Setting the Table: Miki Palchick in the Studio

October 23, 2016 by

Artist and food educator Miki Palchick has a broad vocabulary of pots and she’s not afraid to use it. Though fermentation crocks are the staple of her Philadelphia-based ceramics practice, her love of functional vessels has led her to make everything from palm-sized appetizer dishes to the Japanese donabe cooking pot.

As WSW’s newest Chili Bowl Workspace resident, Miki planned a series inspired by Asian food-specific ware. Squat, red and white armies of her rice bowls invade the ceramic studio’s table and shelves in perfect formations. Since inset lids prevent them from being stacked, they push her other pots to find refuge elsewhere. Still, Miki welcomes the invasion; her time here is a unique opportunity to produce rice bowls en masse, as they’re too time-intensive and uneconomical to fit into her daily production.

“This residency allows me to play,” she says. “I make twenty-five bowls [per week for the Chili Bowl Fiesta] and within those I can make whatever I want. That’s been a treat that I haven’t had before.”

A portion of her new work, a combination of serving, rice, noodle, and tea bowls, are thrown with brown and red stoneware and glazed with dark earth tones. For the rest, Miki adopts a new decorating technique: taking advantage of WSW’s printing studios and adding silkscreened decals on porcelain bowls to emphasize their function. Hands cupped as a sign of offering, grains of rice, a ramen knot, and a bamboo Matcha whisk sit at the bottom of their respective pots, each designed by her sister Andrienne, a printmaker.

“In Japan, it’s taboo to leave rice in your bowl,” Miki explains. “Once you’re done with your rice, you’re supposed to pour your soup or tea into your bowl to get every last grain. But these are like trick candles—there’s still rice at the bottom.”

These stories and traditions behind serving and cooking vessels are what drive Miki’s practice. Here, she illustrates these traditions through surface decoration, but usually she relies on a vessel’s function to relay the meaning. Fermentation crocks, one of her signature pots, pull from her own family practice of gardening and preparing food in a Japanese-Jewish household, where pickles were a cultural intersection.

Giving form to food customs is more than a stylistic decision; Miki creates work to encourage sharing food traditions as means to build relationships. Upon arriving at WSW, she and friend Ailbhe Pascal, of Fikira Bakery, planned a communal dinner of Miki’s pickles and Ailbhe’s tagine, both dishes being significant to their respective families and memories.

“When you’re sharing a space, sharing food, and sharing stories, that’s a way of overcoming the distancing that happens in our food system, which is really disempowering. We don’t know where our food comes from, we don’t know how it gets to us, and we don’t have control over what food we’re actually eating.”

“Pallets & Palates” at the Asian Arts Initiative, 2015. Image by Eileen Shumate.

As a food educator, Miki has worked at farms and communal gardens to push toward food sovereignty, where communities have control over their food. One of the first steps to sovereignty is strengthening community relationships, shifting the focus from the industrial market to personal and local responsibility.

Miki’s ceramic production and work in food education were separate full-time careers until she and Andrienne collaborated with social practice artists Heidi Ratanavanich and Eileen Shumate. Their long-term project “Pallets & Palates” directly addressed the industrial food system by deconstructing shipping pallets and building vegetable boxes from the wood. With Miki’s contribution, the pallets were repurposed to display her fermentation crocks for an exhibition at the Asian Arts Initiative. The artists interviewed community members who worked in fermentation, asked that they each cook a dish in a fermentation crock, and recorded their recipes. The ingredients fermented over the length of the exhibition and a communal meal was held at the end of the show.

dsc_8284“Once I realized the connection between the vessels that I was making and my work as a food educator and farmer in Philadelphia, it was a big turning point for me,” Miki says. Her pottery provided a reason for the participants to come together over a shared practice; the fermentation crocks were as important as the meal itself.

She adds, “I think it’s  really empowering if you can say, ‘I made that, I created something, and I want to share it with you.’” For Miki, food is a point of connection: pickles brought the Japanese and Jewish sides of her family together. Working in the WSW ceramics studio has allowed her to do the same, sharing her love of functional bowls that may, one day, remind friends to sit down and share a bowl of rice, noodles, or tea.

Miki Pachick is an artist, farmer, and food justice educator based in West Philadelphia, PA. During her residency, she spread her love of pickles and fermenting veggies to staff, interns, and fellow residents. Find more of her work on her website, on our Flickr, and at the 2017 Annual Chili Bowl Fiesta!