How Stephanie H. Shih, and One of Her Dumplings, Nourishes Me
Object story by Juliana Rowen Barton.
Since 2018, Taiwanese American artist Stephanie H. Shih has folded over 1,500 porcelain dumplings. I’ve always loved how these clay dumplings playfully and subversively toe the line between “making sustenance and making art,” as one critic put it. There is, of course, an undeniable charm in using clay—and porcelain, of all materials—to make facsimiles of a food is rolled, folded, heated, and eaten. The artist has also expanded this food-meets-clay practice, sculpting a kitchen’s worth of groceries inspired by the Asian culinary diaspora, from instant noodles and Spam to a 50-pound bag of rice and over a dozen kinds of soy sauce bottles.
In the face of devastating food and housing insecurity, I find these handmade objects and the foods they imitate to be intimate, nourishing, and at times fraught. Shih points out that pantry items are what we feed our loved ones with, that we literally live with these products in our homes. More broadly, she notes her artistic practice allows her to explore the concept of home not just as a physical space, but also as the cultural and emotional spaces we inhabit. Activism, too, is central to her work. She’s used her art to raise funds for marginalized communities experiencing instability related to home—nearly $40,000 so far.
I write this short piece from at-home quarantine, having witnessed the simultaneous pandemics of COVID-19 and structural anti-Black racism collide. Zoom meetings, FaceTime calls, and Google Hangouts have put our homes and home lives on display as never before. As I’m offered glimpses of others’ spaces, I cannot help but reflect on my own relationship with home, the objects that fill it, and the people who inhabit it. Shih’s dumpling is one of the many objects that fill my home, occupying physical space on my dresser top and emotional space as I consider how to nourish myself, my loved ones, and my communities.
Juliana Rowen Barton, PhD, is the ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Craft. Through her work, she strives to make a more equitable museum experience and to reframe perspectives on familiar objects and spaces.
Learn More About Shih and Other Inspiring Artists in Our Spring Issue
Hitting mailboxes now, the Spring issue of American Craft highlights the work of artists whoe are defining the craft movement today—including Stephanie H. Shih. Join the American Craft Council by March 23 to experience the Spring issue as the start of your yearlong subscription.