When I see Jen, she’s wearing a bandana she crocheted herself and a slouchy green bag designed by a local Canadian artist. She’s asking me and the rest of her students if we want tea. Half of us politely decline and the other half accept her offer. We’re handed herbal tea served out of her handmade, marbled ceramic cups before we begin tinkering with clay and settling into the homey space.
Jen Phuong Tran is a Scarborough-based multidisciplinary artist and the owner of the ceramic studio For Flux Sake. She embodies creativity through each of her aesthetic choices, hobbies, and gigs. “The art side of my life was so suppressed as a kid. So maybe that’s why it kind of exploded in my adult years,” she said. As a multidisciplinary artist, she works in ceramics, writes poetry, and paints. Looking back, even her paintings were grounded in structural figures and objects.
One can see how that translates easily over to pottery, a physical, primarily three-dimensional art form. Jen began pottery by taking wheel-throwing classes in small studios during the pandemic. She eventually got her own wheel, but even then, she wasn’t sure that that was the medium for her; the learning curve was steep, and she didn’t feel like she had the flexibility to explore the forms she wanted to through the wheel. Rather than discounting the medium of ceramics, she found her footing in handbuilding — a process of making pottery without a wheel — by watching YouTube videos and practicing.
After a few years of practicing pottery and art, Jen has gotten to a point where she’s comfortable with herself as an artist — or at least comfortable with what she still wants to figure out as an artist.
She says that her development as an artist didn’t “just happen overnight.” Most of us aren’t born identifying as artists and as we practice art, we get to a point where we ask ourselves, ‘Am I an artist? What does it mean to be an artist?’ To me, being an artist can manifest in the way one sees things and expresses themselves — it is a desire to create things and say something meaningful about the world.
And Jen’s husband asserts this for her straightforwardly: he tells her, “You’re an artist. Just admit it.” With the support of her friends and family, Jen says that finding her voice within functional and decorative ceramics is her “lifelong pursuit” and “purpose.” Her artistic journey is ongoing.
Jen’s path to being a creative wasn’t predetermined. When she first attended U of T, she was there to study civil engineering — her parents also happen to be engineers. However, when she took an elective in art history, a subject she knew nothing about, she discovered that she found the art world much more fascinating. It “lit something up in my inner soul,” she told me.
She switched programs to major in art history and minor in German and classics. Art history allowed her to think deliberately and critically about art. Nowadays, she spends part of her week working as an optician while also teaching pottery and creating new works.
Jen’s current work explores how to feel at home and in familiar territory. She draws inspiration from the German word “unheimlich,” which means uncanny but is also the root of the word “unhomely.” Through the sense of uncanniness, one feels uncomfortable and in an unfamiliar space. Her work strives to push against the unheimlich-ness that we might feel, especially because Jen knows what it’s like to feel uncomfortable with aspects of herself that don’t fit in neatly defined labels. She’s Vietnamese-Canadian but was born in Hong Kong. For her and those around her, home has always been a moving target. Returning to a place that’s supposed to be home, like Vietnam, doesn’t always feel like home, and she’s had to redefine ‘home’ for herself.
To reflect these experiences, Jen created a series of vases that play with the concept of home — a home can be a funky bottle house or a vase filled with someone’s sentimental objects. She says that the malleable nature of pottery allows us to envision normally disparate ideas in one physical plane and to take pieces from different aspects of one’s identity. In one vase, objects like a fish, fried egg, and mushroom protrude out in an explicit reminder of what one considers home and comforting. Those objects are there to make sense to her.
The For Flux Sake studio
Jen’s pottery studio, For Flux Sake, emerged as her teaching practice grew. Initially, she operated out of her parents’ garage where she set up a kiln and started teaching. With more students, Jen had to think more intentionally about the space she was using to host classes. At the same time, she frequented Boulder Parc — a climbing gym in Scarborough — and was integrated into the climbing community there. She approached the owners of Boulder Parc to ask if she could use the extra space in the gym to teach and install a kiln. With the owners’ approval, the studio was set in motion, and Jen officially became a business owner.
October 2023 marks two years of Jen’s studio. For Flux Sake is a ceramics-focused studio tucked away inside Boulder Parc and less than a 10-minute drive from UTSC. The studio has handbuilding classes as well as screenprinting and crochet workshops. In these pottery classes, Jen doesn’t consider herself a traditional teacher but considers herself the “artists’ assistant,” who is merely there to “assist in making their idea come to life.”
Students can also become members of the Potters Collective, where they have daily access to the studio, a dedicated shelf, and access to regular firings. While many pottery studios exist in Toronto, few are outside of downtown Toronto and offer the flexibility of For Flux Sake. Many studios in downtown Toronto have long waitlists for applicants and require members to demonstrate their artistic prowess to join.
Jen’s current priority is to have a critical mass of members constantly working there. Her hope for the studio is that “people can find something that they love and really zone out and do that thing.” The studio is growing and becoming a space that serves all kinds of artists. And she knows she’s on the right track when students come back. For anyone intimidated to join, Jen says, “We’re here in the back of a climbing gym! Come and say hi.”
A poster that says “crying is healing” hangs above the members’ shelves. The space is a ceramic studio, an art studio, and a communal safe space for individuals to show up as themselves. It is surprising for an art studio to be in a climbing gym, but this unexpectedness is an outgrowth of all of Jen’s roles.
Jen says that societal messaging sometimes suggests that “you have to focus on one thing, and that’s the only way you can be successful.” Her biggest pushback against that argument is that “a lot of things overlap, and life isn’t one thing.” Jen’s swimming in all the lanes and figuring it out as she goes — with her art, studio, and community to prove it.
Disclosure: Franchesca Fu is a member of For Flux Sake studio.