Richela Fabian Morgan
When it comes to being an artist, I really cling on to my maiden name Fabian. I think it’s really important. It confuses a lot of people, whenever I would go to school or apply for jobs and they didn’t see my face, only my name, they would think I’m Italian. When I show up they’re surprised. I really don’t know the lineage and would love to find my roots. When my dad passed away six years ago, I started thinking more about where my name came from.
My mom was thought of as an old maid since she was 25-26 years old at the time, was working and not married. She met my dad at their place of work and it was a quick courtship. My grandparents agreed to arrange their marriage a couple of months later and soon after had my older sister. When my mom was pregnant with my second sister, she decided my dad still needed to grow up since he was still into hanging out with the guys. She got my uncle to sponsor him to come to America and got him a job, and two years later my mom and sisters joined him. A year later I came along and was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I remember when I was little there was a Puerto Rican family that had a rooster. Every morning it would declare it was 5 a.m. My mom and our neighbors would talk to each to each other and pass food and things through the window.
I never visited the Philippines. I always thought I would go with my mom but then she passed away. My husband Dave has actually visited the Philippines when we were just dating at the time. He likes to bring up that fact during family gatherings.
A: Tell us about yourself.
R: I’m Filipino-American. I think it’s important to have both words to describe what I am. In college, friends who were Filipino would say ‘I’m American’, I think to want to assimilate. I’m a middle- aged woman and being Filipino American is a whole different experience from another ethnicity and is part American. My parents didn’t teach me Tagalog and were always too busy to teach me the culture. My mom relied on the Filipino club that we were a part of where there were other Filipino kids to learn the culture. The Filipino club was where I learned the Filipino dances like Tinikling or Ilaw Ilaw. Our house was always filled with people. My mom always welcomed family visiting from the Philippines who needed help to the point where I felt I had no privacy and time to myself. I remember my first apartment and I lived by myself for two years. To this day there is something joyful about being able to just close the door.
Growing up, my friend Simon who was Korean and I were the only Asians. Most of my friends were white, Irish or Italian. It wasn’t until high school where I felt like I‘m an ‘other’. There were a few Asians but no Filipinos until one girl showed up. When I got to college at NYU that’s when I realized there should be some pride in being Filipino. I joined the student council and the Filipino club and was a history major.
A: How did you get into art?
R: My mom always made us fancy clothes. She had a sewing machine and she also crocheted. I remember she made me a dress for my communion that had beading and a train. She made me and my sisters outfits when we were kids that all kind of matched. My sister who was 15 at the time won Miss Valentine for the Philippine Association and my mom made this really beautiful dress for her. My mom also made me my prom dress. She didn’t encourage us to be creative but encouraged us to be frugal reusing stuff, and making collages. In high school I didn’t take an art class because of my perception of the kids in the class thinking they weren’t too smart.
I was always crafty but I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I like writing. I worked at a law firm as a paralegal where I met people who worked as a paralegal during the day but did other things outside of work. One person was a sculptor, another was a comedienne, an actor and another person loved making mixed tapes. I thought I was working with people who wanted to be a lawyer but instead was surrounded by people who were artists. From there I got a job at Knopf publishing company in production and design. I learned graphic design, creative Adobe suite, and color mixing. Photoshop taught me about photography and did photography for a while, including digital photography.
When I was getting married, I hand made our wedding invitations and carved the names of all the people on the candles that were on each table. When I had kids I didn’t do anything creative for some time until they got older and I thought about book packaging. Someone suggested I write about book packaging, so I started writing craft books, then teaching from the craft books. The last published craft book I wrote was in 2016. Afterwards, I decided to take art classes at Hunter College and to learn how to draw.
The first book I wrote was Noteworthy about types of note cards that you can make and then another book called Baby By The Numbers about preparing to have a baby, presenting a lot of information with charts, a book of facts and practical things. The Green Crafter was about making things with my kids out of garbage in the house. Tape It and Make It, Tape It and Make It Again and Tape It and Wear It was published by Baron’s Educational. Tape It and Make It won an award and is still being sold out there. I started blogging about my daughter and her friends craft group called Crafty Girls, we made stuff and would sell it at the fair every year, then was approached by this company who wanted me to write books about it that led to Tape It and Make It. The last book I worked on was for a Christian publisher to do an advent calendar craft book.
From there, I started teaching crafts at underserved communities, with homeless kids, at Head Start with immigrant children. During Covid, I got into making book sculptures, started making instructional videos and teaching on Zoom. I made more art and thought more about what my practice is.
A: What are some stereotypes you have experienced?
R: With this painting I'm doing, there are layers of words and certain images from magazines that I apply on with a medium or mod podge. The words are what we experience as an Asian, like you are really good at math, or worthy of praise. Different portrayals of over sexualized images of Asians when I see it, it’s overt and makes me question whether it furthers the stereotype. Beautiful skin. I had boyfriends that went on about my skin and they talk about how they love my skin because it’s like chocolate. There’s a difference between the words that are experienced on our skin, it’s thrown at us but it’s not what’s inside us. The clothes we wear are like our armor and you can’t put those words on me but then the words still get on our skin.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
R: I don’t know what typical is so that’s always been a big question mark, what is typical. Asian American people who I meet there is nothing typical about them. A Chinese American friend of mine, we have similar experiences but are also different. Who’s to say what is typical or not? I see my Asian friends just for who they are as a person. Of course it’s important to acknowledge their background but I don’t consciously think about them being Asian.
A: What message do you want to impart to others about Asians?
R: That maybe they shouldn’t think so hard. There shouldn’t be any label or any need to categorize or stereotype.