in the Person of interestWe talk to the people we notice about what they do, eat, read and love. Next is Stephanie Shih, a Brooklyn-based ceramicist who explores Asian-American identity through clay interpretations of food.
As my workday comes to an end Stephanie ShihIt’s just getting started. As we chat, the ceramist works hard in her Brooklyn home studio creating exquisitely detailed sculptures from storage items. These larger-than-life painted clay Sriracha bottles, pocky boxes, soy sauce gallons and instant ramen are part of a Shih series, titled Oriental Grocery, designed in 2018 to discover nostalgic foods from the Sino-American diaspora. Shih had worked as a copywriter but started throwing clay as a form of therapy to treat a chronic pain problem. A year later, her ceramics practice had grown into a full-time business.
The project started with hand-folded dumplings;; rolled and pleated like real, but made of creamy porcelain. From there she went on to Chinkiang black vinegarwho have favourited the sour component of a traditional Chinese dumpling sauce. Posting a picture of the bottle labeled in yellow on Instagram immediately hit a chord. “People in the Sino-American diaspora reacted so strongly to it because it’s a pretty iconic ingredient in our kitchen,” recalls Shih. “Black vinegar was the piece that really got me thinking about this idea of shared experience and shared nostalgia.”
Shih is quick to point out that her job is not just about her own childhood. Instead, she says, it’s all about a sense of community based on mutual experience. What once felt personal or private – in this case the kitchen – was actually shared by so many others. In the three years since she started at Oriental Grocery, Shih has cultivated an enthusiastic audience. She draws on the memories of her followers to gather ingredients that are central to Asian American culinary identity, with an emphasis on what she calls “everyday foods”. In July, she will open a solo show at Stanley in Los Angeles that will focus on Western foods that have gained prominence in East Asian cuisine due to colonization and military presence, such as Spam, Libby’s Corned Beef, and Wiener.
Here Shih talks about the way social justice runs through her life and work, her favorite political podcast, and what she’s cooking these days.
I want my activism and my art..be a unit. I think this recent surge in mutual aid, activism and donation is really great, but the only way we can sustain our communities is by making these practices a part of our daily lives. I use my art year round to raise money for charity and my audience now knows that this is a really important part of my practice. You know I don’t really separate the two.
At the moment I am looking forward to a new partnership..With Tyler Steinbrenner of Anti-Conquest Bread Co. Our project, called ACQ Flour Bank, will provide artists with an opportunity to donate works that will then be raffled to provide food for people with food insecurity. Tyler and I share this ethos: we want mutual help and caring to be something that is anchored in every part of our lives – and we want to set an example of how this can be possible.
** Working with clay is calming … ** and meditative. I love the tactility of the medium – it feels very intuitive to me and I’ve found it to be the best way to connect what’s in my brain with what’s in my hand.