Interview: Artist Windy Chien on Finding Bliss in the Year of Knots

Artist and product designer, Windy Chien is a reflection of the San Francisco Bay Area's multifaceted community, navigating her own creativity in parallel with the city's transitions. Previously, in careers at Apple building iTunes and the App Store and in the music industry as the owner and operator of Aquarius Records, Chien has successfully reinvented herself while moving to her creative own pulse.  ASNC celebrates Windy Chien's work at its annual Wine + Art Reception on Dec. 14.

You have transitioned successfully from one outstanding career to the next. When did you realize it was time to move on to something totally new?

I have always wanted to do many things in life. I don’t think I was put on this planet to just do one career. I took each world I was immersed in and took it as far as I wanted to.

In the independent record industry, there are 3 ways to totally kick ass: one is to be in an awesome band, two is to start a really great record label, and three is to own your own record store.

By the time I had owned Aquarius Records for 14 years, I did what I set out to do.  I had gone as far as I wanted to go and it was time for a change. It's good to listen to yourself to know when to leave the party.

What advice do you have for young professionals or new artists pursuing creative work?

Make practical decisions and be clear-eyed about where you are in life. I’m lucky to have a woodshed in my backyard. If you’re a creative person, you can find a way to express yourself, find meaning, and make work that is impactful no matter whether you’re working with: wood, or rope, or paint or pencil or paper or beads.

There are always going to be constraints of one kind or another. It’s good practice. Embrace the constraints.

How did you discover your interest in wood as a medium?

My father was a woodworker, so deeply imprinted in my memories are him working with the table saw in the garage and building incredible decks, trellises, and walkways. I think he instilled it in me.

I took a spoon carving class to see what it would be like and within ten minutes of using the tools, I loved the way they slid through the wood like butter. You’ll usually know within the first few minutes whether a material becomes yours or not. I thought, oh my god this feels good. 

What do you cook?

I cook a lot of California Chinese. My signature dish is my grandmother’s potstickers, which I only make for company. The folding is so fun. I’m addicted to working with my hands, so maybe that’s part of why I find it so satisfying. You get into the flow.

Can you tell me why you were attracted to rope?

My mom taught me macramé in the '70s and I remember loving it. After quitting my corporate job, I took a refresher class and within five minutes I thought, oh yeah I remember, I love this! 

Traditionally, you use three or four knots in different combinations. I found that constraint quite limiting. I thought, I already know these knots. I wanted to know all the knots out there and was surprised to learn there are thousands of them.  

I decided to learn one new knot a day for one year. 

These are the tools of my art, so I want to increase my vocabulary to be able to communicate with as many words as possible.

Within the broad cultural and traditional spectrum of knotting - Korean knots, Japanese knots, nautical knots – how did you decide what to focus on?

The first book I got was the bible of knot tiers. It’s called The Ashley Book of Knots. It’s a nautical tone written by Mr. Clifford Ashley in 1944! I love it!

You have described working with rope as entering a blissful state of flow. What do you mean by this?

It’s what I use to begin each studio session. It gets me into the zone and state of deep bliss. Not zoned out - zoned in. Deep focus. Concentration and being in the moment. I just love it.

What other rituals do you have?

I’ve set up my life in such a way so that I barely have to reach to be in the physical environment and headspace to create. My creativity is at my fingertips pretty much all the time. It's not a ritual, but it’s a way I’ve set up my life. There are no barriers for me.

I’m determining the process and doing all the making so there is no wait. It’s a lot of instant gratification and daily satisfaction. 

How does your previous work at Apple shape your current role as an artist?

I’m a natural curator. Whether it's music or apps, I like combing through a lot of material, developing an opinion and a taste, then presenting that to the world. 

That’s what I’m naturally good at. Now, I only want to do that with my own work. I love it and it comes naturally to me, but I’ve earned the right to focus just on my work. That’s how I feel.

The way you describe your own work is inspiring. How can others promote their own talents to the world?

My boyfriend makes fun of me because I used to be afraid of calling myself an artist. It wasn’t until this year when I thought, I think I can call myself an artist. You don’t have to wait for someone else to say, oh you’re an artist. 

Give yourself permission to say that you are something, do it, and you are that thing.

Interview edited for publication. 

More Information & Further Reading:

Details and tickets for ASNC's Wine + Art Reception

Read more about Windy Chien's work, The Year of Knots 

Learn more about Asia Society Northern California's upcoming events.