Chanakarn Semachai, ”Morning Passenger” 2019, W25.5” H12” D18”, Media: Stoneware, Firing Process: Electric, Mid-range, Surface: Engobe / Slip / Underglaze, Glazed, Lustre. Image courtesy of the artist.
Each year, KOBO Seattle invites one or two guest curators to choose about fifty ceramic artists, and those chosen artists create a cup for the annual Simple Cup Show. This November, KOBO will host the 14th Annual Simple Cup Show, and one of the guest curators is Chanakarn “Punch” Semachai.
KOBO is an artisan gallery featuring both traditional and contemporary Japanese and Northwest fine crafts. Binko Chiong-Bisbee and John Bisbee created the KOBO space in the International District in the former home of the Higo Variety Store, to augment their Capitol Hill space which has been open since 1995.
The space and the event are designed to make artists such as Semachai feel right at home. “Most of the time I’m on the other side of this,” she said. “I’m the one who applies to be in shows, and speaking from my own experience, it’s the best way to get your work out there.”
Semachai describes The Simple Cup as an event reaching international artists and audiences. “Considering how beneficial this opportunity could be for one’s career, I’m striving to invite artists from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and nations,” she said. “I kept in mind to highlight artists from underrepresented countries, especially Thailand, because now I have an opportunity to present Thai artists to create endless inspiration for Thai ceramics artists in the future.”
And Semachai would know about local Thai talent, as she is currently full-time ceramic faculty at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. “My goal for teaching here is to show my students that there are possibilities and opportunities out there for ceramicists,” she said. “It might not seem that way in Thailand, but I want to show them that it’s a big, big world, and there is a place for us.”
It’s been a long journey for Semachai to get to this place. “I think when I was 15 or 16, me and a friend took a ceramic class at a studio in Bangkok,” she remembered. “We knew nothing about clay, and simply took it because it seemed like no one did it back then and we had already been in so many painting classes.”
She majored in ceramics in college, but afterward, found that employment and supplies were both scarce, so she came to the U.S. for graduate school. “I went to Edinboro University for a fine art program where I could dive deep into myself and made work that was personal for me,” she recounted.
This was a perfect complement to the training she had received at Chulalongkorn University. “In undergrad, I went to a design school, so I was trained to be a ceramic designer,” she described. “I had to do a lot of research and find solutions to solve design problems for each project, so I didn’t actually make work to serve myself.”
Semachai had applied only to three-year MFA programs so that she could maximize her time in the U.S. “I was so new to everything, so it forced me to think a lot more than when I spent my days in Thailand,” she said. “With my background, from an overly-protected ‘Asian parents, big family culture, all the Asian expectations’ background, to live abroad by myself for the first time that was an eye-opening life-changing experience.”
Being alone, but not feeling lonely, Semachai discovered her path toward her individual voice in ceramics. “It made me very conscious about myself, made me notice and observe myself, who I am, and how I think and how I feel toward things like never before,” she recalled. “I started to channel those feelings and experiences to my art practice, and finally I know what I want to say, what I want my work to be about.”
Semachai finds working with clay to be intuitive. “I love working with my hands, and for me, there is no better feeling than feeling, sculpting clay,” she said. “When I work, I feel like I’m actually creating something from nothing, along the way, little by little, getting to know that object inside out. Like I can feel it coming together in my hand and that’s a wonderful feeling. It’s like I’m giving a life to someone or something.”
Using bright colors and floral and animal shapes, Semachai aims to tell stories of her background, experiences, and thoughts through narrative ceramic work. “The use of different colors in my work is a way for me to demonstrate everyone’s differences,” she described. “I have developed a special technique for creating and casting color effects on my work by layering plexiglass. Combining colors on top of colors allows me to tell stories of cross-cultural experiences and dual or multi-cultural backgrounds.”
Dinosaurs are a particular favorite for Semachai. “What if dinosaurs came back to life in this present world?” she mused. “My work is all about dinosaurs as a representative of myself and people that are fitting in and just living their unique life doing something normal like walking their babies or skateboarding or grocery shopping.”
When people ask Semachai where she finds her inspirations, she readily admits that western culture is a big influence. “I wish I had a better answer, but honestly with working in the studio alone most of the time, Netflix is my sensation,” she revealed. “I unconsciously draw things that I have seen on shows like a dinosaur surviving a group of zombies, a cliché dino prom party.”
This may be a lot of fun, but it hasn’t always been easy. “Before I went to the States, my future in clay seemed cloudy, so vague,” Semachai said. “Looking back, I wouldn’t even dare to imagine pursue a career in clay.”
She recognizes ceramics’ deep roots in Thai history and culture. “For this, I am undoubtedly grateful, but also tremendously terrified,” Semachai said. “With cheap labor and numerous ceramics factories, most Thais perceive the concept of clay as being nothing more than a bowl you can find at a bargain shop.”
Semachai decided to challenge what she describes as the typical Thai view. “Most of the time, they devalue handmade and view clay as a cheap material, and ceramics is on the verge of not being considered an art form,” she said. “This feels like an obstacle, but this also means there is still plenty of room to grow.”
This growth will likely include both education and travel. “I felt more myself when I was in the States, so I guess that’s my biggest internal challenge, to be not too comfortable in where I’m at right now so I can push myself further,” Semachai said. “It’s my goal to stay connected, and if there is a right timing and opportunity, I would love to go back and live there again.”
Right now, Semachai is working on her PhD and hasn’t been in the studio as much as she’d like. “Next year, I have a few big exhibitions in the States and Germany coming up,” she said. “Still in the sketching process, but I can’t wait to be making and creating again.”
The 14th Annual Simple Cup Show takes place on November 5 at KOBO Shop & Gallery at Higo in Japantown, 604 South Jackson Street, Seattle.