Stephanie Shih, MA ’10, PhD ’14, imagines an exhibit one day that juxtaposes some of her still life photographic images with paintings by the Dutch masters that inspired them. Postimpressionist Vincent van Gogh’s Vase with Twelve Sunflowers, for example, would accompany her photograph Vase with Ten Bunflowers.
Shih, who spends her days as an associate professor of linguistics at USC, giggles at the thought of her bun pun. Then she describes her surprising choice to replace a few of the van Gogh sunflowers with the much-loved Chinese pineapple bun. It’s part of the ongoing exhibit “Open Flowers Bear Fruit” at the McCarthy Gallery at Washington and Lee University, in which she uses foods and items from Asian communities to upturn the European still life tradition, she says. In another piece, she sneaks doughnuts from a neighborhood Cambodian doughnut shop into a still life that echoes the work of Jan Brueghel. In a third, she drapes kimchi gracefully across a dish as a flower—and swirls it into a neighboring floral arrangement. The works are both playful and serious—much, it seems, as is Shih herself.
Shih was born and raised in the Bay Area and spent her summers in Taiwan. Her interest in photography first blossomed when her dad loaned her his cameras when she was a child. After graduating from UC Berkeley, she started her doctoral degree in linguistics at Stanford and began playing around with cameras again. As a part-time gig, in between long study sessions, she baked wedding cakes for a little extra cash. To market her work to clients, she started photographing her cakes outdoors, in gardens. That’s how she found she had a talent for food art, and her dual career began.
For her linguistics research, Shih uses computers to collect and analyze basic language data, such as the frequency of sounds, words, and word elements. “Not until I really got into academia did it become important to me to work on issues of diversity, equity, and belonging,” she says. “And that bleeds out into my artwork.”
Subversion describes her approach to reinventing Eurocentric masterpieces with objects from Asian cultures—a practice, she says, that brings artistic sway full circle. Van Gogh was greatly influenced by Japanese woodblock prints, for example. And many of the Dutch still life masters used Asian pottery in their artwork, she says.
Since she began her position at USC in 2018, Shih has connected with Asian American shop owners, chefs, and other creators in Los Angeles to help fulfill some of her photographic fantasies. “I wanted to combine the exuberance of eating a doughnut with that of Brueghel’s bursting florals, as an homage to cross-sensory experiences that make us happy,” she writes of her photograph Brueghel’s Breakfast.
And sometimes, just for fun, she adds a touch of video to her photographs online—a single apricot jumps on and off a pillar next to a fruit display, and milk splashes over a cereal-sprinkled doughnut in a bowl. “In thinking about still life, I always like to nudge it a little bit, using motion as a way to kind of subvert the practice, to suggest there is something different with this still life. It’s both still as well as not.”
Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.