We are a bit biased in favor of functional craft: designed, artistic–yes–but at the end of the day, functional. That was our whole point when we started out–to see how it was possible to re-introduce the “hand” into our every day lives. So we really didn’t focus that much on things that were more decorative and classically “artistic”.
And of course, that’s a little crazy–as long as there’s a sense of contemporary design married with a strong sense of hand-craft, who cares what it is, or how it’s used? After all, we’re all about intersections, and here we were putting up (hand-plastered) walls instead.
Case in point: the talented ReCheng Tsang–artist, ceramic sculptor, all-around creative. How to describe her work? Smart. Soulful. Moving. Simply, quietly dramatic.
Her work ranges from conceptual multi-media sculptures to highly graphical, sculptural installations (some large and covering entire walls; some smaller) that incorporate repetition of shapes–all ceramic.
In some cases, it’s a series of repeating white circles, in others it’s more square elements arranged on a wall in strong, contemporary geometric patterns. Yes it’s pleasing and bold, but there’s something more that draws you in. And it’s only when you get closer that you understand the secret behind the draw. Each disk or petal is different, raw, organic-looking–but exquisitely wrought. Maybe it’s a slightly different shape. Or a kiss of color along the bottom of one of those squared off petals. The effect is emotional, revelatory, and yes, a little thrilling.
Design + Craft. Oh yeah. I can’t think of a better, more artistic melding of the two.
ReCheng’s studio is an aerie atop her home in Berkeley. (We do love the “peace dividend” industrial studios in all the decommissioned bases around here, but they generally don’t come with views on three sides–or light–like this. The space, by the way, was a “communal meeting place” in the 70s…at least that’s how the property report described it. Mmmhmm, a different kind of peace dividend…) Now, sculptures hang in corners here and there, while her kids’ art (Knoa, 9 and Avi, 6-both girls) adorns the walls.
You studied sociology and Chinese Literature at UC Berkeley, but did you always know you’d be an artist or be involved in “making”? I never really thought about it growing up. Maybe I took it for granted as part of my every day life. I came from a very crafty home, lots of things like tie dying, etc. But I never thought of art as a profession. My mom’s a ceramicist…but I didn’t really see myself following in her footsteps, at least then! I did a fair amount of art in college, though.
How’d you make the shift? I did my graduate studies in Chinese literature and was thinking of doing a PhD. And then I realized that while I loved literature, I really didn’t enjoy writing critical essays. What I really missed was working with my hands.
And how’d you come to do work in ceramics? I went to Tokyo with husband, wanted something to do. So I decided to take pottery at a local studio that was pretty well respected and I was lucky enough to be integrated into their daily practices. I was an apprentice to the studio master, though I was given time to work on my own stuff. I would sit at the wheel all day long, from 10-7. It was great.
What did you learn? I learned about the craft and really built my skills. I learned that there didn’t have to be a line between art and craft. I learned about the importance of technical knowledge. It was a very intensive time for me and I was very humbled by the experience. It required a lot of hard work.
Why’d you choose clay as your medium? I love clay. I love the opposing characteristics: it looks fragile, but the material is pretty strong. It’s ethereal but has hardness. And I just really love the properties of clay. It’s great to work with.
OK, so what came next? I got a visual arts post-baccalaureate degree (with a focus in ceramics) at the University of Washington. I brought pottery and sculpture together in the Baccalaureate program, then kept moving into sculpture…it just felt like the right thing to do.
What influences you in your work? I look a lot at patterns. I look a lot at textiles. I like botanical pieces. I’m also really inspired by the literature I read, much of which is Chinese. There’s a theatrical quality to the novels I like. There’s this writer who writes about the modern period. The way he writes about it, it’s like they’re in a theater. And a plant or a flower symbolizes each of these characters. That’s when I started thinking about the symbolism of plants and flowers. There’s little bit of nostalgia and sadness. The juxtaposition of opposites.
How does that play out in your work? To start with, petals out of porcelain. And I like to take the expected (flowers and porcelain) but put them in ordered, rectilinear form. When I think about my sculpture, I’ve always thought about multiples. I’m interested in creating different spaces with my work. I want to break up the space, change it, transform it, take it over! And I like the idea of taking things that are small and seeing how they can give presence to a particular space. And I like to edge it up, like the red coloring on the tips of white pieces.
Being a bit of a minimalist, or maybe a simplest (is that even a word?)–I’m loving your color palette: whites, grays, a little red. Yeah, I do love working in white on white. I like working in natural. Why? There are lots of subtleties in white that requires a viewer’s attention. Color is distracting sometimes. Simplicity brings out the form better. But I also love the different surfaces of the glaze. How I reconcile that is that I work monochromatically. I work with one color scheme at a time. I think a lot of my work in terms of longevity. Each time I look at it, I discover something new.
What’s your aesthetic? I wouldn’t say I’m a minimalist–it’s a little hard-edged for me. I like things orderly so I have the sensibility there. I love clean, but I also like some pop….I like to bring in softness to my work.
There’s no kiln here. Where do you fire your work? I fire at CCA. It’s an old house so we’d have to completely rewire it for a kiln! But I’m trying to find something close.
Whose work do you admire? Oh so many! Louise Bourgeois (there’s a softness to her later work that I appreciated: it’s more textile related); Richard Tuttle; Lucie Rie; and Hannah Wilke, a ceramic sculptor. It’s all amazing.
So you tend to work on commissions with clients. Why do they come to you, do you think? It’s all word of mouth, but in general, they want something original, something different. They appreciate design, but aren’t artists.
What’s next? In some sense I want to build this body of work up into a business. Right now, I’m trying to figure out whether I want to do smaller panels or stick with these larger wall installations. I’d love my work to go into restaurant or bar or lounge.
Are your kids arty? Knoa is into sewing. My younger daughter, Avi, comes up with the craziest outfits. She loves collages and multiples.
In some sense, there’s a really joyful, childlike (in a good way) quality to your work. Absolutely, they make me look at things more carefully and take time to appreciate the simplest things. They’ll just walk around, picking up the most random things. When you take a closer look at it, it’s interesting. Look beyond face value, look at things more deeply. (Clearly obvious in her work.)
I also find myself looking at things from different perspectives. Adults do things just one way. But as a kid, you’re absorbing everything.
What do you do to recharge? I sew and cook, and we entertain a lot. And I make clothes. (Is there no end to this woman’s creativity? Clearly not.) It’s a newfound thing. It’s an extension of sculpture but it’s not something I see doing as a business. I started by making clothes for kids. I don’t like a lot of stuff that’s out there.
What do you do to get unblocked? I procrastinate, like everyone else. What form does that take? I clean the house. I straighten everything up. But you know, just starting to work is the best way to get unblocked. I just take a circuitous route there.
Who would play you in the movie of your life? Tilda Swinton, maybe Julianne Moore even though they don’t look a thing like me. It’s really mostly aspirational…they have a certain fearlessness that’s subtle, not apparent. It comes through their acting, and in a strange way, their vulnerability.
And what 5 things define you, tell your story? I’m not a bit collector, and not a terribly nostalgic person: I do throw things away. But, if I had to choose:
Jewelry. One piece given to my mom by my grandfather.
And my books. Definitely my books: I’m stingy when it comes to sharing my books with others.
I think that’s it! I’m not that into things, per se.
What’s your worst habit? That I get distracted and I want to clean the house!
Best feature? I see the humor in things. Things don’t faze me very much.
What’s the best gift you’ve given? A pair of pants for my husband that I made backwards and he still wore them.
And what was the best gift you’ve received? For my 40th, my husband collected emails and letters from friends and family, talking about our friendship and what it meant to them. That was amazing.