To All The Boys I've Loved Before... | December 2022
Christopher Gale, also known as Kidtofer, is an artist and illustrator based in Oakland, California and originally from Bangkok, Thailand. His work in ceramic, paint, and illustration unabashedly celebrates sexuality, color, and pop culture.
Left and Right photographs by Macayli Hausmann
An interview with Kidtofer from Plunge Rag Vol. 2:
WE MET HIM DURING SEPTEMBER OF 2021 IN HIS WORKSPACE AT CAMPBELL STREET STUDIOS, A SHARED CERAMICS STUDIO TUCKED INSIDE A BEAUTIFUL BRICK BUILDING IN WEST OAKLAND WHICH HE AND FELLOW ARTIST, NATALIE CASSIDY, OPENED AND CO-OPERATE. IT HAS A BIG ROLL UP DOOR, BRIGHT NATURAL LIGHT, AND IS NOW HOME TO SEVERAL CERAMICISTS. WE FOUND KIDTOFER SURROUNDED BY NEATLY ORGANIZED RACKS OF PAINTED BISQUE-WARE OBJECTS, LISTENING TO ALEX G, WEARING A CUTE OUTFIT WITH GREEN PANTS MATCHING HIS NAILS AND SINGLE EARRING.
PLUNGE: I am curious about how the pandemic has changed the way you work because you mentioned you left your day job.
KIDTOFER: I quit during the pandemic just because the amount of work at the time was really taking a toll on me mentally. I decided that in order for me to take care of my mental health (due to everything that was going on at the time) I would need to just take a little break from my job. I was hoping to take a few months off from work since I knew that money would be really tight without a salary job. However, once I started getting unemployment, it actually provided me more than enough to be able to supply myself for rent, food, etc. Instead of taking a full break I ended up just heavily working on my art during that period of time and eventually started a ceramic studio with my business partner, Natalie. Because of that, I was able to just not have any other distractions and just put all my effort into my art fully for a year.
Is it the first time you’ve ever done art full time?
Not really. I started doing illustrations freelance back in 2012. I went to school for communication arts, for broadcasting, at Bangkok University, and during our last year we had to do internships. Basically you have to do three months at any company that’s related to what you do and I was at Channel V which is the MTV of Asia. I was writing scripts about music broadcasting and I was responsible for the western music channel.
That sounds fun.
It was fun, actually. And I was like, I can do this, the pay is shit, but this is the only thing I know how to do. And then during that time I was doing drawings -- I’d been doodling my whole life -- and my colleagues would commission me. After I graduated I did that for about six months. I got a lot of money… well a lot of money for Thailand. My sister then encouraged me to move to the states just because the art scene here is way more diverse and there are just many more opportunities here for art and design jobs in general. So I moved and I had four thousand dollars and I thought that would last me at least a year.
And then you got to the Bay Area...
I was naive at the time (probably still am). I was only 22 when I first moved here. I was a couch boy for like a year. I didn’t pay rent, I was broke, broke, broke and I was like, I’m going to become an artist! And then I realized everybody else is an artist. I just didn’t have any clear goals or directions on what I wanted to do besides doing illustrations. I started applying for jobs. I applied at multiple Bluebottles, didn’t even get an interview. I applied at Whole Foods for, you know, sign art. And I was like, oh, that’s perfect, I can do some drawing. Did not get that job. And then eventually, my last resort was Thai restaurants. I was still doing some illustration work back in Thailand, some freelance stuff. Then I joined a game company and did customer support work and that’s pretty much how I started my design career. They saw that I could do art and were like, Do you want to try doing some UI/UX? And then it just moved from that.
It seems like Instagram has been helpful with getting your artwork out there. How do you feel about social media as a tool to promote yourself?
I think there’s definitely lots of pros and cons about social media. I think what’s great about it is that people get more exposure and are able to have a platform to showcase their work outside of the physical world — like galleries and art shows. however, one of the cons is that your [number] of followers suddenly became this social measurement/quality on how “amazing” this art is and we kinda use the followers and likes to validate what is good art and what is not so good. This is what really bums me out because there is so much good shit out there that deserves so much more love from people. That pretty much sums up about how I feel on a daily basis about Instagram. However, I can’t lie and say I don’t benefit from it because a lot of times I get commissioned or invited to participate in art shows through social media. I didn’t really know a lot of people when I moved here so social media was a big help leading me into the community.
You’ve been producing a lot of work since you’ve opened this new studio, as far as I can tell. Are you enjoying having and running this space?
I do enjoy running the studio with Natalie and having a community here, especially when it’s ceramics. It’s nice to be surrounded by people that have similar interests as you, but also all of us at the studio have totally different styles. It’s great to get inspired from people around you. However, running the space sometimes can be a bit stressful when it comes to managing because I don’t operate well in that type of way. I tend to work better when I’m alone in my own element doing my own thing, I guess.
Bossing your friends around is not fun.
And potentially you could destroy friendships too, if things go sideways. So when I first started Campbell Street Studios with Natalie, I was a little bit nervous about that because we have a good relationship and I didn’t wanna do anything that would jeopardize it. I wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t with Natalie, honestly. She’s probably the best person in the world, She’s a very smart, kind and such a giving person. If it wasn’t her, I’d be nervous. Also I’ve had weird dynamics with people at a community studio in the past so that part was a bit spooky. However, everybody’s been great here -- that aspect hasn’t been an issue. But sometimes I feel like I’m just here working on my stuff and then I realize later like, oh wait, rent’s due… But that’s a minor part I don’t like.
It’s so great that you’ve created a community here. Your open studio events are so fun too.
Yeah, I think it’s a good way to have social events to bring people together. In West Oakland we have so many art studios around and so many creative people, but we also have to understand where we are representing, and that this is basically gentrification in a way. So with that, what can we do with this space beyond just having the space to create? Maybe we’ll have a day where people in the neighborhood can come in and the kids could do some hand-building workshops. We also are aware that ceramics is not the most accessible art practice so it would be great to just utilize the space to introduce people in the area to this. We’re still aiming to do that at some point, but because of the safety issues with our current pandemic situation it’s just been tough to arrange things.
How did you make the jump from illustration and digital art to ceramics?
I’ve always been obsessed with claymation, like Celebrity Death Match and Gumby and all that, so as a kid I wanted to make toys. I’m always fascinated by the people who can turn objects into movement. Illustration is great and fun and obviously that’s where I started so I love that, I try adding some shading, adding little highlights here and there, but at the end of the day it’s still on a flat surface. And I think ceramics was that gateway into [not spending] a lot of time on a computer. Yes, I draw everything by hand but I color in Photoshop because it’s the fastest way I can produce work. I have a day job and I don’t have time to paint. I also feel like my painting is not as strong as my drawing line work. This is my way of creating work but I was like, how can I make that into a more 3-D form without doing 3-D animation, without using a computer, spending more time on digital screens? Especially when my day job was doing that for eight hours straight. I started taking classes at Clay by the Bay and then the transition was easy because I already have my style.
You make a lot of functional ceramic pieces like mugs, vases, and candleholders. Do you find that these sell more easily than sculpture?
For sure. This is probably a very techie answer but I do UI/UX and I like problem solving. And I think for my art, yes it’s sculpture, but I want it to be useful. I don’t want it to just be another piece of art. Does the world really need more shit, you know? But if it’s functional, maybe that justifies it a little bit. It’s kind of like light sculpture that is functional. Most people don’t use my mugs because they’re scared… I think people are afraid because it’s “fragile”, but it actually works, ya’ll. Just give it a chance.
How much time you spend on your artwork now?
If I have an order or if a show is coming up or something like that, then I spend eight to ten hours, sometimes twelve a day. Especially with painting ceramics. It takes three coats on each section to make sure that it’s opaque so it’s very time consuming. And depending on the detail… With ceramics, you make it, you let it dry, then you paint it, then you fire it and then come back and then you glaze it. It’s just a whole thing, but that’s why when I make this stuff I make a lot. So when I come to the studio I try to spend at least three to four hours making stuff so that I can feel like when I’m here I’m just constantly producing. And it’s therapeutic. It doesn’t feel like work. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it’s time for me to go inside my head and decide what’s wrong with you, why are you the way you are, and how do we make things better? Let’s sort this out. [Laughs] Like, let’s have a private meeting while being useful, basically.
Are you disciplined about coming to the studio?
Oh, yeah. This is where I have my own space. Even though I’m sharing with other people it never feels crowded because everybody’s so focused. I try to spend a lot of time here because I know I’m being useful, I like making stuff, and I can avoid socializing a little bit and just be with myself. Back when I used to have a job I spent the same amount of time. I would go to work at 8am or whatever, leave at 4pm, I would get to the clay studio at like 5ish, and then I would stay there until 11 or midnight. That is a little bit more fun for me because I know I’m creating stuff purely for passion and not just trying to sell stuff because I had the security of having a day job, whereas now it’s a little bit different.
How do you think your practice will change when you go back to a day job?
I’ll probably be here a little bit less or not as long. But also, I don’t know what it’s going to be like because we’re working from home now. I might not be able to produce as much.
You have so much great work here right now!
It looks like I have a lot but I don’t really sell my stuff that often. I literally just started selling. If I’m not doing craft fairs you’re not going to be able to buy my stuff because… I don’t know why I don’t do that. Maybe it’s just a fear of not being able to sell them. Or sometimes I don’t want to let them go. And I always promise myself to document every piece. But I never do that, it’s sad...
What part of your process makes you the happiest?
The building part is always the most fun for me because you get to form the shape. I like seeing the skeleton of how it’s going to look. I sketch my stuff with pencils, but I don’t color them, I just sketch some form of shape, some form of pattern that I think would work for each piece but they never really look like my sketches. Sometimes while I’m making stuff I’m like, oh maybe I’ll add this, maybe I’ll do that. So that’s also the fun part. There’s some sort of plan and things to do, but it never looks the way that it was supposed to look.
It sounds like there are a lot of surprises that can happen along the way.
Yeah! And so if that’s my favorite process, my least favorite process is actually painting. I hate color choices. But I feel like it’s justified once everything gets fired and it looks alive. That’s when I’m like, oh okay, this actually is fun. And then you go through the same torturous pattern.
How does art make you feel?
Purposeful. It makes me feel like I have a purpose because this is what I know I can do and what I am confident in and what I can do best. This is what I know that I’m supposed to be doing. It’s not for everybody, obviously. And I don’t know if it’s a common theme for gay people, but I struggle with my identity a lot. For me, it’s just accepting myself. I think my ceramics doesn’t really showcase that, but my illustration gets a little bit gayer. It makes me feel like I have a voice and a purpose. It’s also nice to see when people relate to my stuff or understand what I’m trying to do, or if it makes people laugh, or it might not be their thing but if they can kind of respect or appreciate certain things it’s a little validation. It makes me feel like I’m showing my self and people get to see that.
That’s great. Do you ever find yourself in a creative funk?
With illustration, yes. Not with ceramics. I feel like if I’m stuck, I can still come in and make mugs. I don’t know what they’re going to look like or what the faces are going to look like, but I have my simple shapes that I do all the time so I feel like I never feel stuck with that. But with illustration sometimes I don’t know what to draw and I don’t even know how I get out of it. I think pressure always helps.
Pressure that you put on yourself?
More like time. I don’t do drawings in my house at all whatsoever, I only do them at coffee shops because the idea that I’m using space that someone else needs to use stresses me out. If I work at a cafe or at another office or whatever, it’s like you feel the pressure that something needs to happen within the time that you are given. And especially with commission work, it’s always sort of like... oh fuck this is due tomorrow, I just start figuring out layouts and it just works.
You were in a few gallery shows this year -- is that something you want to do more of?
Yeah. Gallery work has always been a dream for me. I got the opportunity to do Hashimoto, which is kind of funny because it was one of the first galleries that I visited when I moved here. There’s so many cool galleries that are amazing and that I love, but for some reason Hashimoto always stood out to me because the artists they carry in that space have always been kind of similar to me so it had always been a goal. And the other one was Big Gay Art Show, which I worked on with Gem Studio in West Oakland. It was just me being able to do a gay show… it was an excuse to have fun, do shit, and bring in my friends. The content [was] all about how we express our identity. For now my main focus is to push ceramics as my gallery work.
Do you have anything coming up?
My goal is to get my website ready and finally launch it and sell my shit. From there I would like to figure out what my next step is because once I have goals, I feel the high and I keep myself busy, then the moment when I’m actually not doing anything I get kind of depressed. But I somehow manage to find things if they’re not created for me. For example, like with Big Gay Art Show, if people don’t want to put my shit in a gallery, why don’t I just make it on my own and talk to people that have space, you know? We’re planning on doing Big Gay Art Show round two... I definitely want to bring in more artists and I want to take submissions. That’s one thing that’s happening!
KIDTOFER HAS SINCE SHOWN HIS WORK AT SOFT TIMES GALLERY AND WAS IN ANOTHER SHOW AT HASHIMOTO CONTEMPORARY IN SAN FRANCISCO. HE HAS A NEW FULL-TIME JOB BUT IS STILL BUSY MAKING HIS ARTWORK AND IS THRIVING UNDER THE PRESSURE OF MORE TIME CONSTRAINTS. HE’S THINKING ABOUT MOVING TO NEW YORK SOON AND IS EXCITED TO SEE WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS FOR CAMPBELL STREET STUDIOS. ☺
Find more of Kidtofer's work:Wetboi | December 2020
Kidtofer in Wired