Being a self-taught artist is common. Being a self-taught artist in their third career—and a highly successful one, at that—is not so common. Macrame artist Windy Chien is of the second variety. She joined Interior Design Editor in Chief Cindy Allen on Tuesday night’s episode of DesignBiz for a thoughtful discussion about creativity, perseverance, and empathy.
In Chien’s previous lives, she was a San Francisco record shop owner and, later, a product manager for Apple (specifically for a young iTunes). She flourished in both roles. Then, in 2016, it came time for another career change. For a year, she learned how to tie a new knot every day—an endeavor she describes in her book The Year of Knots. Now, her work can be found on campuses like Facebook’s, where she re-created each knot from her “year of knots” to create one large-scale installation.
“When I made all of the knots for Facebook, it took me six weeks, 24/7,” she told Allen. “I can’t memorize 366 knots, so I had to relearn many of them.” She added later, “Someone who takes up a craft or tries to master a language knows that it can’t happen in a day. You have to develop fluency. But then once you develop that fluency, it’s yours. You own it.”
Though she left Apple years ago, Chien still lives in Silicon Valley and technology continues to influence her work. Take, for example, her popular Circuit Board body of work, where S-shaped cords of rope create a visual riff on the series’ namesake hardware. “When I started making the Circuit Boards, I was vaguely inspired by the New York City subway map and the ’70s aesthetic of lines traveling together in harmony,” she explained. “During COVID, I had a chance to think about why the Circuit Boards are so meaningful to me and I found that there is a history of early tech companies in the ’60s and ’70s using craftspeople to do things for them.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she continued to explain, Fairchild Semiconductor, a leading chip manufacturer, contracted with hundreds of Navajo women weavers to build their circuit boards. “They exploited them for sure,” Chien pointed out. “But they thought that their weaving work was really well suited to assembling circuit boards… The intersection of tech and craft is going to fill me for the rest of my art career because there is so much to discover.”
These days, Chien’s works are getting even larger in scale. It helps that she moved into a new studio with 20-foot-high ceilings just last year. “I like my work to get big,” said Chien. “I like taking up space.”
“Knots are the language of my art—they’re my tools,” she continued. “We think of them as really small objects… but we can take these humble, small objects and play with scale, and that way, make them fresh and new,” she said, adding that she’ll soon be creating a large-scale work for Target’s Minneapolis headquarters, where a 30-foot wall has been reserved.
As a Chinese-American woman, toward the end of the conversation Chien took an opportunity to address the recent increase in hateful rhetoric directed at Asian Americans, especially in light of the March 16 hate crime against eight Asian-American women in Atlanta. “Now is a really hard time, but I’m not surprised… it’s been going on for hundreds of years. Ever since the Chinese immigrated to this country, we’ve been seen as the foreigner,” she said, adding that the American government once passed laws to ban Chinese women from coming to the U.S. “I think that we should all use our voice, because it’s a societal problem and we are all part of the solution.”
“If anything, this time being sequestered has taught us about empathy and love and how much we need each other,” offered Allen.
“I think if it hadn’t been for the past year of Black Lives Matter and so much sickness and misfortune happening to us, then the outpouring of support from allies for the Asian community would be less,” Chien agreed. “But we all exercised our empathy muscles last year, so we’re kind of primed to behave in a more beneficent way toward everyone else.”
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