Proving that you don’t necessarily need a degree to pursue a career in the arts – or the wider creative industry, for that matter – Stephanie H. Shih’s journey to where she is today is more than inspiring. After spending 11 years as a copywriter and creative director, she decided to take the plunge as a full-time artist and supported herself on commissions. Eventually, she fulfilled perhaps every artist’s dream: she was able to make a living by selling her own work. “It’s an incredible privilege to be able to earn a livelihood this way,” she tells It’s Nice That, “and spending more than a decade in a traditional office career makes me appreciate that.”
Plastered across her portfolio are the most delectable depictions of food stuffs, from rice bags to cooked fish, seasonings to bottles of soy sauce. When devising the concepts behind her creations – more specifically her exhibitions – Stephanie is most interested in the cultural history of a place, and will tailor her works accordingly. For instance, in a solo show at Hawkwik in the Lower East Side, the artist has created a series that explores the lives of Chinese and Jewish immigrants who have lived in the neighbourhood. The works feature ceramic replicas of goods from Chinese and Jewish grocers, such as Tsingtao beer and Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, as well as dumplings, pickles, and signs from restaurants like Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Katz’s Delicatessen. In December, Stephanie is also involved in Art Basel in Miami Beach and plans to pay homage to Chino-Cuban cuisine.
Everything Stephanie constructs is made by hand. Using stoneware as the base before painting it with underglaze, the work is pristinely finished to mimic that of the subject matter at hand – “high-gloss glaze for glass bottles and matte for paper labels,” she says, exuding a sense of realism to the finest of degrees. More recently, she exhibited a series named New World Mall that was shown at Stanley’s in LA as well as at NADA Miami. Focusing on Western groceries in particular, Stephanie looked at the specific foods that have a “special place in Asian culture, challenging common notions of authenticity and highlighting cultural interchange”. In the project, we see the iconic Laughing Cow transferred into a permanent piece of art – imitated to perfection through the colours, composition and shapes. Kewpie mayonnaise, KitKats, Spam and coffee are other such groceries mimicked as part of the series.
In the past – as part of an exhibition with Perrotin Editions – Stephanie created a series of soy sauces from the Asian American diaspora, “showcasing the breadth of a category of cooking condiments that is often flattened into a single ingredient in the West”. It’s clear that, from older works to new, Stephanie’s practice has a clear goal and narrative in mind. Besides the obvious enjoyment her audience will receive from recognising the items she makes, Stephanie also uses her medium to tell stories of the diaspora, migration and colonisation, all of which are seen through the lens of the Asian American kitchen. “As a cohesive network of products, these everyday objects reflect the material traces of colonisation, displacement, immigration, assimilation and cultural interchange within the domestic lives of immigrants and their children,” she concludes. “I’d love for the work to not only conjure up personal memories and family histories, but to encourage new ways of thinking about cultural identity and interchange.”
Stephanie H. Shih: Kit Kat Strawberry Milk, 2021, ceramic. Kewpie Mayonnaise, 2021, ceramic. Horlicks The Nourishing Food Drink, 2021, ceramic. Café du Monde French Roast Coffee, 2021, ceramic. Spam 25% Less Sodium, 2021, ceramic. Ligo Sardines in Tomato Sauce Chili Added, 2021, ceramic (Copyright © Stephanie H. Shih, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.