Hong Vo is not your average PhD student. She may labour in the lab for hours on end researching the visual systems of mantis shrimps, but she spends every ounce of her free time behind the wheel—the pottery wheel, that is.

Up a dusty driveway off Montague Road, making itself at home in the shell of an old woodfired bakery is Clayschool, a studio dedicated to the sensory art of clay. Hong has been coming here for more than two years, a regular around the kiln and one of a handful of assistants volunteering their time in exchange for studio hours. It is a rare pairing, marine science and clay making, but Hong makes it seem like an obvious match. “They balance each other out. Clay to me is very stress free and relaxing. It switches on your creative mind, which is different to science. Science can be creative, but it’s very structural, and can be very frustrating. But I don’t find clay frustrating. I find it peaceful. Time flies by.”

From muddy clay to miniscule shrimp, Hong sees beauty in all aspects of the world, reflective of her background trekking countries looking for a way to be closer to her second passion, the ocean. Born in Vietnam, at age nine, Hong and her family escaped their war-torn home to settle in Texas in the United States. There, Hong found her love for ecology. Studying abroad in Sweden, Hong finally settled in Australia to be closer to the marine field. She says experimental science is all about following protocols, but with clay, she can throw the rulebook out the window. “You create your own style. The teachers will show you the basics, but once you learn, you can break the rules.”

There are days when Hong struggles to balance her two selves, the creative with the analytical, and on those days she wonders if she should shelve her clay making for a few years while she finishes her studies. But she knows, “The moment I stop doing it, I’ll miss it.” She aspires to combine her two passions, once crafting life-size clay coral to display at UQ’s Ecosciences Precinct to draw attention to the degrading nature of coral reefs. In a time when materialism and greed are at its most prominent, Hong finds happiness not in the having, but in the making. She sells her wares in the Museum of Brisbane and Boundary Street’s Kazuyo’s Collection, as well as at the biannual ClaySchool Market.

In preparation for the next Clayschool show, Hong carefully draws a pair of “leather hard” naked bowls out of a drying box. Turning them in her hands, the smooth clay is almost ready to be blasted in the kiln. With each turn, she envisions the finished product. “I’ll put blue, then carve on the outside,” Hong muses, running her hands over the faultlessly rounded arches. “That’s the beauty of the wheel, all you have to do is move your hands, and it will make something perfect for you.”

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