How NYC and an Unlikely Icon (a Pigeon) Helped Launch This Artist’s Career
New York is a city defined by creativity and diversity. We sat down with Michelle Im, a rising Korean-American ceramics star based in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, to learn about the ways the metropolis powers her drive and imagination—and where to find some of that inspiration for yourself.
“I wanted to do weird characters, and pigeons were the first thing that came to mind,” explains Queens-based ceramicist Michelle Im of her project RATxCHICKS. The series pairs animals with plants, fruit, food, and other motifs in hand-painted patterns, rendered in inventively colorful palettes, that adorn handmade mugs, butter dishes, gravy boats, bowls, trays, and more. “I randomly came up with [the name] in 2019. I want people to get the absurdist humor behind it, because I don’t really like pigeons—but they’re part of the New York experience and I try to find the beauty in them. Like New Yorkers, they’re constantly moving. Sometimes they look weary, but they keep moving.”
From sushi to ceramics
That grit aptly describes Im’s recent trajectory itself. After the pandemic led to being laid-off from a Michelin-starred sushi restaurant in 2020, the artist leased a studio in Ridgewood, Queens, a burgeoning area for young creatives like herself. While the art world wasn’t immune to the challenges of COVID, Im found that it pushed her to commit to finding joy and dedication to her artwork. In her thriving neighborhood, she found inspiration and community, a large sunlit studio flecked with greenery, empty shelves ready to be filled with finished pieces, and the solitude and introspection needed to advance her body of work.
“I can’t believe I’m an artist full-time,” Im says. “Losing my position at the restaurant propelled me forward. I was definitely really nervous and kind of scared, but I just knew I had to pursue my passion.” And she discovered resilience that came from her hospitality experience too. “It taught me a lot of lessons because I met such a rare group of people in that restaurant, people who are soldiers.”
Recently honored by Ceramics Monthly magazine, the largest-circulated publication dedicated to the ceramic arts, as one of the top emerging artists among hundreds in their annual competition, she’s surprised to earn such an accolade less than a decade after starting to take classes at Greenwich House Pottery, one of New York’s preeminent and oldest ceramics studios (where she also recently started to teach). The central location also offered her ample opportunity to discover the kind of specialty boutiques and other sources of inspiration nearby that you can only find in New York.
In the East Village, Im favors Tompkins Square Park, which despite changes over the years still delivers flavors of the 70s punk vibe that made it a haunt of the likes of Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and right off it, the Vietnamese food at Hanoi House is one of her go-to spots. “They have the best bone marrow pho,” she says.
When in the neighborhood, the young creative also enjoys checking out the titles at Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks where obscure cookbooks rub dust jackets with big names. “I could spend all day here,” Im says. “It feels like they have every cookbook on earth.” Around the corner, you’ll find La Sirena Mexican Folk Art, a store that she can spend hours in, browsing clothing, crafts, and decor. “It’s so jam-packed with colorful handmade things,” she says.
Influences from near and afar
Vivid hues and the appeal of the handwrought are threads throughout the artist’s aesthetic. Inspired by the historic tradition of maiolica, an Italian tin-glazed requiring intensive effort to produce elaborately painted ceramics that tell stories, Im created a collection featuring a menagerie of creatures. “I feel like there’s a big technical side to ceramics that really grabs my interest,” she says. “I’m always experimenting with glaze chemistry, and with different ways to get color and texture.” Her focus on flora and fauna culminated in RATxCHICKS, where she combines her decorative painting skills with her hand-sculpted ceramics style. Each piece in the collection approaches pigeons and other animals with equal parts humor and respect.
The New Yorker’s focus on quality and individuality in her work makes for exquisitely detailed surfaces that belie the irreverence of unexpected pairings like dinosaurs and cherries, whales and flowers, and tigers and slices of cake. “I want to make every single piece take my time and really put in and fill in the whole surface area with decoration, which is what Italian maiolica is about,” the artist says. “I don’t want it to be about mass production, but about art and storytelling. I wanted to make things that seem more human.”
More than ancient ceramic traditions inspire the young artist. It’s the living, breathing city around her too. “New York is just so dense with creativity, and because it’s so populated, you end up meeting so many different kinds of people making really interesting work. I can’t imagine what it would have been like learning ceramics in a non-urban environment, because we’re exposed to so much here.”
The same heady cultural milieu that Im taps into to fuel her creativity is where she turns when hosting friends and family visiting from out of town. Chinatown is among her favorite neighborhoods, where she enjoys the pulse of restaurants and bars at night and indulges in a dense gourmet scene few other neighborhoods offer. It’s also where you can find Wing on Wo, among Chinatown’s oldest shops, which carries everything from porcelain earrings to Celadon Song Dynasty-inspired tea jars. You can even grab curated packages here that contain a recipe by a food blogger, like Lisa Lin’s stir-fried saifun noodles with a set of four porcelain cabbage bowls.
And to top off any day exploring the city’s rich culture? Don’t miss a visit to Koreatown’s Jongro, where you can grill up your own samgyupsal (pork belly) and kalbi (short ribs) along with an unforgettable kimchi jjigae stew. “It’s my Ktown fave for barbecue,” Im says. “ Cho Dang Gol is my favorite overall Korean restaurant in Manhattan, but Jongro is the best for barbecue.”