When you hear the word ‘ceramics’ what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s hand-thrown pots and vases? Ceramicist Nam Tran makes these very well, but his creations also include ceramic Nike’s, an army of Lego-inspired ‘Ego Men’, and even a range of sports cars.
There’s a hungry market for Nam’s pop-culture inflected creations, and he’s kept busy through commissions and teaching in his studio. So, how did he get to this point after graduating from University of the Arts London (UAL)? We summarise the best bits from Nam’s Gradual interview below.
*GradUAL is a podcast that explores the big questions and challenges that many new graduates will face. In each episode, we share unfiltered stories from creative professionals who make a living doing what they love. Search ‘Gradual Podcast’ on popular podcast platforms to subscribe and listen. Created by UAL Careers and Employability.
Part One: Into Education
Nam was raised in East London, after immigrating to the UK with his Vietnamese family. At 3:15 minutes into the podcast Nam explains how more traditional career paths (law, accounting etc) are valued in his family over the arts – so his parents took some convincing to get on board with his decision to study ceramics. He made them a promise: “I’ll crack this, I’ll make this into a career, I’ll be on TV.” As it turns out, Nam made good on that promise and ended up on the BBC’s ‘The Great Pottery Throw Down’. More on that later.
A love of clay
At 5:00 minutes in Nam tells the story of how during a facilities tour in foundation his group was taken to the ceramic room to have a look. All of his classmates disappeared. Nam stayed. He played about with the clay, just experimenting and “messing about”. He loved it. His final foundation exhibition was all pottery-based and his tutor bought half of it, and this made Nam think, “Wow, this could be a career.”
Nam was a big fish in a small pond during foundation. But things changed when he got to CSM and started his BA: “I was like, damn this world is filled with amazing artists and craft people”. Nam felt the pressure to ‘stand out’. Ultimately this pressure diverted him from the playful approach he initially had with clay. It became a ‘box-ticking exercise’. You can hear more about this difficult time at 7:00 minutes in.
Part Two: Into Work
Nam was accepted into the Royal College of Arts while finishing up his last year at UAL. Just a little background for those creatives-in-the-making out there, the RCA is the most prestigious post-graduate art college in the United Kingdom, and a masters from there can really boost a career and open all sorts of possibilities. Skip forward to 8:00 minutes in to hear how Nam actually dropped out in his second year at the RCA (Nam jokingly calls himself “the royal dropout”) and fell into a mini depression, going to work the night-shift at Sainsbury’s.
Nam was only pulled out of his malaise by a highly unlikely event. He received a letter from a lawyer saying that he had been left the life’s work – supplies, equipment…everything – of David Cook, a ceramics technician at CSM. When asked by interviewer Adai why David left him everything Nam says: “In the will it said I should open my own studio, and continue to teach and inspire people like he did.” This is a truly moving part of the podcast, so to hear it in detail listen from 9:00 minutes in.
Suddenly Nam had a real incentive to get back into pottery. He immediately quit his job at Sainsbury’s and rushed around looking for a studio space. Today Nam has two studios where he teaches as well as works on commissions (a commission means a client approaches an artist and asks them to make a specific product, you can see examples of Nam’s commissions on his Instagram account, as well as his pug having a go at the throwing wheel!). Nam’s career blossomed from there, he also found himself on the BBCs The Great Pottery Throw Down. The crazy thing was that Nam didn’t even want to be on the show, he was just there supporting a couple of his students and the producers took a liking to him. Hear him explain that at 14:00 minutes in. This leads us to something really special about Nam. He always welcomes UAL graduates to his studio with open arms, offering to help wherever he can. Read on for Nam’s top tips.
Part Three: Nam’s tips for students
1) Find your peers:
Nam says it’s really important to get to know people while you’re at university. These people become your peers, and as a graduate you’ll be able to call on that network for help (and also help them too).
2) Know the right people:
Before you do this, you need to really clarify what you want to do in ceramics. Then find the person who is best situated to help you and get to know them.
3) Look for hidden studios:
Nam sayst here are a lot of pottery studios out there, and that it’s important to get involved in these communities.
Want to know more about what Nam is up to? Follow him online:
Interested in ceramics? Take a look at this course: