In a sun-drenched studio in Ridgewood, Queens, ceramicist Michelle Im imagines breeding birds and rats together—which she achieves through RATxCHICKS, the play-on-words name for an art project that engrosses objects in a wacky and wonderful world of unexpected animals. Zebras and rainbows, hippopotamuses and UFOs, goats and lemons, poodles and beachballs: these surprising pairings and more imbue the NYC-based artist’s pottery with whimsy. At Im’s studio, where she and her puppy Inky work to a soundtrack of rare techno, her reality-defying aesthetic feels fitting.
The first time Im ever worked with ceramics was at the age of nine when she convinced her mom to drive five miles per hour through a Boston blizzard to make it to a pottery class. But despite her early tenacity, Im didn’t really immerse herself in ceramics until adulthood, when she began taking classes at New York’s Greenwich House Pottery. There, she fell in love with the craft, dreaming of one day opening her own studio. When the pandemic impacted the restaurant business (where Im had been working for eight years), that day came. She took the opportunity to leave and set up in Ridgewood.
“I just love the idea of different aspects, different cultures, coming together and evolving into something else,” she tells us, aptly describing her love of ceramics as well as her fantastical crossbred animals. “Pottery has this history where different ceramic traditions constantly emerge from different cultures.” For Im, the Italian maiolica tradition (aka tin-glazed earthenware) is a particular source of inspiration for her work.
“Maiolica is a product of different types of ceramic techniques and traditions moving across the Middle East to Spain and then eventually becoming what we’re most familiar with in the Italian Renaissance,” she explains. Working with this tradition led her to enamor with terracotta. “Terracotta nowadays is used to introduce [pottery] to kindergarteners. When you start pottery, there’s this idea that you work toward high-value porcelain. I want to work with material that’s looked upon as low-class, something that children work with and then elevate that to something that doesn’t look like terracotta,” says Im. Not only does this present a fun challenge for her, but it also aligns with the type of art she wants to make, which she describes as “just stuff that’s approachable.”
After rolling out slabs of terracotta, cutting and shaping them to the right shape and letting them harden, Im decorates using slip—liquified clay commonly applied to Korean Buncheong ceramics. “Korean Buncheong was one of the first sources of inspiration for me,” says Im. “I am Korean so I grew up seeing these and that’s where I became more interested in slip surface design. I love Buncheongware because it’s super-loose and has a lot of character.”
From there, the clay goes to the kiln at a low-fire. “I bisque fire and glaze fire at the same temperature. The decoration and carving all happens after the first fire,” shares the artist, whose studio is lined with animal illustrations and sculptural sketches that suggest she has no shortage of decorating ideas. The biology and art major from State University of New York at Buffalo admittedly used to draw animal diagrams and life cycles throughout college, which is likely where her work’s nature motifs stem from. “I would have gone that route,” she says of biology, “but I don’t like doing something too realistic.”
“I just want to be funny,” she says, standing next to a shelf stocked with her vibrant, absurdist cups. “There has to be humor, which I think is joy. And these are things that are meant to be used every day, so why not make drinking coffee a little bit more exciting?” Rendering nature fantastically, Im’s patterned ceramics elate both the quotidian and the imagination.
Strong, vivid colors also help to underscore RATxCHICKS’ vivacity—a feature Im put in time and energy to perfect. A rack packed with mason stains (the paints used to color clay) and equations fill a corner of the studio, where Im mixes and tests her own colors. “I go crazy with the colors,” she laughs. “I just always think about the Korean traditional wedding dress. You don’t go to a wedding wearing white. You wear color. It’s a celebration.”
Having marked a year in the new studio and committing to ceramics full-time, Im has a lot to celebrate. Between the various art exhibitions she’s showed at, pop-ups she’s been invited to and the multitude of commissions she’s received to make butter dishes featuring people’s pet dogs, the wondrous charm of RATxCHICKS is growing. Looking ahead, Im is thinking of future animal and object mixings (namely bats with peaches and dinosaurs with cherries), tinkering with expanding her ceramics to shelves and bookstands and planning an upcoming two-person show with artist and costume designer Christian Joy sometime in April. Much like her pottery, Im gives the evolution of her work the freedom and excitement to explore.
Hero image courtesy of Michelle Im