A conversation with Chinzalée Sonami of Pala Ceramics

A conversation with Chinzalée Sonami of Pala Ceramics

We recently interviewed Chinzalée Sonami of Pala Ceramics, an Oakland-based pottery artist. We discussed her artistic inspirations, her Tibetan heritage, and the Tibetan New Year! The Tibetan New Year, Losar, falls on March 3rd this year. Losar Tashi Delek!

Chinzalée: My name is Chinzalée Sonami and I was born and raised in Oakland.  I created PALA from my pottery practice when I decided that I wanted to do ceramics full time and needed to find a way to start selling my work so I could sustain doing it every day! I live here now with my own family, in East Oakland in my childhood home and truly love spending my time working with clay.

Cut Fruit: What’s your favorite fruit and do you have any cut fruit or fruit memories?

Chinzalée: My favorite fruits are either mangosteens or passion fruits.  I have no real cultural connection to either except to say that it turns out passion fruits grow surprisingly well in Oakland! 

Cut Fruit: Tell us about your art! Can you share more about what inspires your work?

Chinzalée: I fell into pottery a little over 10 years ago when I took a break from my job as a food buyer and was looking to take classes.  I ended up in the same pottery studio as my father had been a member at, took a class, and became quickly obsessed.  Today, I feel most inspired by unusual color combinations, pattern mixing and matching, and what I like to call harmonious clashing - when two or more colors or patterns that shouldn’t necessarily go well together find some kind of balance on a piece.

Cut Fruit: Where did you grow up, and what communities and experiences shaped your identity formation?

Chinzalée: I grew up in East Oakland.  My mother is French and my father was Tibetan.  I feel like Oakland had and continues to have a huge impact on me in a variety of ways, but in regards to my pottery, I feel hugely inspired by what I find to be a very bold color palette that feels very unique to Oakland, specifically in East & West Oakland. 

Cut Fruit: Can you share a bit about your artistic process?

Chinzalée: I spend a lot of time walking, taking snapshots of color combinations I run into on my walks.  My phone is filled with photos from my walks which I use later when glazing my pieces.  A lot of inspiration comes from textiles, both French & Tibetan.  France’s use of stripes are iconic at this point, but Tibet has an incredibly rich use of textiles in the home, all of which are very colorful.   Most notably to me are the pangdens, which are aprons married Tibetan women wear everyday.  They are all different and unique but all pangdens are made of very colorful horizontal stripes in seemingly random color combinations. 

Cut Fruit: What are your favorite Tibetan New Year traditions?

Chinzalée: Like most people, my favorite Losar traditions center around the food that we use to celebrate the occasion.  One of these traditions are the Khapses I make with my uncle, which are essentially beautiful fried dough shapes with powdered sugar.   Every culture seems to have their take on a sweet fried dough, and Khapse is the Tibetan version.  

Cut Fruit: Any favorite Bay Area Tibetan businesses?

Chinzalée: There is a thriving Tibetan community in the Bay Area that feels like it’s mostly concentrated in Berkeley/ El Cerrito & Richmond.   There are a number of stores and restaurants but a couple favorite spots of mine for momos (steamed tibetan dumplings), and sha paley (basically a meat empanada), are Nomad on Solano in Berkeley and Tashi-Delek on San Pablo in El Cerrito. 

Cut Fruit: We know that not all communities feel adequately represented by current AAPI community organizing. How can people best support Tibetan communities and artists in the diaspora and beyond?

Chinzalée: There is so much to say on this subject and it has taken me a while to understand my own feelings around where I fit in the AAPI umbrella and I will have to continue to do a lot of work on becoming more precise with my feelings around this subject.  For now what I can say is that it often feels that a lot of the AAPI community organizing can be very centered around the Chinese community or that media representation of Asians, which is an undoubtedly very broad group of people to be grouped together, is often focused on the Chinese American experience.   As a Tibetan I don’t find this particularly inclusive and very rarely do I feel represented in this group.  There is so much nuance of experience that can get lost in these large groupings of populations and I find this is where the inclusivity can be lost.  For example, it’s important to note that the Tibetan community you may come across here or elsewhere are not simply immigrants, but are exiled from their home country.   China invaded Tibet in 1950 and continues to occupy it illegally. I think for Tibetans to feel more represented in the AAPI organizing, there needs to be an understanding that there is an ongoing genocide and cultural genocide at the hands of the People’s Republic of China in Tibet, and that there needs to be a lot more sensitivity in grouping Asians together, with more focus on understanding our differences and perhaps harm that has occurred between some of these groups.