LiLynn Wan: from pottery to a PhD and back again

LiLynn Wan is a former university professor who traded in an academic career to become a full-time potter.

She is hunched over the wheel which flings water and clay against the cardboard wall. Her thumbs dig into a lump of clay. Her fingers latch onto the outside of the lump and pull up. It grows. Another downward pull – or throw in potter lingo – and the lump begins to take shape. Happy with the result, she grabs a wire, not much thicker than a fishing line, presses it down on the wheel behind the soon-to-be-mug and yanks towards her. This frees her new piece and she gently lays it on a board to dry before being baked in the kiln.

This is LiLynn Wan’s craft and passion: pottery. Proud owner of WaterDragon Pottery, she’s everything from the business’s CEO to floor sweeper – literally. Most of her week consists of sitting at the wheel molding, folding, working the clay.

However, it wasn’t always this way – well, other than the early mornings.

Wan was born into a religious family in British Columbia. Her family moved to Singapore for a few years, then to Ontario before heading to Maryland, in the U.S. While in Maryland, she dropped out of Grade 11 and moved into a family friend’s home; this is where she first encountered pottery.

Wan was put to work in a small studio, sweeping floors and cleaning after the potter. “They slowly introduced me to mixing clays and glazes… but I didn’t touch the wheel for a whole two years,” she says.

And then, she was pregnant.

As a single, 19-year-old mother, Wan moved back to B.C. and worked in pottery for a couple of years, but it wasn’t enough. “I figured out a student loan gave me more money than welfare and that’s why I went back to school. I also had some sense that I should do something with myself and try and take care of my son a little better.” She enrolled in Okanagan University College and in 2004, she graduated with a bachelors in History.

After graduating, many of her professors encouraged her to apply for a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) to pursue a master’s degree. She did, and to her surprise, she received it. Then, her and her son Lucas flew east to Nova Scotia. “I didn’t want to live in the city, and BC is really expensive, and I had a son. If you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have the best options for [elementary] schools.”

But her first impression of Dalhousie University and the history program was much different from what she expected.

She was shocked after stepping into her first class; “It was white washed, everyone was white,” she says. She believed Halifax and the university to be much more diverse since “[it] advertises itself as being an international institution”. Despite this, Wan continued with her master’s – focused on race relations.

“Once you’re in [academics], you’re in this machine. There are just things you do,” she says. And so, she applied for another SSHRC for her PhD. “You can’t say no when someone hands you $35,000 a year to read some books.” Four years, a change in supervisor and a thesis defense later, Wan graduated with a PhD in history in 2009.

Shirley Tillotson, Wan’s supervisor, summed up her student as someone who “given the space to think through a problem, she’ll take it and mull it over for a while. She’s very practical in that sense.” Although their relationship was only professional at first, the pair have grown a friendship out of “mutual affection and respect.”

Colin Mitchell, also a history professor at Dalhousie, has followed Wan’s transition to pottery. Towards the end of her PhD, he says they discussed her options, both academically and for her pottery. “She was keen to rediscover a passion she had had earlier and make it more than just a hobby, more than an emotional outlet,” says Mitchell. Both he and Tillotson have become faithful customers of WaterDragon Pottery.

After graduating, though, Wan opted for an academic route and landed a job as a part-time lecturer at Mount Saint Vincent University for a year. Afterwards, she went back to Dal and taught for another two years.

Still, things didn’t feel right.

“I wasn’t willing to do the scramble… If you teach part-time, which is still a pretty heavy load, you come out of it with $24,000,” she says, shrugging at the thought.

She was a single parent – with a PhD – barely making ends meet.

But there’s more than money in the equation. “Academics is all about judging, ranking, ingraining, arguing, and being competitive. [It’s] about winning and losing, that’s the basis of academic life.”

And so, she quit.

Despite not touching the wheel for about seven years, Wan went back to pottery. “I knew I missed it a lot because while I was in graduate school, I remember thinking about it and thinking about being on the wheel and how to make the different forms,” she says.

WaterDragon Pottery was born soon afterwards.

Now, a little more than two years down the road, WaterDragon has done nothing but grow. Mugs, bowls, vases — and her personal favourite: teapots — are sprinkled around Wan’s studio, waiting to be baked.

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Her academic career has surfaced in the past two years as a guest lecturer on medieval ceramics in Mitchell’s first-year history class. The perfect balance between art and academics. “It’s no small thing to reinvent yourself,” says Mitchell.

But for the most part, Wan works the wheel in her home in Herring Cove, and sells on Saturdays at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market.

She wakes up at 4 a.m. to pack her black Honda Civic tight enough to burst with crates full of butter dishes, honey jars and garlic holders. All handmade – one by one. By 5:15, she squeezes into the car, which barely has enough space for her anymore, and drives the half-hour to get to the market. Once she arrives, it takes her just under an hour and a half to set up on the market’s second floor and greet her early-bird customers.