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Chanakarn Semachai

Interviewed by Elliott Mai Hong

The video call was set for 8:30 AM Eastern Standard, which was 2:30 PM where Chanakarn Semachai, or Punch, was at. As part of a two-week long invitational ceramic seminar in Germany, Punch was extremely busy between scheduled demonstrations and outings with the other artists. We conducted the interview during the rare hours when Punch was off duty.


We greeted each other. I invited Punch to introduce herself for the record.


"My name is Punch, and that’s my nickname. But the name on my passport is Chanakarn Semachai, which is like a formal name. So, if I go to the bank, I will use that name (Chanakarn Semachai.) But people call me Punch, and it has been pretty good that way."


E: Thank you again, Punch, for agreeing to this interview! Talk to us about your start in clay. How did you first become interested in having career in ceramics? What stood out to you as reasons for your continued commitment to the material?


P: "Ceramics in Thailand is not very broad [sic]. In the States, there are ceramics program in high school or middle school, so students learn ceramics when they are kids, but not in Thailand.


But, I always have my interests in the arts. (Moreover,) I don’t like doing what everybody else does! Like in the day, not a lot of young people were doing ceramics.


I really wanted to get into Chulalongkorn University, which is where I got my bachelor’s degree. That program only has four majors: Fashion Design, Graphic Design, Interior & Exhibition Design, and Ceramics. I know that I don’t like dressing up, I know I don’t like to be on the computer for so long, and I don’t like drawing with rulers or drawing something straight. So, I thought I should try ceramics!


I had no background in it, but I thought that I just might like it. It is crazy to think about entering something, entering university without (general) knowledge about what you are getting into. It is like gambling to me. It is a good thing that I liked it. So, maybe it was like a happy accident!"


E: So, what about clay specifically that “hooked” you as a material? I often think of how ceramic artists develop, at first, a close tactile relationship with the material that is more intimate than, say, other materials. Personally, the first interaction with clay feels intuitive — comforting, even.

Punch expressed that initially, the production aspect of ceramics brought her great pride as maker. The idea of soft, malleable clay transforming to solid, permanent wares and vessels delighted her.


Through her exhaustive explorations, the three-dimensional plane became a lasting fascination, and Punch finds ways to tackle and challenge it every day.

P: “And then the process became more challenging, more addictive. I wouldn’t say therapeutic, because it causes me stress sometimes, but I still love it! I joked about this with my friends: Why would you paint something flat, when you can 'paint' something three-dimensional?”


E: In your work, you reference observations and experiences you've had in your time abroad. How did they begin to become significant? How were they challenging?


P:"I have (not) been abroad for so long. The longest time I have ever been somewhere else besides Thailand is a two-week trip to California. Spending 24 years in Thailand, and then to move to the States, living by myself, was challenging for me.


I don’t know whether it was my insecurity that I felt people staring (at me). They were asking weird questions, too. At first, I wasn’t annoyed. I wanted to be friendly. But after about two years, I learned to be tougher.


By being two international scholars, Punch's experiences and mine shared many similarities, both good and bad.


We recalled the many quirky remarks of supposedly well-meaning individuals along the way, and how each one induced meaningful emotional growth and change.


Punch shared her experience navigating the language and interacting with her peers. We touched  briefly on our struggles as international scholars, including how we both felt limited by our visas.


P:"You know, these 'inconveniences' are helpful with our process, with our thoughts, and with our work. I cherish both the good and the bad, for it inspires me to make work, especially this type of work.


On a personal note, I still want to move back there (to the States) — it is still my 'happy place.' It is these kinds of experiences that made me who I am today. Continuing living in Thailand without these experiences, I wouldn’t think as much, and that’s just not good."



E: I am curious, what did your work look like during graduate school?

P: "Coming from a design background, I was trained in making things to fits someone else's preference: What are people going to buy? What color?


I have never been so free. I had to figure out what I would like to say. I had to start from the beginning. It has never been me making art just about myself, or my feelings, or what I am interested in."

Punch touched on a prior body of work which explored the mechanics of faith and religion. There was a feeling that Punch felt less attached to this body of work than her current one.

The symbolism of the “dinosaur” was brought up while discussing Punch’s graduate thesis. Punch explained that the dinosaurs are reflections of Punch’s feeling of "othering" while confronted with bewildering cross-cultural experiences in her time abroad.  


E: These figures up to this point are representative of your impressions of your time in the States. The motif of the dinosaurs is still being explored in your current body of work. How are they different now that you are working and living in Thailand?


We talked extensively about Punch’s current commitments to the University of Bangkok, as part of the institutional support she received during her years abroad. There are conflicted feelings surrounding Punch’s current position with the university.


We then talked about one of her current works, “I am Un-Rooting for You,” as it relates to Punch’s desire to move back to the States, her reservations for doing so, and how the move will eventually impact many people and yield consequences both savory and unsavory.

In her work, a figure embraces an uprooted tree. At the end of the trunk, an earthworm hangs on precariously.

P:"Definitely there is plan for me to come back (to the States). I feel like when I am in Thailand, I am comfortable. Like a tree, rooting in place, I feel stuck. I am in the process of 'de-rooting' myself from this comfortable space.


On this sculpture, at the root of the tree, I made an earthworm. It is a metaphor: When you are de-rooting your life, there are consequences, not only for you but for other people in your life. If I quit my job, it is my students' (and) my colleagues' experiences that will be impacted."


E: Do you feel that there are great sacrifices to be made, as career artists, to pursue your art?

P: "Yeah, now I have to do everything else to allow myself to make art. I teach in the university, and on the weekends, I work part-time as a painter. That’s the job that generates income for me. With the salary from my school, it is not enough to help me send my work abroad or help me go to a conference. I need the part-time gig to fulfill my dream for clay. Those three days that I work take me away from studio time, so I have to relearn how to balance myself, you know?

My part-time is purely a mean for me to support myself. If I had a choice, I would not be working instead of being in the studio. I guess it is still better than a computer job or something that I am entirely just not interested in. Sitting 8 hours a day and painting  I know can do this!


E: Right at this moment, is there a creative/professional goal you are striving towards? Another "peak" you've personally decided to conquer?

Habits; Cloud Hugger, Eye Closer, Bone Breaker (2021)


P:"No, I don’t think so. After I got Emerging Artist, I had a thought: 'Now what am I going to do?' I always wanted it since I first came to NCECA.


I think my goal now, and I think it is funny because I have been talking about this, is moving to the States. Everything I do is working towards that goal. I have this urge in me, and I don’t know where it is from, that I want to move somewhere, and I want to depend on my work getting there!"

Centaurosaurus (2022)

About the Author

Elliott Mai Hong is an illustrator, painter, and ceramic artist from Saigon, Vietnam. He completed with High Honors, earning his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Arts from Utah Tech University in 2021. Awarded with a graduate assistantship, Elliott is currently a graduate candidate of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Fine Arts in Studio Arts, with a concentration in Ceramics, minoring in Painting.


In 2022, Elliott was featured for a solo exhibition: Au Lac: An Anthology of Touch  in Bates Gallery, Edinboro, Pennsylvania.

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