Interview with Erica Recto
I’ve always felt drawn to the creative spirit of Spring. We mix our hands in soil, and the tendrils from dormant flora unravel themselves in forest beds and home gardens. As working creatives it can be easy to lose ourselvesyourself in the work, to forget that fundamentally what we are doing is playing.
Our conversation this week with artist Erica Recto reminds us to come back to our work with a child’s imagination. We discuss rediscovering our playful nature, engaging with our local community, and trusting the process.
I’d love to begin by just getting some background on your history and connection with the Hudson Valley.
I am actually celebrating four years here on May 13th! I'm originally from New Jersey by way of the Philippines by way of Philadelphia. I've been everywhere.! My husband is from the Capitol region and when we got together, we had started camping upstate. We had become pretty familiar with the Hudson Valley, but usually on the [West] side of the river. I'm in Millerton now. After maybe 15 or 20 years of camping, we decided we had outgrownoutgrew our New York place. We also couldn't afford it. We used to live in Brooklyn. I had been renting a studio space, but stopped working my corporate job. I had no real ties to be in New York City.
I wanted to be able to put down roots and spread out. I mean, I love being in nature. That was one of the selling points for me. I had learned about all the hiking trails, camping, and then found a spot in Millerton. Our house is up against conservatory land, so it will always be wild there, which is really cool.
What's it like to be like on the Eastern edge of the state? Do you feel a difference in community as opposed to being along the river?
I've noticed that proximity wise I'm a lot closer to the Berkshires, but because I'm in New York state, I claim Hudson Valley. It doesn't feel far removed from the Hudson Valley. It’s like in the movie Clueless when Cher is at a house party and her dad is trying to tell her to get home. He's like everywhere in LA, it takes 20 minutes. Similar to that, everywhere in the Hudson Valley, you hop in the car and it's a 30 minute drive. Even though I'm a little bit removed, it still feels like I'm part of the whole thing.
I think that's one of the really interesting things about this region. Someone in a completely different city or town is still part of your community. Kingston is as much a part of my community as Troy.
You had mentioned that you were working a corporate job and you'd left to work in your practice. How did that evolve? How did you start working with ceramics and develop the art practice you have now?
My job of 17 years prior to this was in fashion design. I've always had a creative job but I actually got started in ceramics because I needed something tactile. My corporate job was mostly sending off sketches and a lot of factory communication. It didn't feel like a creative thing. I took a workshop to learn about clay and got sucked in. From there I realized that was more fulfilling for me and that I wanted something that was slow. Specifically, working in fast fashion left a terrible taste in my mouth. And I just wanted to get back into making things with my hands, making things intentionally and slowly. Really focusing on the process.
What is your process like from start to finish?
It's really meditative, actually! That's another big thing for me. Aside from discovering ceramics, when I was leaving the corporate world I deep dove into spirituality. Maybe a little hard at first! I've softened up since, but got really heavy into meditation. My art practice revolves around repetitive action or things where you subtract one sense and let all the other ones fill in. I’ll do things like blindfold throwing and other kinds of wacky stuff. Half of it doesn't even make it to my web shop, but it's more about the process and finding what feels good, then taking those ideas and pushing them further.
That's really interesting, can you tell me more about that part of the process? What is it like to make 20 objects during a period of play, but only use five of them? What happens to the others?
Well, I have a very big shelf of bad ideas, but I don't get rid of them because there's always a little bit of something in there that I'll see again in a different way. What that looks like is I will try out different processes, different ways of making things. For example, there was something I was doing a couple of weeks ago where I was taking all of my reclaimed clay and throwing it in a bucket. Instead of reconstituting it in the traditional way and wedging it back into shape, I was throwing every kind of scrap in the bucket and letting the water evaporate naturally. It created this large chunk of clay with these striations, all these different layers of color.
So I sliced into it and had these big slabs of colored slices. You know, it taught me a different way to create an effect and a different way to lay clay for me. I’m taking that and trying to work it into vessels now with these layered slabs instead of painting the stripes on or something. It's an organic evolution - taking ideas, using a piece of them, and then applying that to a process that's a bit more streamlined. In the end it's a little bit more consistent, but it came from somewhere completely out of left field.
I'm really fascinated by the concept of no bad ideas, take your shelf for example. It isn’t a shelf of bad ideas, it's just an idea in a different form or in a different shape. It is in those times of play and creativity, where you're maybe not even working on a specific piece, but it turns into a way that you can create again. It just feels like such a natural way to call in the muse.
Well, that's the other thing. Play is a big part of the process. I do some wholesale, but the majority of my work and my process is just me in the studio. I try to allocate a lot of time for play because I am not someone who studied traditional ceramics, so there's a lot of trial and error and discovery. I try to figure it in, which has been really liberating because I don't have somebody who knows how things work telling me, “Oh my God, you can't do that.” It's nice to not have those restrictions in the beginning of a creative project.
So, your time is split between some commercial products like the ones we have on our site and then your artistic practice. How do those work together for you?
Yes, I also do fiber art. It's another connection to my fashion history; I really can't get the textile out of my work. It’s a different branch of the same tree, because it's mixing fiber and ceramics, it’s all very tactile. The thing about ceramics for me was that it really is about touch - from creating it to holding the finished pieces and feeling the weight or the texture of them.
My studio art is made of wool. It's wool that I get from friends who have sheep, who've never shorn a sheep before, so it's weird cuts of wool. I'll cord it and dye it and spin it and combine that with ceramic shapes to make these big textured tapestries. It's different visually, but at the end of the day it's really just me playing with the way things feel.
What do you think draws you to the way things feel?
Hmm. I don't know. I like the richness of certain textures, especially from working in a fast fashion background where you're always being priced out of the good stuff. I just like the way real wool feels or alpaca or a really rough linen or burlap against a slick ceramic. I'm just a very tactile person!
Have you always been that way?
I'm not sure! You know, if we're going to get personal, I think it comes from growing up Asian. There's a big thing that people talk about sometimes, how Asian families don't hug, which is bizarro, but it's kind of true! It's something about not showing emotion, not showing affection in that way. They'll feed you before they go and hug you. So my art is maybe not a hug because some of it's quite jagged, but there's something about touch. You can't interact with something textile from far away. You have to be right up in there.
Do you find your family history or where you come from is a source of inspiration for you?
Oh, a thousand percent. There's the romantic part of it about being from somewhere tropical. Where it's all of those colors and textures and smells and sights and sounds. There's also the growing up immigrant part of it where a lot of my art now is almost in rebellion to having to conform. Growing up Asian in a town where you're maybe one of three Asian families, there was a big pressure to blend in. So now with my work, I try to do the opposite or at least just try to embody how I feel instead of trying to measure myself against what I am supposed to be doing. That’s a really wonderful feeling.
I deeply appreciate art as a platform to express and work through these things. It feels like a form of communal healing. When someone looks at your work and says, “Oh, I relate to that, that moves me.” It can jump start the journey for the audience. I find that really powerful.
It really is. It's brought so much connection that I didn't have before. I mean, before I went to college, I had a lot of art focus and extracurriculars that were art focused. There was the groundwork for it, but then after I started working I kind of got lost. To come back to that has been really cool. To come back to a network, maybe not family, but community.
Do you find in the past four years that you've built a strong creative community here?
No. It's been challenging, and I will say a little bit of that is because I took some time off to have a kid. So that was like a good two-year chunk. And then also I think trying to jump headfirst into community here, I wanted to be cautious because there's a way that people are perceived when they come upstate from downstate. And I just didn't want to upset the apple cart and just come in like, “Oh hey, I'm from Brooklyn. And this is how I do my things.” I wanted to observe, I didn't want to impose, and I wanted to understand what the vibe was up here. This past year has been funny. I've been making more connections this past year now that everybody's been not able to connect somehow. I've been able to branch out a little bit more, so that's been strange and good.
What’s your take on the community here, as an observer?
I think there's a lack of pretension. People come up here and do what they do, they want to nerd out about it, do it well, and really immerse themselves in their craft. Me too, that's what I wanted. I feel like the people who come up here and want to change the world - well, they either don't last long or they end up getting some resistance. So I think after observing for a while, I'd rather just be a part of the ecosystem up here. I think the people who are doing it for the love of it, you know, doing their craft because they love to do it because that's what they would do no matter where they were, those are the people that I'm gravitating towards. That's the kind of community that feels good for me.
Your studio is at your home, it's in your garage. Do you feel like your work balances well into your home life? Do you keep them separate or are they all kind of pushed together?
I kept them separate, because I'm doing something that I love. It's hard to separate completely. You know I'll always be thinking of things. I have notebooks all over the house because I'll be playing with my kid and something comes up into my head, so I'll jot it down, but that doesn't feel like work to me. I don't mind that lack of definition there. At the same time, I think it's really important to have a hard boundary between work and home.
What's next for you? How are you looking to grow and what are the next steps?
Well, I am opening a retail space with Stella, and I'm really excited about that. What I really want to do with this space is provide an opportunity for me and people like me to show our work. It will almost be in a gallery way, but not quite a gallery. Obviously the goal is to sell the objects, otherwise we can't keep the doors open. I'd rather just have it there for exposure. There's so much talent around the area, all of these areas, it's nice to be able to have a space to showcase this.
That's what I'm excited about. I noticed that with me making my work, I was doing a lot of wholesale for other people. Time-wise it's not the most beneficial, because it's just pumping out product. Even for small shops with small orders, it's just multiples and multiples. So I'm excited to have a space where I can kind of get a little wacky, you know? I want to not be held to making 20 of something.
You've mentioned a couple of times this sense of wackiness or fun and the creative process. So often people just forget that completely! They're like, “I sit down, I write or I draw for this amount of time and then I do my next thing.” Thank you for reminding us to have fun while we're doing this.
It's so important: play. Not being held to any rigidity. There's enough structure being imposed on us from every other angle. Especially in the creative process, for me, I need to have that wackiness, that freedom.
Surely though there are times where maybe you come up to a challenge or an obstacle. What does that look like for you and how do you typically work through it?
Specifically with wholesale, a lot of people will ask me, “I want 50 pieces of this one thing.” I always have to preface it with, “This is handmade. So all these 50 pieces are going to look kind of the same, but I'm not a machine and I don't try to be.” I just make sure that anyone working with me knows you're going to get variation. There's timing too because part of the loosey goosey, part of being so free is I'm terrible with deadlines. I think by this point, anybody that works with me knows to pad my deadlines by like a month. Sure. I try to give myself goals that I can meet that are realistic and just break everything up into small chunks. If I don't do that, I'll be out in the ether somewhere. And then all of a sudden, it's like a week before everything is due and I'm in a crunch.
I think I'm also hearing you communicate and that's an important piece. Just letting people know where you're at.
I mean, I try. That’s something I'm constantly trying to improve. I feel like it's best to lay out expectations. I love for people to tell me the same. You really need to set those expectations. You need to establish that in the beginning.
Who do you expect to come through the shop?
I do expect there to be a lot of tourism. That said, I've noticed that there are a lot of new residents here. I hope for people who just moved up here and maybe they have a house to furnish. All of a sudden they've gone from apartment living to having something that's more than 500 square feet– they need something for the wall or something for the kitchen. The demographic of the town has changed, but I won't know until the doors open.
With this population boom, what do you think the creative community is going to look like or even the community itself? What's your advice to people moving up?
I would say to hang back before you try and go change the world. Just get a feel for it before you try and establish something. Really try and get to know the town; be an active participant. One of the things I hope to do with this space is to be involved with the community, because we live here. I want to work with the community center. It really is important to be involved in the community if you're going to live here. Like not just existing here, but interacting.
What advice do you have for young artists or makers or creatives looking to set out on their own to start a new project? What advice from your past would you give to a new artist?
I'd say don't listen to people who tell you can't do something. There's always a way to do something. Also try and approach it practically. You can do everything. There’s always going to be a way to get there and you can't plan for every kind of pitfall. Just be aware that it might not always be easy.
Something special we've been working together
Erica Recto in collaboration with Hudson River Exchange will be opening a new shop BES. The shop will feature art and functional ceramics by Erica and Hudson River Exchange will curate a selection of Hudson Valley made products. Located at 1 Smith Court, Millerton NY, BES will open doors Memorial Day Weekend 2021.
Words + Illustrations: River Wharton
Edited by: Lila Holland & Stella Yoon