‘The Content Chooses the Medium’: Genius Award nominee Shin Yu Pai delves deeper as an artist and writer

Tamiko Nimura August 2, 2014 0
Shin Yu Pai. • Photo by Daniel Carrillo

Shin Yu Pai. • Photo by Daniel Carrillo

Taiwanese American artist Shin Yu Pai has been involved with the Seattle arts scene for a few years now, but her engagement with the arts (like her own artmaking) is multimodal; she’s received grants from 4Culture and the City of Seattle, published criticism locally (including the International Examiner), worked with the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, and served as writer-in-residence with the Seattle Art Museum‘s WORD program. This year she was nominated for the Stranger’s Genius Awards. The following interview was conducted over e-mail, and edited for clarity and space constraints.


International Examiner: Congratulations on your nomination for the Stranger’s Genius Award in Literature. After all your travels, what has excited you the most about Seattle and its arts scene, for the purposes of your artmaking or lifestyle (or both)?

Shin Yu Pai: I first visited Seattle in 2007 when I was still living in Dallas and looking at attending a PhD program in anthropology at the University of Washington. One of my poetry classmates from Naropa, who had published a popular book on garden gnomes, was living here on a houseboat and took me for a spin on Lake Union in his two-person tugboat Ruby.

I stayed on Sunset Hill with poet and Alexander Technique teacher Carol Levin and her amazing woodworker husband Geo Levin in their lovely home overlooking the Olympics. Each night I fell asleep to the sound of sea lions singing on a platform in the marina. Carol introduced me to Open Books Poem Emporium and I taught at the Hugo House on that same visit as part of the Seattle Poetry Festival, and read my work on Whidbey Island at the Burning Word festival at Greenbank Farms.

I walked around the city, exploring Ravenna, Ballard, Greenwood, and Wallingford and fell in love with the lush gardens and craftsman-style architecture and the urban gardening interventions being done in front yards. A painter friend was planting corn in his sideyard and planned to give away the surplus by putting out a sign on the sidewalk with “free corn.” This person also collected hand scribed signs from the neighborhood for art projects.

I fell in love with the beauty of Seattle quickly. It was the first place where I ever felt the urge to put down roots, buy a house, settle in for the duration. The arts scene in Seattle has been tremendously supportive of my work. … I’m deeply grateful for the experiences I’ve had here, which have been characterized by a genuine sense of inclusion and community. My experiences in this city have made a huge impression on me and when I drove away at sunrise in 2009 with Ballard in my rear-view mirror, I felt my heart crack audibly in two and knew that my husband and I would return. We moved back in 2012.

IE: As a writer who’s married to a composer and a sister to a visual artist, I really enjoyed the multimedia nature of your recent collection ‘Aux Arcs.’ Your book made me think about the relationship between art forms; is the relationship between your art forms organic? Which art form drew you first?

Pai: My relationship to my artistic practices is not one that is easily explained. I am at once both Asian and American. I experience the world through the lens of both being a woman and API. These qualities are hard to keep separate as they layer over one another.

I started shooting photographs as a child, when my father gave me first camera when I was around six or seven years old. A Minolta Autopak that made square images, which I am still drawn to, except now I shoot with a Hasselbad. As a practice, photography has been a part of me for a long time. But the commitment to and primality of language has also been a concurrent area of exploration and interest, given that there is a large cultural and language gap between my immigrant parents and me.

As an artist, I’m interested in many different art forms and practices which occupy a single spectrum of creativity. The content chooses the medium. While it’s true that I have devoted more time to developing my work as a writer, I intend to return to visual work in the future.

[In other words,] the question of identities and identification transcend any conversation about the arts. If we think of identities as flexible and that we often code switch seamlessly between them, that the moving between art-making practices is like the movement between identities.

IE: Rather than asking a question about artistic influence, I was hoping that you could talk about the urge to “speak” to other artists (visual artists like James Turrell and Roger Shimomura, other writers like Rebecca Solnit) in ‘Aux Arcs.’  Do you see this as another form of collaboration?

Pai: I’ve often written poems in response to the visual arts. Early on in my career, some of the objects that I wanted to write about included works by Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell–artists that had passed away. I have expressed that I think of collaboration as a form of creative dialogue–I like to frame my work in terms of creative dialogue or engagement–whether those dialogues are with living or dead artists or something or someone altogether outside the realm of the arts. The urge to speak transcends responding to works by specific artists. Much of the work in my earlier work, Adamantine, used monuments and objects, and sometimes bodies, to tell hidden stories, to give agency to objects revealing little-known narratives. There are poems in Aux Arcs that operate in the same way, when you look at a poem like “Discards” about inmates in Louisiana prisons, or animals that cannot speak in poems like “Cull” or “Working dog, do not pet.” So these different kinds of poems, the ekphrastic and the socially engaged texts have overlap in that they are more about dialogue than collaboration.

IE: The main words I’d use to describe Aux Arcs are excavation and engagement: a global and local engagement with places, but through the intensely focused lenses of everyday interactions. How do you see this fitting into the arc of your own artistic career?

Pai: My early work was much more of the imagination and intellect, the abstract and conceptual, the lofty and spiritual. Over a decade of writing, I’ve grown as a person and my work is now more easily grounded in the quotidian and the larger world outside of myself. Whereas I was very interested for a long time in exploring the mind and imagination, my work is now about going deeper to explore my own position and biases, lived versus intellectual experiences that go beyond aesthetics and surface to excavate the human heart and my own personal disarmament. I’ve gone from a larger scale to a smaller scale in some ways. The global and the local seem like the macrocosm outside, but they are vehicles for exploring the inner terrain.

The winners of The Stranger Genius Awards will be announced at a special ceremony on October 18 at the Moore Theatre in the evening. For details, visit thestranger.com. Meanwhile, all Genius Award nominees will present samples of their work in a series entitled “Five Nights of Genius” at the Frye Art Museum (704 Terry Ave.). You can catch Shin Yu Pai reading her poetry there on Wednesday, August 27 at 5:30 p.m.

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