Work in Progress: Sheri Shih Hui
Work in Progress: Sheri Shih Hui
By Wendy Cohen / October 14, 2019
On September 22nd I visited Sheri Shih Hui at the Textile Art Center’s Manhattan studio, where she was wrapping up her September residency with TAC’s Work in Progress program. Sheri’s interdisciplinary art practice incorporates an expansive range of media, from textiles and fashion design to photographs and videos.
“I always loved materials and artifacts.” Born in Taiwan, Sheri loved to examine stones and rocks as a child. Through the process of collecting, she grew to value objects and the memories they carry. Her childhood love for materials and their memories has grown into a multidisciplinary textile practice.
Sheri earned her Masters in Fashion Design in Philadelphia, and now lives and works between New York and Taiwan. Before working in textiles, she developed a fine art background in painting and drawing for more than 10 years. Sheri’s practice in art – as well as in life – is to always continue learning: learning from others and connecting with communities. TAC has given her the space to do just that.
The WIP residency provides a studio and street-facing window to share work with the public. Each month a new artist takes over the space. Anyone walking by on the street can watch their artistic process unfold and come in for a closer look. During Artist Open Hours, the public can come in to speak with the artist in person.
Sheri explains that her work is guided by a history of objects and “philosophy of time:”
“The thought encourages me to deconstruct dualism and convention. It inspires me to cooperate with other species and values [that] we had been giving up for so-called progress. [...] [My] interests lie in the possibility of materials, the sense of time in other species living within, and the people who have been utilizing them.”
This “philosophy of time” connects her work across mediums. For example, experiments with film photography capture time in different ways through manipulation techniques such as double exposure and long exposure.
Textiles mediate time in their own way; they hold layered memories of their cultural backgrounds and the people who used to own them. Clothing becomes a metonym for the person who wears it and their role in society.
In addition to time and cultural histories, nature heavily influences Sheri’s practice, from experimenting with biomaterials to exploring biomimicry.
Biomimicry – a process of design and production rooted in biological structures – plays a significant role in her digital garment design. For Sheri, biomimicry is not just about biological function, but also about beauty and visual patterns. She draws inspiration from studying the patterns of natural creatures: their skin, scales, fur, and feathers. After isolating a single module that repeats to form the larger pattern, she uses software to manipulate and transform the module, experimenting with different values and iterations of patterns.
Guided by a love for exploring new techniques and materials, Sheri is currently working with plant and animal-based products that are often renewable and biodegradable. For example, she uses waste products and materials from the food industry such as gelatin, agar, and cornstarch. By taking a material that you wouldn’t think of as a fiber and manipulating it to work like a fiber, she creates new conceptions of textiles – what they can be made of, and what identities they can take on.
In the WIP studio, Sheri shows me objects and garments she has made from silicon rubber, and experiments to generate a material that echoes its properties, but is made from gelatin. Samples cover the work table, each with varying textures that arise from different ratios of water, gelatin, glycerin, and agar.
For future projects, Sheri is excited to experiment with more micro-biomaterials, such as yeast and sculpy, and fungi-based biomaterials. Fermenting food and studying different cell structures that resemble textiles are also directions of interest.
Sheri was drawn to urban farming through her friend Shih-Wei Chieh, who is collaborating with local communities in Tibet to develop a greenhouse education program. By bringing together artists who work with plant materials, they hope to use the greenhouse not only as a source of fresh food, but also as an education center to learn more about cultural heritage through the intersection of farming and arts.
Inspired by the greenhouse project, Sheri wanted to learn more about urban farming, and began looking for resources in New York. Now, the plants she collects from Eagle Street Rooftop Farm are put to use in developing new materials. WIP has provided a great platform to share these explorations with the public.
Sheri’s openness with materials is mirrored in her openness to people from all over the world. She doesn’t only look to ‘successful artists’ for inspiration; she is inspired by the people she encounters in her travels. Engaging with local artists and makers is a way to learn about their cultural histories and the knowledge that they still carry with them. By combining knowledge from the past with new technologies or fabrication processes of the present, forgotten materials are reborn in the future.
Sheri encourages artists to travel and make connections with other communities. When thinking about connections and collaborations, she values the exchanges of knowledge that unfold from working with people from different disciplines and backgrounds. For example, Sheri has been invited to join government-funded projects in Taiwan that connect artists with technicians from other fields to create innovative cross-disciplinary prototypes, such as water-transfered RFID tattoo tickets. Importantly, in her approach to collaboration Sheri also recognizes that people who live in what are considered developing countries are often underestimated, and have a lot to bring to the table.
The biggest challenge that Sheri faces as an artist is how to survive in a capitalist society in which people expect work to yield profit. This balancing act is familiar to most artists: how to focus time and energy in the studio while also navigating the day jobs needed to sustain their artistic practice. New York City is a particularly difficult place to navigate this tension because of the high cost of living. She admires artists in the city: “This place is tougher, so you need to be stronger.”
Sheri feels lucky to have found a community of textile artists at TAC. Engaging with the artists who work here inspires her practice in new directions, and sharing work with students fuels the motivation to continue. She aims to bring together people across cultures to exchange knowledge and skills. These interpersonal connections drive her practice: “I learn a lot from other people – that’s why I keep making art – their passion.”