A Rainy Spring Morning at Issha's
Issha is the creative I wish I could be. She is a maximalist in a sea of minimalists and neutral colour palettes, her style is full of character, supported by her rich personal history. Despite years of honing and refining her craft, she remains humble. “I really do try to bring my own language, even though I don't purport to be an originator of anything.” She’s a prolific multi-hyphenate designer, styling shoots for magazines, food photography for cookbooks and restaurants, is a floral designer, recipe developer, a writer, and an avid ceramic collector. It makes sense that it all started with food. “If I must put myself into one box, I’m really into eating!”
“These days I find myself sharing more of my process in the kitchen, and people are starting to notice this direction I’m taking”. Last month, Issha (literally) churned out a different ice cream flavour each week from her 2-pint ice cream maker at her home studio. I tried three of the four flavours and had a Ratatouille moment with every first bite. Ube with coconut-rye cookie chunks, pandan ice cream with pinipig (toasted rice), and kalamansi laced with orange blossom caramel. These flavour combinations made me feel nostalgic for home, and feel so seen and represented as a part of the Philippine diaspora - deeply rooted in traditional flavours but also welcoming of new and unexpected flavours like rye and orange blossom.
Issha met her father for the first time when she was four. He had been working abroad as one of Philippines’ millions of overseas foreign workers, and brought the world home to Issha and her family through the love language of many Asian parents – food. Through his cooking, he shared memories of discovering the world while longing for home. She lit up reminiscing about the tiny food stalls that fed her wanderlust and all the old haunts next to her father’s restaurant in Toronto. While studying Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Toronto, she found herself spending time at the computer lab teaching herself Photoshop instead of attending her mandatory Cognitive Science courses, until she finally switched to the Visual Studies program. Her parents found out about this shift only when she graduated.
Growing up in a household with two chefs, good food was so normal that she didn’t think people would care to know about her culinary language—which is, at its root, a mix of traditional Filipino fare and the cuisines from the different regions of the world that both her father and growing up in Toronto exposed her to. However, when the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests happened, and the controversies at Bon Appetit came to light, she wondered why she even thought that no one would care about what she eats and cooks. “That’s it, I'm going to write a cookbook!” Not waiting for publishers to knock on her door, she’s going to self-publish this with the same rebellious determination she had when she switched over to an arts program in university.
I too, grew up with Filipino food in my home. To the rest of the world, Filipino food seems like such a mystery. We don’t eat with chopsticks like our other Southeast Asian neighbours. And what? We eat with our hands? Filipino food is an eclectic mix of its Chinese, Malay, Pacific Island, and Spanish influences. Our spaghetti is sweet and we take every opportunity to make dipping sauces to go with our already stew-y meals. Filipino food is perhaps as multifaceted as Issha is.
Handmade ceramics are an appropriate collection for her, because the food that she makes deserves a worthy vessel. Her love for ceramics started when she did the photography for Burdock and Co. in 2013. Janaki Larsen made the plates for Chef Andrea Carlson and it was the first time Issha saw what handmade ceramics could do to food. She then found—and followed—Janaki Larsen on Instagram. Issha attended her first Le Marche St. George winter sale in 2013. She settled on a small spice dish—the very first prop that she bought for herself, and as she was heading to the counter to pay, Janaki seemed to recognize her from her Instagram profile and asked, “Are you Issha?”. Their friendship and working relationship began from this small act of recognition between the two.
Since then, she has amassed an impressive collection of handmade ceramics from local artists in Vancouver, and has sourced pieces from as far as Japan, Spain, Germany, and Copenhagen. Her studio is filled with countless vases, bowls, plates and mugs, which she uses as props and for daily meals or hosting friends over for dinner. “I buy ceramics instead of food sometimes. They bring me so much joy!”
As Issha was telling us a bit about her poetry (she released a small, self-published chapbook in 2017, outlining the trauma she had from a very abusive and destructive relationship, the journey to uncovering that very trauma, and what being a survivor means to her), she said something that really resonated with me:
“Trauma is a great catalyst for really impactful pieces of art, but I really want to create from a place of healing. I had to birth that piece, it is out now, I did what had to be done to let that go. It is my personal exorcism; I named the book ‘Ghost Stories’ for a reason. And while I do revisit certain themes in my personal work, I have no interest or intention to revisit that trauma and my journey to my healing in any of my future work anymore. It took ten long years for me to put that out; I said all I had wanted to say in that book.”
As Mended with Gold opens ourselves up to repairing others’ treasured ceramics, we are so moved by the stories that these pieces hold and the raw emotion that comes with seeing a repaired piece come back to life. Reflecting on what Issha had to say about creating from a place of healing, there is a lot of letting go that comes with the practice and art of kintsugi. Perhaps you can no longer use your item in the same way that you did, or we have to forgive whoever caused the item to break. The gold can only shine through when we heal and mend the cracks.
Issha brought home three bowls that broke in transit from her recent trip to Toronto. These three bowls were made by Montreal-based artist Makiko Hicher. They sat safely on my lap as we took them home. Each time we picked the pieces up to repair them, we were mesmerized by the beautiful texture that made it seem like they were salvaged from a shipwreck. Once we repaired them, we couldn’t wait to give it to her to see her reaction.
She was busy concocting her pints of Philippine Cereal Milk in the kitchen, which smelled like toasted rice and warm milk with caramel. She wiped her hands on her apron and started screaming with excitement as she inspected the bowls. Tom and I were overjoyed - these are the moments we live for and why we do what we do!
Photos by: Lorenzo Ignacio