building and was built as a place where I could work. I really needed to start earning some money, but it took longer for me to understand that two other significant factors are necessary — crafts and art. The gallery and shop I built came from a conjunction of tools to do the work and art to provide the motivation.”
The wheel of thoughts
The fact that Doy Din Dang is widely recognized among potters is in large part due to Master Somluk’s international reputation as an expert potter, though Master Somluk himself suggests that it is only because he has been around for a long time working at his place. Be that as it may, Doy Din Daeng Pottery is a must visit destination in Chiang Rai Province.
“A good thing about being well known is you get to share. I don’t aim for fancy outcomes; it is only necessary to say that key to creating attractive works is to put heart and soul into every piece you make. Only then will people buy your works and support you. And when you are committed to both creating quality work and constantly improving on it, then that devotion will attract yet more people who appreciate its value. Only then can you survive by letting creativity generate more innovation that will attract more notice and lead to yet more innovations. People then notice there is a future for artisans, and this in turn generates a cycle of demand and supply that leads to the heritage of knowledge being passed on in an artisanal ecosystem. Take Japan for an example, ceramic wares are used everywhere, especially on the dining table. Such wares for daily use eventually get broken and must be replaced, generating yet more possibilities for creativity.”
Master Somluk said his inspiration comes from everyday things, whether it be food, flowers or simple living, or from items he likes such as Sawankhalok wares, Singburi kiln wares or the things he sees during visits Chiang Mai.
“We use hand-based techniques to form most of our pottery products. They result from integrating local and contemporary know how, but it is the unique glazes that makes our work stand out. These are combinations of ancient glazing techniques combined experience using trial-and-error experimentation in which we use waste by products such as leftover rice straw. This has helped give us our uniqueness,” said Master Somluk.
Each time I fire up the kiln, one challenge or another will come up. On some days, everything goes perfectly well and on others it doesn’t. There are times when I feel overwhelmed, and times when I am full of joy, and sometimes I feel sad.”
Nurturing the craft heritage
Other than tourists, Master Somluk said Doy Din Daeng’s customers are architects and owners of hotels, restaurants and cafés. “It’s not just a matter of taking orders but is a collaborative process. Both parties can be engaged in designing products. If we simply worked to order, we would lack creativity and use of thinking processes. By working together with customers, the thinking processes blossom on both sides, and through these processes, we tap into a sustainable creative way of life that results in customers getting innovative new products.”
“Teaching sustains crafts”, said Master Somluk, who welcomes pupils from different fields. “Those who are committed and dedicated will get hands-on experience. I believe everybody can succeed; they just need to find the right path for themselves. If it is obvious that pottery is not somebody’s forte, I don’t shy away from telling them so that neither of us waste time. Outcomes are different for each person. While some gain experience and discover more about themselves, others progress to eventually become professional potters and set up their own kilns.
“Craftwork is not simple; it is not something fashionable. You can’t just take it easy for you have to be fully committed. We are not a school; we are a factory. Those who are committed and open to learning will find such values embedded in the way we work. From preparing clay to glazing, every step of production requires hard work and dedication. It cannot be taken lightly,” said Mater Somluck.
For more than three decades, Doy Din Dang has been robust and remained little affected by economic changes until the Covid pandemic. Despite the resulting slowdown in business, Master Somluk kept his 12 staff, which meant providing for 12 families. There was an upside, however, and that is the artist in Master Somluk could take a break from teaching and have more time for himself.
“Because there aren’t that many craft museums, I was determined to build one in an orchard I had bought. It didn’t have to be big, but I wanted it to be useful. The museum will exhibit different forms of pottery from different places and times, from the Sukhothai era to household items from my own collection of Japanese ceramics. I truly hope that the rich traditions of pottery will live on through generations of Doy Din Dang pupils. Many of the potters who studied with us have now become famous. I believe in the drive and passion of the younger generation. We must acknowledge that pottery is and should always be a part of our daily lives. It is something that is delicate and yet strong, which is why it has such charm.”
Getting to the core
“Craftwork requires commitment. Whether creating fashionable and modern works or traditional pieces, the artisanal essence in craftwork should never be neglected. Why? Because it tells stories about life. I think craftwork should be elaborate and humble rather than stylish, fabricated and loud. Just let it be authentic. A craft that is complex evolves from elaborate ways of being and thinking. It is important that we contemplate on the whole elaborate process of pottery making. The essence of the craft is in feeling the clay and then understanding it through our hearts. It is this that must be passed on.”
Reflecting on his goals for Doy Din Dang, Master Somluk said, “I take things one step at a time, focusing on what’s in front of me and giving it my best. To deliver the best is in my nature. It comes from within.”