in partnership
Performance - Ampersand Live 2019.jpg
(Image: Courtesy of Shin Yu Pai)

Artist of the Week: Shin Yu Pai

Seattle might be notorious for niche coffee shops and scenic waterways, but locals know it's also home to an array of people who love to create. This city is chock-full of artists who we love to feature weekly on Seattle Refined! If you have a local artist in mind that you would like to see featured, let us know at And if you're wondering just what constitutes art, that's the beauty of it; it's up to you! See all of our past Artists of the Week in our dedicated section.

Seattle Refined: How long have you been creating? What mediums do you work with?
Shin Yu Pai: I've been writing and publishing since 1998 and have also worked with photography and book arts. In the past seven years, my practice has expanded – I've written personal essays, made poetry-based objects, created public art projects and installation-based work and written performance-based pieces. I also collaborate with filmmakers to make video poems. Sometimes, I sing and work with audio.

Can you tell us about your artistic process and how the different stages work into it?
It really varies based on the project. My poems sometimes arise out of going for morning runs or sitting still long enough to let an image take hold. Going back to images scrawled on pieces of paper or in a notebook. Essays take outlining and wrestling with more to get them into readable prose. I get ideas for things I want to make or perform and then find someone to teach me a craft or help me fabricate or make a thing. I often work collaboratively with artists from other disciplines, which invites a series of conversations and iterations upon an idea until it feels right for all involved.

Tell us about where your inspiration comes from.
My inspiration comes from lived and everyday experiences, news stories, conversations with other artists and hanging out with my kid. It also comes from observing culture and cultural differences.

Do you have a specific "beat" you like best – nature, food, profiles, etc.?
In the past, some of my subjects have encompassed place-based, site-specific work and work that explicitly explores various identities – gender, race, culture, being a parent. I try not to write much about food to avoid cultural clichés and stereotypes, although I have one very old poem on a Taiwanese fish market and an essay about the act of eating hot pot with my father.

Do you have one piece that means more to you or is extremely special to you?
My video poem "Embarkation" is based on observing a Taoist ritual festival that takes place in Taiwan every three years. The Wang Yeh boat burning festival is about the purification and cleansing of a specific community, which builds life-sized wooden boats over a year-long period and loads it up with broken dreams, illnesses and misfortune. The barge is then incinerated on a beach in the middle of the night. My piece is about taking a public ritual and reimagining it into something personally relevant. Adapting it into a grief practice for letting go of what needed to be shed. In a year of pandemic, I feel like that work has continued to reverberate for me.

What experiences in your life have affected your art the most?
I have been a practicing Buddhist for 23 years, and that particular outlook and philosophical perspective imbues my work with a certain consciousness of time, place, relationships and change. I studied writing in an art school environment at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and my first full-time job was working as a museum educator. My relationship with museums has deeply shaped the way I see. Finally, my experiences of family have been deeply formative.

If we want to see more of your work, where should we go to find it?
Please visit my website at

What is next for you? Anything you're working on right now that you're really excited about?
I have a book of poems coming out in August 2021 from Washington-state-based press Empty Bowl. "Virga" is my eleventh book and spans work written both before and during the pandemic. It's also my first full-length collection of poems in eight years since my book "AUX ARCS." I'd admired Empty Bowl and their books for years, particularly during the time that the poet and translator Mike O'Connor edited the press. I am the first Asian American (and female) author to be published by a 45-year-old press (my exact age) that has dedicated itself to publishing the Chinese poetic masters and Buddhist-inflected literature. To have their support is significant to me. I'm also transitioning into a new role with Town Hall as their Program Director. I am very excited to produce public programs full-time with such a venerable community-based institution.

Lastly, how do you take your coffee?
Black, with sugar.