When you think of fake food, plastic restaurant replicas might come to mind. While these displays may seem like accurate representations of what you’re about to eat, they often don’t look particularly appetizing, or even that realistic.
Then there’s the artist Huong Huynh, and her sewn felt creations of food, which are almost too real looking. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see one of her soft sculptures in a bakery case. Even worse—or better, depending on how you think about it—they’re flawless, without any danger of melting frosting or withering fruit.
Huynh’s superlative sewing skills are the result of long practice. The Houston-based artist opened her Etsy store Milkfly in 2010, and started out with 20 pieces. Unlike her now near-photographic accuracy, those early food sculptures still had some rough edges. “The felt food I made in the beginning [was] much more simplistic than the ones I make today,” Huynh says. “I am always learning.”
Parts of Huynh’s journey have been rough as well. Her family fled Vietnam to escape the ravages of the war. Her parents, along with their first four children, spent a year in a Malaysian refugee camp. Huynh was born there, and shortly thereafter her family arrived in the U.S.A. After stints in Michigan and Louisiana, they settled in Houston, Texas, where Huynh still lives today.
Huynh attributes her creative spark to those difficult early years. “I was creative and crafty as a child simply because we didn’t [have] many toys to play with, when my family first arrived,” she says, joking that she used VHS tapes as building blocks instead of Legos. Early on, she began crafting homemade doll clothes. Now, Huynh credits her lifelong interest in art to the encouragement of her elementary school teachers. “In the third grade, the art teacher gave me my first sketch book,” she reminisces, and she went on to a degree in painting from the University of Houston. Her work with felt itself began 10 years ago, when she got her hands on a book of Japanese felt food.
To make a piece, she starts out with a sketch of the shapes she wants to work with, then cuts it out of felt fabric. Then, she sews and stuffs the structures, starting over and over again until she gets the form she wants. Huynh calls her passion for experimentation “borderline obsessive.” But it’s her painting skills, which implement color and nuance to these felt forms, that makes them so realistic. She uses a felting needle or a steam iron to give pieces bumps and ridges, and add texture to them. The iron also helps transfer printed images to felt fabric. So if Huynh is intent on making felt strawberries, she’ll slice up a few, scan them, and print the image onto iron-on fabric.
Huynh finds herself more drawn to the visual aspect of food, rather than the cooking process itself. “The cooking I do for myself is simple and more out of necessity, [rather than] a creative culinary expression,” she says, noting that she often turns to food photography for inspiration. She’s unsure of why she mostly crafts food from felt, though. “Maybe because it’s necessary for our survival that we have an innate lust and gravitation towards it?” she muses. That’s certainly borne out by fans of her work, who display her work as art, use them as pincushions, or give them to children as elegant toys.
While she’s mum on her future projects, it seems that felt food may not be on the menu for long. “I don’t want to say exactly what it is so I don’t jinx or put pressure on myself, but it has nothing to do with felt or food,” she says. “It’s a little scary taking a leap away from something that has been successful, but I have to at least try.”
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