My Thoughts Behind the CinderFlora Series

(As part of my application to Pro Arts, Oakland. Many thanks to my cousin Henry Lien for his literary prowess and ideas.)

CinderFlora Setup

This body of work is entitled “Cinderflora.” The work is a series of mixed media sculptures incorporating hand‐painted cinder blocks, bricks, paper flowers, reeds, stems, and other forms of flora. Accompanying the sculptural pieces, is a triptych of a deconstructed traditional landscape– fragmented and broken as a backdrop to the immigrant experience.

This series gives voice to the buried histories of women of color and their contributions to American history. Using traditional philosophies of wabi‐sabi, ikebana, and kintsugi, these pieces show an appreciation for decline, the rhythm of growth and decay, and the use of cracks and imperfections as sources for newfound strength. Using figurative imagery, elements of floral arrangement, and the traditional “women’s craft” of paper flowers, it collides organic, natural forms with industrial building materials to explore the oft‐ overlooked meanings in conventional objects.

The central motif of flora in an urban environment serves as a metaphor for the untold efforts of women of color in history. Instead of equating flowers to women in any of the historically cliché, retrograde ways, the work deconstructs our view of them and highlights their ability to harness patience and resilience to pierce through seemingly impenetrable obstacles. Similarly, industrial materials are used to emphasize the strength of composite materials, but through decomposition and breaking down in uniquely different or unexpected ways, becoming nourishment as a means for growth.

To strike a delicate balance between two assumed binaries; harsh, industrial building materials are paired with natural, delicate ones to question our assumptions around seemingly opposing concepts such as fragile/strong, delicate/harsh, beauty/imperfection, and growth/decay. Each piece tells a different story of nature waiting for man‐made obstacles to crumble, seeking fissures and cracks as a point of entry to find its path into the light.

The title of the series itself attempts to rehabilitate a reviled cliche of a female narrative. The story of Cinderella is perhaps most controversial, because it is a traditional fairytale of finding salvation in a prince’s arms. It elicits sneers from progressives as readily as floral craftwork does, and yet‐ Cinderella’s story can also be read as a tale of hard work, patience, resourcefulness, and taking advantage of opportunities as it presents itself. The alternative reading of Cinderella’s story harmonizes with the alternative reading of paper flowers; which, in turn, suggests an alternate recounting of women’s stories. The title of the series intentionally echoes this rehabilitation to question politically unpopular or outdated motifs, while the work takes back cultural appropriations, examines rooted biases and buried traditional values‐‐reinvigorating them and bringing them to light.

Personally, the Cinderflora series reflects my need to express gratitude for the strength and efforts of women who came before me, whose own stories were buried to give me a voice. In unearthing even the most recent, unspoken histories within my own ancestral past, I am struck by the resilience and fortitude of the women in my family. Each overlooked and broken in uniquely different ways, but in breaking down, demonstrated resourcefulness and vitality despite having lived through unrelenting obstacles in harsh surroundings.

This series represents my need to craft my own narrative through a composite stories of others. It examines who I am as a woman of color as a part of a larger, historically under‐ represented community within American history.

 –San Francisco, October 2015

Cinderflora Series

studio mess

Incubating with new materials in the studio and making a big ol’ mess.

September 15th, 2015

I’ve gotten a bit too busy to write, but I do wish I could make more time for it. Writing helps clarify my thoughts: the act of writing forces me to focus and structure my thoughts in a way that is both challenging and necessary. Hats off to all my writer friends; shit’s not easy.

Last month, I received a letter from a highly respected Art organization in Oakland, congratulating me for being nominated by someone from SFMOMA, Jewish Contemporary Museum, Yerba Buena, or Oakland Art Museum as one of the artists selected to apply for a solo show next year.

As an artist, having a solo show is a huge milestone, but even being nominated by such esteemed organizations was a huge honor in itself. Given that I had started exploring new media, playing with textures, and thinking of new ways to incorporate my ideas, I wanted to produce work that reflected this.

What resulted was my first real foray into the sculptural– titled, Cinderflora, a series of mixed media work exploring an appreciation for decline, the rhythm of growth and decay, and the use of cracks and imperfections as sources for newfound strength. Using traditional philosophies of wabi‐sabi, ikebana, and kintsugi, it collides organic, natural forms with industrial building materials (such as cinder blocks and bricks) to explore the oft‐overlooked meanings in conventional objects. Here is an excerpt from my write-up for the show (many thanks to Henry Lien, my amazingly talented cousin, who is an accomplished artist and writer–for his help):

Establishing a balance between two assumed binaries; harsh, industrial building materials are met with natural, delicate, hand-made forms to question our assumptions around seemingly opposing concepts such as fragile/strong, delicate/harsh, beauty/imperfection,and growth/decay. Each piece tells a different story of nature waiting for man‐made obstacles to crumble, seeking fissures and cracks as a point of entry to find its path into the light.

The title of the series itself attempts to rehabilitate a reviled cliche of a female narrative. The story of Cinderella is perhaps most controversial, because it is a traditional fairytale of finding salvation in a prince’s arms. It elicits sneers from progressives as readily as floral craftwork does, and yet‐ Cinderella’s story can also be read as a tale of hard work, patience, resourcefulness, and taking advantage of opportunities as it presents itself. The alternative reading of Cinderella’s story harmonizes with the alternative reading of paper flowers; which, in turn, suggests an alternate recounting of women’s stories and contributions throughout American history.


Cinderflora 1 (2015) Mixed Media

Cinderflora 2

Cinderflora 2 (2015) Mixed Media

Cinderflora 3

Cinderflora 3 (2015) Mixed Media

It’s a weird feeling; to make the jump into the third dimension, but I’m very proud of this new body of work, and I feel good about my application. Now that it’s submitted, I will have to knock down my expectations a few notches. But either way, I am excited about my new body of work, and intend on furthering this series because it represents so much of who I am. Thank you to Carlos Lopez for his amazing photographs of my pieces, and for his continued patience with me while I work an inordinate amount of hours in the studio. Fingers crossed, and wish me luck- I’ll need it!

Signed, Cindy

One Last Painting of 2014

As I start the year and I deliver my last commission of 2014, I am humbled by gratitude. Art is sometimes undefinable; every artist I meet struggles to define it, and his or her place in it. I am no exception, only, I know that for me, art is inspired by the people around me, and I have surrounded myself with some pretty inspirational people.

This new commission came from a good friend of many years, who celebrated the birth of his first son this year, and came to me with an idea with a gift for his wife. As a requisite to new Dad-dom, Phil took up photography, and took a beautiful, quiet, and sensitive photo of Laura and their son, Asher, by the window of their home.  A simple photo with little detail, I loved the intimacy of the photo, and was touched by the the adoration and love from both the viewer and the subject.

Phil Lehman Photography

Photo by Phil Lehman

Phil shared this photo with me, asked me if I would be interested in painting something as a gift to his wife this year. I said yes. Normally, this type of photo wouldn’t give enough information for a reference, but I was happy to take on the challenge.

As I mentioned before, my decision process for commissions boils down to a few things, one of them being a narrative. So much of how I feel about art comes from the story, and this one was no exception. Laura happens to be a bad ass lead singer of the band, “LoveFool” and has an incredibly beautiful singing voice. Phil sent me off to brainstorm with this quote of his: “Hurry home to me darling, I miss your voice,” a sentiment I wanted to incorporate into the piece.

What resulted was a subtle nod to intervals and cadences to her music in a monochromatic neutral palette to reinforce the quiet mood, a visual interpretation of an intimate lullaby shared by all the members of their small, loving family. And Phil, you win husband of the year, for commissioning such a great piece. It was definitely made with love (and a healthy dose of frustration).

For Laura

“Hurry home to me darling, I miss your voice,” (2014) Oil on Canvas 16″ x 20″ From the Private Collection of Asher Lehman

**Special thanks to John Wentz, for giving me informal critiques throughout the process. Can’t wait to get one of your pieces in my collection!

And to all my friends investing in my art career: Thank you SO, so very much. Please know that your investment in me isn’t taken lightly, I really can’t even tell you how much I appreciate it. Also know that the money I earn from art goes right back into the art pie, because it’s one that could use some growing!


I Wish You Love

“I Wish You Love” – Oil, Graphite Powder, Watercolor and Glitter on Canvas

August 19th, 2014

There are ups and downs in any type of work you do, and lately, it’s been pretty down. People often tell me I’m “living the dream,” and I’ll have to I agree– but I’ll admit: some days, painting is draining, exhausting, and downright painful. I literally need to force myself to sit my ass down to paint. Nothing can be created from not showing up, right?

But something happened lately that inspired, touched, and motivated me a few days ago. A dear, old friend emailed me after seeing images of my latest series: Abstractions of Song,” a series of abstract paintings I created based on songs that resonated with me. She was particularly drawn to the piece, “I Wish You Love.” Having gone through a particularly difficult time in her life, she sent me this (which I got her permission to share):

it’s so funny, that song has been on a loop in my home and in my car… it’s on a rotation of 5 songs i listen to constantly — sometimes sad, sometimes crying but a lot of times just hopeful and reflective.  i thought that song was my little secret i listened to and i was astonished to open my facebook and see it right there in your post….and not only that, see it accompanied by a beautiful piece of art that indescribably captures everything i feel when i hear it. it’s so weird.  i know it’s a personal piece of work for yourself but it’s so funny how i can look at it — even on a computer screen, not even live! — and automatically feel like it was meant for me.  but i guess that’s the beauty of great art, right? 

While I can’t say I know what “great art” is, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for her sentiments. Knowing her story personally, it was clear to me that she understood everything I wanted to communicate in this painting. I also knew almost too intimately and painfully, how she has been feeling– because I’ve been there. Painting this series meant having to revisit some of my lonelier, introspective times. These paintings were also ambitious– I wanted to capture conflicting, complicated, elusive emotions and materialize them with only composition, color, marks, and paint. I wanted to work in the abstract, because sometimes, symbolism only flattens the depth of the emotions one feels.

I never paint with the intention of imposing my views, or even expect others to understand it fully. But, it is something I always silently hope to achieve. Hearing this from my old friend validated what I’ve been working toward: to reach others through my art, wordlessly, holistically, and to say things that now never need to be said. I am so grateful for being able to challenge myself through my work and be rewarded this way, it is a privilege I hope to never take for granted. Everything about this fills me with gratitude, thank you for being a part of it.

My Latest Series: Abstractions of Song

Song Abstract Series

Music is very often a part of the highest and the lowest points of my day. Lyrics give me words when I don’t have my own, and music expresses emotions I sometimes don’t know I have. I suspect music inspires the same in others, which is why so many people find solace in the same songs, sharing the need to reinterpret and pay homage to songs of the past.

In my new series, I revisited songs that have been interpreted by various artists, songs I have discovered/rediscovered at various points in my life. Because so much of what I paint is representational, I wanted to challenge myself to simply paint in the abstract- completely devoid of symbolism. I wanted to test my ability to convey a certain sense of feeling in each, that can’t be expressed in lyrics or words–even by some of the greatest musicians in history. I also wanted to share the meaning they’ve created in their reinterpretations of the same song, and be a part of the tradition through the process of creation. These paintings are my dedication to my times of love, loss, obsession, and heartbreak. I hope it resonates with you.

This series was recently shown at the Asian American Women Artist Association’s show, “A PLACE OF HER OWN” at the SEED Gallery at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio, San Francisco from Thursday, June 12 to Friday, July 25th, 2014. Thank you to all who made it to the show, I am forever grateful for your support. 


“I wish you health But more than wealth I wish you love My breaking heart and I agree That you and I could never be So with my best My very best I set you free.” From, “I Wish You Love”

Title: I Wish You Love

Materials: Oil, Graphite Powder, Watercolor and Clear Glitter on Canvas

Description: My visual interpretation of Rachael Yamagata’s rendition of, “I Wish You Love,” is a wide chasm of longing, touched with the earnestness of hope, leading to a glimmering horizon.  This particular song has significance to me, as it carried me through some of my deepest heartaches. There are layers of warmth beneath the ice, and the only way to get to it is through the path toward the cracked ice above. To me, it is a song of heartbreak, loss, but overwhelming and  encompassing love.

Play: “I Wish You Love,” Rachael Yamagata 











Lilac Wine

“I made wine from the lilac tree Put my heart in its recipe It makes me see what I want to see and be what I want to be When I think more than I want to think Do things I never should do I drink much more that I ought to drink Because (it) brings me back you… Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, like my love Listen to me… I cannot see clearly Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, where’s my love? Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?” –From “Lilac Wine”

Title: Lilac Wine

Materials: Oil, Graphite Powder, Watercolor and Enamel on Canvas

Description: Based on Jeff Buckley’s interpretation of “Lilac Wine,” I imagined the dynamic push and pull of syrupy wine legs against the shadows of a lonely, dark place. This piece represents  an obsessive, clingy love—drowned in the blissful oblivion of intoxication. 

Play: “Lilac Wine,” by Jeff Buckley


“Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? I take my love, take it down I climb a mountain and turn around And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills Will the landslide bring you down.” —From, “Landslide”

Title: Landslide

Materials: Oil, Watercolor, Graphite Powder

Description: “Landslide,” by Smashing Pumpkins is another remake of a classic song by Fleetwood Mac, and my interpretation of it represents a departure from what I’ve been known to create in the past. It’s a personal piece and homage to my familiar past: a long-standing love lost, an embracing of change, and a hope to rebuild.

Play: “Landslide,” by Smashing Pumpkins

Panel Discussion on “Choice”

Artist Panel1011440_10203045700647955_1315000947_nInstallation 1554616_698224556884241_1792201426_n

Link to the artwork: Online “Choice” Gallery  

Information about the exhibit:


On Saturday, January 12th, 2014, I spoke with a panel of artists I admire, on the topic of Choice and the decisions that women make today. The talk included comments on the topic by Laurie Toby Edison, Bernadette Howard, Priscilla Otani, and yours truly, moderated by Tanya Augsburg, Ph.D.  The Northern California Women’s Caucus for Art hosted the event, at Arc Studios and Gallery in San Francisco. Here is the statement that I made. 

“A Choice”

My piece for this show, “Waiting,” was about a personal choice I made three years ago. Three years ago, I was engaged to a wonderful Chinese boy from a great family, but I made a choice not to get married. Since that decision, I became a pseudo-marriage counselor. Close friends, as well as people I hadn’t spoken to in years, came out of the woodwork to ask me about my decision not to get married. Reactions ranged from slight disapproval to admiration, everyone had to something to say. I expected this; what I didn’t expect, was so many women, young and old, approaching me with their own reservations about marriage.

For example, a good friend of mine I hadn’t seen since college, who was engaged to be married in two weeks, called me up and told me how despite how much she loved her fiance, she wanted to call off the wedding. We then went on to commiserate about much bullshit weddings were, how as women, we had to transition from being our own person to someone else’s “wife,” and how- no one ever tells you that the prospect of marriage means giving up your previous identity to make room for this new role. Everyone expected you to be overjoyed to plan a wedding, to change your name, to have children. No one wanted to hear about doubt. Before we hung up, she told me she could never call off her wedding because her parents would never talk to her again. Two weeks later, I attended her wedding. She was a beautiful bride, the wedding was perfect, and I couldn’t have been happier for her. When I tell this story, people ask: why did she choose to get married if she didn’t want to? Haven’t we progressed past forcing women to get married?

But I was happy for her because she made a Choice. Whether or not it was the right one— only she can decide, but she was able to make the right choice for herself, and I respect and support whatever that may be. Even now, as people approach me in hindsight to tell me I made the right choice not to get married, I am amazed, because I still don’t know if it was the right thing. When it happened, I felt tremendous pain, and faced the disappointment of many loved ones, and it hurt like I made the wrong choice. I also know that even if I had chosen to get married, I may have felt that pain too. Or maybe I wouldn’t have.  I don’t know, and I will never know. But it doesn’t matter, because I made that choice.

Choice comes with consequences, good and bad. No one can tell you if what you did is “right” or “wrong.” In my opinion, the cognitive act itself is separate from moral consequences. What I am grateful for, though, is the right to exercise my own free will. What I am thankful for, are those who respected me enough to allow me the freedom to make that choice, and supported me through its consequences. During that same time, I also decided to quit my cushy job at Google and become a painter. As you can probably imagine, that was also an unpopular choice with my family. But I figured they were already disappointed in me, so it was a good time to do everything all at once.

In this piece, I imagined what it was like for the women in my family, and the women before me, to make the choice to get married. The red hooded figure in the center is dressed in a traditional Chinese wedding gown. She is faceless and nameless, without an identity to her future husband until she is officially his wife. More likely than not, she didn’t choose to get married. Her husband was probably chosen for her. But her state of being is not judgmental, resentful, or sad. She is calm and anticipating. To show this contrast, I chose a smooth, cool gray and mixed in warm tones reminiscent of the sky. It is neutral and serene, maybe even hopeful. She is suspended in time, in space.

Within her figure, however, I chose deep, blood reds and created textures to show her inner turmoil. Her crooked, clammy hands reveal her apprehension. Despite her inability to make the choice to get married, she exudes an elegant boldness as she waits patiently and calmly for her new life to begin. To me, this painting reminds me of the ordinary, nameless women who made brave choices so I could have the freedom to make mine. It also reminds me that it is my responsibility to speak for women who can’t make their own choices, and that- even today, not everyone has that choice.

For those of us who have the freedom to make our own choices, it is important that we continue to use our voices and fight through Art, through sharing our experiences, whatever it may be— to give voice to those who don’t. Even more important still— to support and respect the choices that others make for themselves. We are not here to judge right from wrong, to shield them from the consequences. We are here to support a Choice.

  –Cindy Shih

Regrets Only

What I’ve been working on recently…

An addition to the series, “Regrets” shows the dichotomy between sex and love, comfort and pain. It is the moment after desire turns to lasciviousness, and the conflicting emotions of want and regret. The imagery depicts a haunting turbulence, a calming euphoria, and the need for intimacy.

Regrets Only
26″ x 22″
Oil on Canvas

Also inspired by Dorothy Parker’s poem, “The Red Dress”

The Red Dress

I always saw, I always said
If I were grown and free,
I’d have a gown of reddest red
As fine as you could see,

To wear out walking, sleek and slow,
Upon a Summer day,
And there’d be one to see me so
And flip the world away.

And he would be a gallant one,
With stars behind his eyes,
And hair like metal in the sun,
And lips too warm for lies.

I always saw us, gay and good,
High honored in the town.
Now I am grown to womanhood….
I have the silly gown.

   —Dorothy Parker