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Nurturing a Creative Practice

Nurturing a Creative Practice

Sound advice from New York artist Michele Quan on nourishing creativity during the pandemic.

Nurturing a Creative Practice

Sound advice from New York artist Michele Quan on nourishing creativity during the pandemic.
Spring 2021 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Sarah Archer
Michele Quan in studio

Michele Quan in her Brooklyn studio. Photo by Bobby Fisher.

Nurturing a Creative Practice. Visit artist Michele Quan’s website or her Instagram feed, and you’ll be greeted by an important question: Now that we’ve found love what are we going to do with it? This lyric from a 1970s song by the O’Jays—or Heavy D and the Boyz, if you prefer the ’90s cover version—is as relevant as ever. When you’re passionate and you love your material, when you find inspiration all around you and experience joy in sharing your work with others, how do you sustain that passion, and yourself, over the course of a long career?

Quan, who spent 12 years as a jewelry designer before studying ceramics and starting her own studio practice in the mid-2000s, has figured out what works for her. Today, at MQuan Studio, she works with a small and talented team to create objects for home and garden, including beads, bells, and wall hangings, all adorned with her confident and precise geometric designs applied in vibrant hues of red, magenta, orange, yellow, blue, and black. Though she still has a toehold in New York City, she recently moved north to Saugerties, New York, where she has a spacious new studio surrounded by trees.

Quan spoke to American Craft about her practice, how she takes care to nourish her creativity, and how the pandemic has shifted priorities and ways of working for her in the past year.

Tattooed arms holding stack of painted rocks

Stacked Rocks, hand-built and hand-painted stoneware. Photo by Bobby Fisher.

Keep learning. Document what inspires you. How can makers keep themselves nourished and growing? Keep your eyes and ears open, and keep learning, says Quan. She spends time taking in media that inspire and educate her: books, music, movies, podcasts, stories, the work of artists as diverse as Yoko Ono and Maurice Sendak, and Buddhist art and teachings. She’s especially inspired by the Bhagavad Gita.

“A lot of the symbols that I am drawn to relate to the idea of connection, reverence, and impermanence. Words and symbols spark my imagination,” she says. “I have a long document of quotes, excerpts from books, poems, movies, interviews, and songs that have inspired me over the years. I love how words resonate and spark.”

Miscellaneous photos and cutouts spread on a glass table

After tagging images, Quan creates inspiration boards in her sketchbooks. She calls them “my studio in a book.” Photo courtesy of MQuan Studio.

When she began working in clay, she encountered the Japanese phrase mono no aware, which translates as “the pathos of things.” Quan says she thinks of it as “the beautiful sadness of things passing,” which is an acknowledgment of impermanence and our reactions to change or loss—something that comes up often for an artist at work.

While it might be easy to put off the process of learning and connecting to what’s important, Quan says it can be an inroad to getting into the groove in the studio.

Wall art by Michele Quan featuring hanging discs

PLT10 White Discs with Featherbones measures 41 x 25 in. and includes stoneware, porcelain, walnut, and hemp. Photo courtesy of MQuan Studio.

Set yourself up for success. Quan has a tip for those in the grips of procrastination or angst in the face of a new project: Make anything until you’re ready to make something new. “When I’m really just not sure what I want to make, I just make things that are familiar and easy for me. I call it ‘setting myself up for success.’ And sometimes in that process, something new, however small, will arise. All you need is a little spark that you can run with. Everything leads somewhere—you just need to create the situation to see it, pick it up, and follow it. Keep going. Just do it.”

Create intentional space. The creative process is inherently messy, but an orderly studio with all the necessary materials and tools at hand can be a source of real nourishment for makers. Quan’s work is serene, meticulous, precise, with every mark and every facet clearly intentional. It seems no surprise that she dislikes working in a mess. “I like a clean and orderly studio. I call it my Sesame Street brain: all like-minded things go together. True to my Virgo-rising nature!”

Various ceramic work by Michele Quan inspired by Hilma af Klint

Quan is inspired by Hilma af Klint. She created this collection of pieces for the Guggenheim’s retrospective show Hilma Af Klint: Paintings for the Future in October 2018. Photo by Allison Chipak, courtesy of The Guggenheim Store.

Embrace community, limits, and transition. The pandemic year impacted artists around the world, upending routines such as gallery exhibitions, trade shows, and performances. It has forced every artist to make changes in how they work, and in many cases what they do to make ends meet. Quan’s take on it: Hold on tight to your community when things are in flux, and realize that there’s wisdom in recognizing your limits.

“It was an intense, sad, eye-opening, heart wrenching year,” Quan says of 2020. “It feels like the rug was torn away, laying so much bare. I hesitate to speak of silver linings when there is so much sadness and uncertainty in the world. I’ve always embraced and given my limitations their respect and due. In my work, limitations are a part of what I make and keep me grounded. Yet this past year we’ve all been confronted with many harsh new limitations. We each have to transition within the shifting boundaries of our life, linked to our community, our world. It can be very difficult to reconcile it all together while keeping the bridges open, our selves clear and the connections flowing. We are always in transition.”

View of the outside of a studio in shed
View from the inside of a studio in a shed

Inside Quan’s Saugerties, New York, studio. Photos courtesy of MQuan Studio.

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Photo: Charmaine Vegas