How ceramic artist Monica Galan discovered her creative calling was molding clay into beautiful objects. Words by Rhea Cortado. Photos by Grant Puckett.
“This is gonna sound so emotional. I feel like the most difficult part [of creating] is to make something that you’re actually proud of, something that you’re excited about and that’s gonna stick with you.”
Monica Galan has had a lot of jobs throughout the years: receptionist, restaurant server, inside sales, account manager, and sales operations. But she never felt that those titles defined her identity or meant something more to her—until she started introducing herself as a ceramicist.
What started as a few weeks of classes at a pottery studio in Santa Ana, CA awakened a talent for shaping clay that unexpectedly captivated Monica’s spirit and spare evening hours.
At the time, she worked full time for a skate shoe brand in Orange County, then logged miles (in rush hour LA traffic) to the pottery studio to throw plates, bowls, and mugs to fuel her side hustle. Those hours in the studio spinning wet earth became a meditative outlet to let her thoughts wander and intuitive hands take over. She savored the time that was wholly her own and no one else’s.
City-savvy and trail-ready, Monica wears the Universal Trail sandals in Sage Green.
“It was a different part of my brain that I felt I was using—working with my hands and actually being able to make something, take it home, and seeing the progression with my classes,” she said. “It was just nice to give that time to myself to clear my brain.”
Her first big client was a dream project: creating all the kitchenware for a local restaurant. The final glazed plates and bowls are beautifully crafted, but behind the scenes it was a scrappy operation to finish all 550-plus pieces.
They transported unfinished products—laid out in a delicately precise puzzle across the floor and between drop cloths—in her partner’s Sprinter van from her home studio in Highland Park to a group studio and kiln in Long Beach to be fired. “If you hit a bump and the plate popped up it would shatter,” she explained about those white-knuckle commutes. “We would drive like that to Long Beach on multiple trips.”
Through the production madness and crazy schedule, her most challenging paradigm shift was overcoming her own doubts to quit wading in the shallows of a side gig and dive head first into the deep end.
“You know, Asian parents say, ‘You need security. You should get your masters.’ And I felt like I was always trying to work towards this title and this salary that really didn’t make me happy,” Monica said. “I was just talking about things that didn’t matter to me and I tried to convince myself that they mattered.”
The Universal Trail features a sawtooth, Vibram® Megagrip outsole grip for comfort and traction.
Like many first generation children of immigrants (Monica is Filipino American), she was told that life was about earning a prestigious career — the American dream of success. Expectations can feel steeper for Asian Americans, who are often perceived by the “model minority myth.” The pressure to overachieve becomes an impossible choice between feeling like you’ve disappointed your family or suppressing parts of yourself.
Like Monica, I’m also Filipino American and couldn’t help but relate to her hesitation to give up a perfectly fine job for the sometimes heartbreaking, but also magnificent life of an artist. I also understood why at some point, it becomes certain that it’s the only choice.
“I was chasing that for a long time until I realized, ‘I should just make ceramics full time.’ Once I figured that out, I was like, ‘Okay, how do I make this happen?’ Eventually, I did. It just took a while.”
“I started wearing Teva sandals this last Summer hitting a few national parks… they were perfect to jump in the lakes and protect my feet from the hot sand. Afterward, I pretty much never took them off when I went back to work in the studio.”
Now Monica thrives existing in the space of imperfection and imagination. Her new favorite pieces are the one-of-a-kind vases, tables, and lamps inspired by natural shapes or borrowing forms from other mediums. She finds her flow while throwing muddy earth and watching it take shape, sometimes with its own spirit and direction, between her hands. “The actual muscles movements come naturally,” she says.
Some of her best-selling items were mistakes. One of her few rules is to “not squish and crumble pieces” when she’s made a mistake in the process. “I don’t feel like anything’s necessarily trash or not worth it. My waves vase, the little donut one [with a wavy edged mouth], I dropped it. There was a crack, so I got an X-ACTO knife and cut around it. I thought, ‘That’s actually pretty sweet. I’m gonna keep it like that.’ And now I’ve kept it in my collection for two years.”
Many of the designer’s unglazed pieces are inspired by “the natural rawness of rock” and the texture of the clay.
In her home studio, Monica wears the Original Universal sandals in Sand Dune.
Monica named her brand Salamat, which means “thank you” in Tagalog—a nod to her culture and the spirit of gratitude and generosity. As a former student of sociology, she holds a special empathy for people, especially those whose work is often invisible. She often gifts her pieces to people in her community, from a server at her favorite sushi restaurant to a random resident in her neighborhood.
Reimagining furniture and home decor into clay is Monica’s newest creative space of exploration.
“I thought it was nice to make people feel happy by getting something from somebody that they didn’t expect. People don’t get the gratitude or appreciation that they deserve sometimes. So, here’s a random vase from a little stranger. I hope that it made your day a little bit better,” Monica explained.
How do her parents feel about her new flight path? “They are super supportive and proud. They’ve come to all my craft fairs in San Francisco. My mom constantly tells me to rest because she knows how hard I work. They ask if I have orders. It makes me happy. The conversation has completely changed from what I feel as suggestive [of my future] to interested in my career path and lifestyle I’ve chosen. ”
When she’s not behind her wheel, Monica spends her weekends “wherever there’s water.” During camping season, her favorite getaways are in mountains for lake-side hikes and cool rivers to chill with a camp chair, fishing pole, glass of wine, and zero worries.
Ever the overachiever, sometimes, she melds both. “I was like, ‘I just want to go, I need a break.’ I went on a recent trip with my two girlfriends in Monte Rio, [Sonoma]. I wanted to have new techniques to learn so I brought clay to do hand building.”
The house they rented was a vision of pastoral bliss with a creek nearby. But the interiors? They had just the thing to make their own. “We gave this place a makeover,” Monica laughed. She brought a one-of-a-kind Salamat ceramic lamp and full sets of fired kitchenware. Her friend adorned the common space with textiles and artwork she crafted in natural dyes.
“It literally felt like we were at home, but somewhere else. We made nice dinners and didn’t have an agenda. We went fishing. With everything going on last year, we felt safe. That time to disconnect fully and not have to be anywhere—it was perfect.”