Meet Windy Chien, the San Francisco based artist with a dedication to tying the knot. She shares how her careers in technology and music shifted her perspective to appreciate life's simple pleasures, however Windy's designs are far from ordinary. From intricate wall hangings to life-size knotted trees, her installations capitalize on aesthetic pleasure and creative detail.
Let’s start at the beginning – for those of us unfamiliar with knot art, can you tell us a bit about it please? What would you say to someone who thinks there’s just one type of knot, and sees knots solely for function, not form?
There are thousands of knots that have been documented and named, and many more that no one has made yet but which theoretically exist. While science can analyze them, it is history that tells us most knots actually have come from life on the sea, made by sailors with specific nautical needs in mind. That said, there is a long history of decorative knotting too, dating back hundreds of years, especially in Chinese, Japanese and Korean culture. There are knots that save lives (the knots of the rock climber for example) and knots used every day by farmers and chefs and musicians.
But beyond its history, knotting is an endlessly rich world. It’s my art school, where I experiment with the elemental building blocks of art: line, color, shape, form, texture, etc. And it’s also a new language. I like to think of every new knot I learn as a letter in an alphabet. Letters form words, and words communicate. So the knots are my new form of communication, making, as the author Rebecca Solnit puts it, “The mute material world come to life.”
When I’m knotting, I go into flow: the state of blissful productivity where one is working at the limits of ones abilities, focused and engaged, with deep pleasure. It is the best feeling in the world.
How did you get into knot art? Tell us a bit about your journey.
I left my corporate career with Apple four years ago to focus on nurturing my own creativity . . . but I didn’t know what form the creativity would take. Ever the practical woman, I signed up for every class on topics I was even slightly interested in, such as interior design, ceramics, stone carving, and LED wiring. The only things that immediately resonated with me were woodworking and macrame. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because my father had been a woodworker and my mother had taught me macrame during its heyday in the 1970s. The things that we are exposed to as a child resonate inside us years later; they are formative.
When I took a macrame refresher class, within five minutes of the repetitive motion of knotting, I felt a deep satisfaction and absolutely knew I needed to go deeper. At first, the work I made looked like every other beginner macrame artist’s work: symmetrical and boho. And that’s because most macrame is comprised of the same two or three knots made over and over in different combinations. But the more pieces I made, the more my own aesthetic took over, and on January 4, 2016, I literally had the proverbial lightbulb moment. I realized that if I wanted the work to truly reflect me, I needed to expand my artistic palette. I needed to learn ALL the knots. That was the beginning of The Year Of Knots, in which I learned one new knot every day for the entire year. I posted each daily knot on Instagram to keep myself accountable, and within a month or two I realized that the collection of single knots nailed to the wall each day was holding together as a completed piece. It’s now a 20’ wide installation with 366 knots (yes, 2016 was a leap year).
Today, I use rope to make work that ranges in size from a knot that can fit in the palm of a child’s hand to majestic, room-sized installations sought by private collectors.
You studied film in college, ran your own record company, and worked at Apple for several years. How does your diverse background inform your art?
My previous careers were largely about curation and supporting other artists’ work, which means my aesthetic sense is mature and finely honed. I have a strong point of view regarding what I find beautiful and what I find meaningful, and now I apply that POV to my own work instead of others. When people, including myself, marvel that I started making art later in life (I was 46 when I started), I always say that knowing myself and my POV has enabled me to more quickly make work that I am happy with, that truly represents who I am.
So, it’s better to have started later. I have more to say!
What do you find most thrilling about your job? What’s most challenging or frustrating?
I recently constructed a huge rope ‘tree’ in Virginia – 30 feet across and 25 feet tall. It was a profoundly satisfying moment to realize that not only I had made something huge in scale, but I am inherently BIGGER THAN IT, because I had made it. Moments like that are thrilling.
The most challenging part is deciding what to do with my limited time. When I have the freedom to do or make any one of 1,000 things I’ve always wanted to do or make, how do I choose? And I think this is a universal question for everyone. What do we want our days to look like? What is meaningful to us? We all have the opportunity to ponder these questions, but it wasn’t until I became an artist that I really began to ENJOY these questions, because each one of the 1,000 options is a good one. So while it is challenge, I also enjoy it.
You have a knack for turning quotidian objects with dull design into something spectacular. What’s your motivation for turning the everyday into the exceptional?
I had always heard about the concept of living in the moment, but it never really sunk in until I took a yoga teacher training course about five years ago. There, I began to truly understand the sweet bliss that can come from being fully present. And you don’t have to be in crow pose to be fully present – we all have the opportunity, every day, to appreciate the taste of a cup of tea, or the act of turning on a lamp to light your space. Therefore, much of my work is about elevating everyday experiences. Extension cords are ugly – but they don’t have to be. A wooden spoon that I carved myself can elevate the simple act of stirring my soup into a moment of pleasure. Instead of ignoring or ‘not seeing’ the power cord a pendant lamp hangs from, it can become so much more if you apply the mathematical concept of the double helix in knotted rope around the power cord.
What inspires you? Where do you go to be inspired? What do you do when you find yourself feeling stumped or creatively blocked?
Oh, everything. I love old 1970s graphic design manuals, because I am a child of the ’70s and those precise angles are what I’d like my work to evoke. I love geeking out on science and seeing the beauty in the functional or the mathematical. My Circuit Board wall hangings are inspired by electronics parts, obviously, but also by Massimo Vignelli’s iconic NYC subway map from 1972, for its parallel lines that harmonize together and apart. And with all my work I’m inspired by Diana Vreeland’s maxim that “the eye has to travel.” My primary interest in knotted pieces, and in the individual knots, is the extreme pleasure I get from choosing and following a line from beginning to end with my eyes. The journey of the line.
You wore some of our newest arrivals from our Summer Collection, our small knot tote and our knotted Lucia sandals. What did you think of them? How do they fit into your wardrobe + daily life? How would you describe your aesthetic, and how does LR fit into this?
With the rise of fast fashion and mass-made goods, we are ever further distanced from the people who make the objects in our lives. That’s tragic. Knots are a craft, as is indigo dyeing and leatherwork, so if a pair of shoes or a bag can, in addition to performing its function, provide us with a moment of connection to craft, that’s a great moment. Our clothes can mean something, and almost everything in my closet is something I’ve intentionally chosen because it’s made and/or designed by women I admire, women I consider peers, not unknowable, faceless entities.
What’s next for you?
In August, I’ll have my first fine art gallery show, at Themes+Projects gallery in San Francisco’s Minnesota Street Project. It will be the first public showing of The Year Of Knots, as well as other new work and collaborations with ceramist Len Carella. I have large rope installations to be constructed on site at spaces in Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. And I’m writing a book about The Year Of Knots.
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