Sitting with Ana Cho in the pottery studio behind her Eagle Rock bungalow, it’s hard to believe the relaxed ceramist once endured a work grind so stressful, she left a lucrative career as a video game designer.
“It got to the point where I felt like I had to choose between work or life,” Cho says of being on the job 12 hours a day. “It would be chill and then ramp up to 80 hours a week. It was hard to not have time for outside activities. My anxiety and depression made everything really hard.”
When she was originally offered a job as a video game artist in Los Angeles in 2011, the Korean-born graphic designer was living in Vancouver following an unusually wet spring. Weary of gray skies, she jumped at the chance to move to sunny Southern California even though she had never set foot in Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘I’m out of here,’” she says with a laugh. “It helped that I was 28 years old.”
She enjoyed working for Naughty Dog in Santa Monica, but when her mother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2013, and died soon after, Cho was left unsure of her place in the world.
Cho remembers feeling disconnected from everything. “I took a month off, but I wasn’t the same,” Cho says. “I was burned out at work and couldn’t bounce back after losing my mother.”
In some ways, accepting death is easier than the empty days that follow. So Cho pushed herself to make lifestyle changes that would benefit her mental health. She started taking pottery classes at Echo Art Studio in West L.A. and, in the process, found that working with clay soothed her.
“It was mind-blowing,” she says of pottery class. “I thought that perhaps I’d find a new hobby and like-minded community, but it was more than that. There were a lot of older women at the studio and I loved that. After losing my own mother, it was so nice to be around them.”
In the midst of so much inner turmoil, Cho turned to her hands for support. She kept coming back to pottery class. She started cooking more. She signed up for woodworking classes at Otis College of Art and Design in the evenings and the woman-owned Allied Woodshop in downtown Los Angeles on the weekends.
“There is something about working with your hands. It does something good to your brain,” she says of studies that have shown that working with clay can help ease depression. “It was therapeutic for me. Having that single-mindedness and literal connection to the clay was so calming.”
For three years she had entertained a pipe dream — attending the Krenov School of Fine Furniture, a woodworking school in Fort Bragg, Calif., that offers a nine-month program in fine cabinet and furniture-making. In 2019, Cho made it a reality when she applied and was accepted. Instead of sitting in front of a computer screen all day, she would be working with traditional hand tools from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
In a sign of how unhappy she was, she quit her job before she was accepted to the school.
“It was such a big deal to quit my job,” she says. “It was really scary. It was a combination of courage and desperation. But I didn’t regret it because I knew how unhappy I was. It was truly a leap of faith to believe that I was going to be all right.”
In Fort Bragg, she rented a guest house near the ocean and enjoyed “an experience of a lifetime” with 22 other students, including a retired scientist, a film editor from L.A. and a group of men in their 20s from around the world.
When the immersive program was cut short due to COVID-19, Cho moved back to L.A. in July 2020 and got a bench space at Allied Woodshop.
“I couldn’t do pottery at that time, so having Allied to go to several times a week, even in a mask, saved me,” she says. Armed with a purpose, she focused on making furniture for her 100-year-old California bungalow.
After she transformed the home’s garage into a ceramics studio, Cho was able to focus on creating pottery full-time while teaching introduction to woodworking at Allied.
“When I took my first woodworking class, I came home feeling high,” she says. Now she can share that experience with others, and especially enjoys classes she teaches for youth and women, trans and nonbinary students. “Women find it very empowering to use the machines and saws. I love seeing their reaction. It’s nice to be reminded of how I felt at first — the joy you feel when you first discover something.”
For now, Cho plans to remain a small batch production. She hosted her first online sale last November, and in April sold out of her entire line of ceramic plates, bowls, mugs and planters. It gave her a boost of self-confidence, she says, and she is planning another sale on July 14 at 9 a.m. on her website.
Sitting in her sunlit studio with its bags of clay, houseplants and shelves lined with high-fired stoneware in muted, earthy tones, Cho says her new work life couldn’t be more different than her previous job.
“I feel so much better,” she says of creating a new life for herself. “I once heard a quote that goes something like, ‘You can’t solve the problem with the same mind that created it.’ When I’m feeling stuck, it’s always helped me to get a different perspective on things from people I trust or who are professionals,” she says, noting that she is supportive of various mental health journeys, be that therapy, medication or a support group.
She also studies meditation and says the relationships she’s built with other makers and students sustain her, as does her craft. “Of course, working with clay and wood continues to give me the mental support I need.”
Taking a leap of faith is terrifying, Cho says, but it doesn’t have to be “a big jump from a tall cliff.” Taking the process one step at a time made things more manageable — and enjoyable — for her.
“I have gravitated towards what makes me feel good,” she says.