Monica Galan of Salamat Ceramics makes pieces that all serve a purpose – kitchenware, vases, planters – but what comes to mind when viewing her simple, elegant work is sculpture. Her art delightfully blurs the line between what we traditionally think of as ceramics (earthy, raw, functional) and elements typically associated with sculpture (gracefulness, ornament, frivolity).
Despite ceramics being one of the oldest mediums of self-expression, Monica’s blurring of the lines has the effect of creating pieces that feel at once familiar and also vibrantly new and exciting. The hard clays, earthy glazes, and natural colors that define her style call to mind the pottery of antiquity, but her playfulness, elegance, and unique shapes are the stuff of modern art. Her stunning single stem vases, for instance, would feel equally at home on display in a contemporary art museum and on a humble windowsill.
Her pieces manage to feel polished and raw at the same time. They are mesmerizing in their simplicity – nothing feels superfluous, but nothing is missing either. Every aspect of the piece is necessary and intentional. This mastery of simplicity is the sign of a true artist.
In addition to creating a link between the history and future of her craft, and between ceramics and sculpture, Monica’s art also creates a literal link between people. Salamat means “thank you” in Tagalog, and she strives to bring the spirit of this sentiment into her creative process. She hand-makes each piece personally as a way of creating a bond between the piece itself and its next set of hands.
Monica also has a charming tradition of giving pieces with slight defects to total strangers (although she’s often initially met with wariness…). In the digital age, these face-to-face connections, as well as the human instinct towards tactile materials, needs to be nurtured. Salamat Ceramics excels at both.
What made you want to become a ceramicist?
After picking ceramics up as a hobby, I realized about a year and half into it that I was seriously passionate about the art. My dedication came naturally. After years of working in the corporate world, I came to understand that lifestyle and day-to-day wasn’t the path for me. My focus quickly shifted to try and make ceramics my full- time job. I worked full time and did ceramics in conjunction for three years. I’m excited to share that I’ve decided to commit myself to doing ceramics full time starting April 2019.
What was the first time you threw a piece on a pottery wheel like?
I took my first ceramics class November 6, 2015. I threw with a soft clay body called B-mix. The hardest part was centering my piece, which typically is the most difficult. I wanted to learn fast. The instructor always told me to slow down! My foot pedal was practically going through the floor. The next class I worked with a grittier clay, a type of stoneware. It felt comfortable and familiar. I feel like that’s how I developed my raw, simple, and earthy style. I found that I was drawn to stoneware.
What does your typical day in the studio look like?
I work out of my home studio in Highland Park and a group studio in Long Beach called Clay Studio, which is also where all my work is fired. Let’s see, when I work in the comfort of my own home I’m able to make breakfast and let the dogs roam in the yard. I’ll typically throw ten to twelve pieces and clock in at least two to three hours, depending on the size of the pieces. If I’m having a trim day, I’ll trim my pieces and hopefully throw more if time permits. I’ll sometimes drive to Long Beach the same day to transfer my stuff to get fired, then while I’m there, I’ll either glaze or fill my shelf there with more work. My schedule is always different as I plan my weeks based on what and how much I need to produce. I’ll always have my shelves filled at the home studio or Long Beach studio so there’s always production and things are moving.
Do you have any rituals before you begin a piece? Any superstitions?
Aside from wedging (which most people do), I slightly wet my wood bats to make the clay stick better and have been lighting incense just before I start. No superstitions, but I’ve learned if you are having a bad day on the wheel it’s you, not the clay. Take a break and breathe.
Salamat means “thank you” in Tagalog. What made you decide to choose this? Is gratitude a driving force behind why you do what you do?
I wanted something that resonates with me, and my Filipino background seemed perfect. I wanted to embrace the simplicity of “thank you” and the level of impact it has. Aside from trying make a living from ceramics, gratitude is absolutely a driving force. I’ve always had curiosity for people and their lives: what they do, who they do it for, their passion, values, you know… all that good stuff. I see how hard people work and think about the type of day they had, whether it be good or bad. I had a habit of giving ceramics away to people I had crossed paths with – my dry cleaner, the woman at the burger shop. All of them were so excited to receive something for nothing… I decided to make it a normal thing to hopefully influence people to do the same. Be nice and make people smile.
Yes, you have a practice of giving pieces with slight defects to complete strangers so they don’t go to waste, which is so sweet.
It’s funny, people are wary of accepting gifts from strangers. Everyone really hesitates when I approach them. I mean, a stranger handing you a handmade vase filled with flowers, frightening! They immediately assume I’m selling it, or expecting something in return… or maybe just don’t want to be bothered. It’s quite the accomplishment when someone is appreciative of it right away.
Where do you find inspiration?
Food, nature, environment, and mood. I’m a big foodie and love the idea of plating and my work helping elevate and complement someone else’s art. Same with interior spaces – collaborating or working with someone’s space is always a fun way to come up with new ideas and ways you can work into their space. Thinking of new ways of customer exchange is always fun, and branding and appreciation is something I’m continuously working.
Do you only work using a pottery wheel, or do you make free form pieces as well?
Most of all my work is wheel thrown. Some pieces have become a hybrid of wheel thrown and hand built. I’ve been tapping into combining the two techniques more which is exciting.
If you weren’t a ceramicist, what would you be?
I’d have to find something to fill my creative outlet. I’m content where I am, I just got here! But maybe do voice-overs for cartoons?
What is your favorite piece you’ve ever made?
My dual donut vase that connects with a subtle detailed triangle glaze on the mouth of the vase. There’s a new one stem vase that I’ve been prototyping. It’s been a bit faulty, but I’m very excited to share once it’s ready!
You recently got engaged, congratulations! How did your fiancée propose?
I did! Thank you. Very excited. It was our second night in Rome. After sightseeing all day, we went to a nice dinner at this amazing place Pianostrada. We then walked to the Trevi Fountain, and got heckled to have our picture taken and buy roses, which we did. We walked around the city and gave flowers to some homeless people on steps and grabbed some drinks along the way. I was a bit under the weather and ready to go back to our home in Travstere. Just after we crossed the bridge, he asked to walk along the water. I looked at the steps and was immediately turned off and replied, “But our house is this way?” It was perfect, we walked on the other bridge and he continued to take photos and I said my feet hurt and I’m tired, I need to sleep, I want to go home, and turned my back. He tapped on my shoulder and said, “Hey hey!” and was on his knee…. I cried… the end.
What’s the last great book you read?
Ah! I’m not much of a reader, but more of a watcher… Game of Thrones anyone? The last book I finished was Just Kids by Patti Smith and that was years ago! I am trying to make more of an effort, I’ve been wanting to read A Little Life.
What’s the worse job you’ve ever had?
I worked at a mom-and-pop party supply store in high school. Filling balloons was the easy part, but holy shit did they have inventory! Like tons of toys and all the party favors you can think of. That was rough.
What is your absolute favorite place on earth?
Mount Whitney, Lone Pine, Independence, Inyo county. I’ve had so many special moments there. It’s somewhere close to home, but feels so far. It’s my favorite place to disconnect, do some self-tuning, and relax.
You work in a shared studio space, as well as belong to a women’s collective of artists. How does this community influence your work?
Working in a shared studio space has had such a great influence on my work and on me as a human. I’ve been at Clay Studio for two or so years. I love the staff and community there, they naturally push me to do more and support me to do so. There are a few members there: Ekua, Nancy, and Cande Ceramics, all women and a man trying to do their thing and hustle. We’ve helped and seen each other grow... it’s pretty special. Same with the women at Hera Collective – both of these artist communities remind me to be yourself, do your thing, support others, and the right people will support you.