As she embarks on her final year in the Eskenazi School’s BFA program in Metalsmithing + Jewelry Design, Danielle Shum is gaining some national exposure. One of six Eskenazi metals students juried into the 2023 National Society of Arts and Letters exhibition March 3, Shum was awarded the Klein Merit Award for the brooch she exhibited, titled “Scoliosis.” On May 20, Society of North American Goldsmiths awarded Shum an Educational Endowment Scholarship for the same piece. On June 4, Shum will speak at the opening reception of We Are Here at the Metal Museum in Memphis, where “Scoliosis” is on view. The exhibition is a showcase of contemporary LGBTQIA+ metal artists.
The silver and enamel piece uses cloisonné wire to represent the shape of the artist’s back and enamel “to depict the fragility of body image and self-esteem,” Shum explained. “I ultimately wanted to create something beautiful out of a condition I’ve struggled with, a physical deformity which I hardly talked about or tried to ignore and hide.”
In her work, Shum explores intersecting identities. Although it explicitly references a specific disability, “Scoliosis” has had a broad reach among various audiences.
“The brooch has had an unprecedented reception,” noted Shum. “I never anticipated that my story about a curved spine could resonate with so many people. And I’m thankful that it continues to ask me to reflect on identity.”
“It’s been wonderful to see that Danielle has been willing to examine and investigate her identity and find personal meaning in her work,” said metalsmithing and jewelry design faculty member Angela Caldwell. “Through thoughtful messaging and beautiful imagery as well as becoming skilled in the techniques of enameling and cloisonné, everything is coming together in her current work. It is resonating with people and getting the attention it deserves.”
“When I learned that “Scoliosis” would be featured in the We Are Here exhibition, I was stunned and awed,” Shum said. “I’ve grown up in a culture that asks me to hide my personal feelings and emotions -- let alone talking about queer identities. The words get stuck in my throat, in fear of judgment and being seen or treated differently than the person I’ve always been. But I’ve learned, to be vulnerable, is to be strong.”
YK: Congratulations, Danielle! Your reference to your upbringing makes me curious. What was the culture you grew up in?
DS: I was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States at a young age. I've had strong influences from both Chinese and American cultures, and more often than not, these values and ideals clash. I try and connect with my Chinese roots by drawing inspiration from folktales, myths, traditions, and customs.
My work often talks about the struggles of being an Asian-American and the feelings of not belonging to either community.So inevitably, this investigation on feelings of foreignness led to my work last semester, which focused on identity and body dysmorphia, which is the feeling of discomfort within one’s own body.
Too often I feel like a stranger in my body, and I felt the urge to explore the source of the dysmorphia, so I examined one of the biggest insecurities I have, which is my scoliosis. Scoliosis is the abnormal curve of the spine and is not always visible from first glance. But I’ve struggled with managing it since my early teens and it has impacted my physical abilities, self-esteem, and body image.
YK: When did you realize that making art could help you work through personal struggles?
DS: My B.F.A. studio work began with examining my interests and aesthetics, but it's slowly merged with understanding my identity and what drives me to be an artist. It can be difficult to share work about your personal struggles and values, but I think it can give a greater depth and beauty to your art.
Metalsmithing and enamel have been an ideal medium to explore personal narratives and inspirations which I draw from nature and cultural experiences. I enjoy metalsmithing because I enjoy the tactile nature of texture, form, scale, and the different transformative techniques.
YK: Could you tell me more about the process and materials that went into “Scoliosis”? Why do you think enamel lends itself to expressing fragility, as you mentioned earlier?
DS: Enameling is the process of fusing powdered glass on a metal like copper or silver. The cloisonné technique includes creating shapes with fine silver wire, then fusing down the wires and enamel. I use cloisonné to create illustrative narratives. The entire process is methodical and careful, as the enamel glass can crack if it's handled improperly.
YK: You also mentioned that you appreciate the material transformations metalsmithing can achieve. Is it capable of transforming the artist too? Has making this piece given you peace?
DS: My metalwork has transformed my scoliosis from a source of body dysmorphia to a symbol of acceptance and vulnerability. The brooch has definitely helped me come to terms with accepting my scoliosis. But I think it'll be an ongoing journey on healing my confidence and being comfortable with myself.