Windy Chien, Fiber Artist
Article By: Chelsea Sonksen
Many of us assume that becoming an expert in an industry requires working in that field for years. We assume that we can’t change our minds, redirect, start afresh, and still be successful. But Windy Chien has proven this wrong time and time again.
She is an omnivore of experience—allowing herself to sample different paths and create moments of powerful metamorphoses throughout her life.
Today Windy is a recognized fine artist, creating large-scale fiber art installations for clients like IBM, Facebook, and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, as well as private collectors and designers. Before that, she helped Apple build iTunes and the App Store. And prior to that she owned Aquarius Records, a legendary West Coast record store. She’s been a guiding force in San Francisco’s music scene, the emergence of a tech behemoth, and the return to handmade, tangible, thoughtful pursuits — always, it seems, staying one step ahead of the impending cultural trend.
In college, Windy studied film; her undergraduate project Assimilation / A Simulation played all over the world, including at Sundance. But music was her true passion, so after school she began working full-time at Aquarius Records, purchasing the store from the owner only a couple of years later. She moved Aquarius to one of the hippest areas in San Francisco, Valencia Street, and began modernizing the store, making it a more inclusive place where all types of people would feel welcome.
After spending fourteen years championing the work of her favorite musicians at the record store, Windy decided it was time for a change. “I was like, I’m 35, and if I’m ever going to do something else I should just go do it … I really wanted to see how other people lived and what other lives were possible.” She sold the store to a couple of her employees and took off without any calculated plan – only a clear intention.
In this year of exploration, Windy worked for several political campaigns, coordinating house parties and concerts. Then, while searching for jobs in the music industry, she noticed a job posting for a position at Apple. “At the time iTunes had just opened. iPod was already out, and they had just opened the iTunes Store. Remember, it was 99 cents to buy a song? … In the early days of iTunes, they really needed music experts to come in and help build it. So they hired me quite early on, and I spent eight years at Apple.”
Windy worked on the iTunes Essentials project, coordinating curated playlists on topics such as Bruce Springsteen For Beginners, Reggae for Lovers, or Sludge Metal. “When I started at iTunes it was just a music store, and it was just in the U.S. After five years, it was podcasts, TV, movies, books, iTunes U, and we had expanded into what is now more than 140 territories around the world. [It was a time of] explosive growth.” Windy then transitioned to the App Store team, seeking out the most interesting apps and promoting them on the store’s front page. When I remarked that a lot of her career up to this point had been about curation, first at the record store and later at Apple, Windy nodded.
“That’s what I realized after a few years at Apple. I started looking back at my career … and I realized, wow, I’m a natural curator. It’s what’s interesting to me. But at that point, it wasn’t enough. I loved supporting and evangelizing other people’s work, and I have an appetite for what’s new and what’s interesting … [but] it wasn’t enough anymore. I wanted to focus on my own creativity. And I feel like I had earned it at that point. When I left Apple I was 46, and thought, I can’t believe I’ve been neglecting my own creativity for so long.”
Windy left Apple without knowing precisely what her next step would be. She traveled for a month – venturing to Morocco and Barcelona, and then she started taking classes. She studied everything from ceramics to LED wiring. In the midst of this exploration and education, Windy took a refresher macramé course and studied woodcarving. Something about those two arts resonated with her more than the others. Windy’s mom had taught her macramé, and her father had been a woodworker. “There’s kind of a poetic moment there,” Windy told us. “But I didn’t realize it until later. These things that my parents had done when I was younger were resonating somewhere inside me, laying dormant all these years.”
Eventually she started thinking about creating product she could sell in an online shop. “Originality was important to me… I look at my work pretty critically and don’t want to repeat what other people are doing,” Windy told us. She designed a wooden spoon with a corner (for getting the crusty bits off the bottom of the pan). “When you make something that’s actually original, it speaks to you immediately. It’s like, Ah, this is me, this really reflects who I am. This doesn’t reflect anyone else’s aesthetic.”
While she sold products for a time, and even made it into West Coast Craft (SF’s most highly curated, exclusive craft fair), soon Windy decided to move away from products toward a fine art practice, creating immersive installations. “The idea of making products is exhausting to me now. Basically, you are repeating yourself over and over again. And there’s quality control, and everything has to look identical, and [you have to deal with] packaging and mailing. I find a little exhausting.”
On January 4, 2016, Windy started the project that she’s now known for: The Year of Knots. “Most macramé is comprised of the same two or three knots over and over again,” she told us. “And that is why most macramé being done today looks so similar to everyone else’s. Because there’s only so much you can do with two or three knots. One day I woke up and realized that I needed to learn more knots, and that was the way my work could begin to speak for itself and more clearly reflect who I am.”
Windy taught herself a new knot every day throughout 2016. When she was finished with the knot, she photographed it, posted it to Instagram, and nailed it to the wall. “It wasn’t until two or three months into [the project] that I realized that the work was going to become a single piece of art.” Windy’s Instagram following grew as people tracked her progress. When the project finished, she had several publishers interested in a modern knotting book, a fine art gallery interested in hosting a solo show, and Facebook approached Windy about creating a second edition of The Year of Knots on their campus. It seemed Windy’s unique aesthetic and the ritual of the project had struck a chord and resonated deeply.
One could argue that Windy’s circuitous path is visibly present in her art, as though her life’s journey is translated into the fibers of her installations—wandering, meandering, and resisting stasis with every curve. Perhaps that is one of the things that is most compelling about her art, the way it almost beckons to us, giving us permission to iterate, explore, and reshape our very existence again and again, just as Windy so bravely continues to do.
“We like to say, ‘It all happened in a flash,’ but, really, I feel that for the previous couple of years I had been laying the groundwork: taking classes, building a little bit of confidence… I wasn’t forcing the project to come out of me, but there was something about my mindset that allowed the project to emerge. And I had set up my life in such a way that I was totally open to whatever was going to happen. I was literally following my muse and letting my creativity take whatever path it wanted to.”
Chelsea: Have you found that your work has been impacted by having a studio?
Windy: Oh yeah, that is such a good question. Nobody ever asks that, but it’s HUGE. Because it has made me take it more seriously – not only because I’m paying rent. I mean, that’s just a little part of it. But this is my place. This is my space where I make all the rules. I treat it like a job; I come here five days a week. The work has been very free. I’m very in my element. And I’ve gotten a ton of commissions and projects. Something about being in my own space has been very fertile. It’s brought work to me, while also allowing me to make new bodies of work to put out into the world.
Chelsea: Did your parents consider themselves artists?
Windy: Uh-uh. No. They were pretty traditional Chinese parents. My dad is a military man. So were my grandfathers. My dad would do woodworking on the weekends, and my mom was a homemaker. Nobody really did art except my grandmother, who I am named after, so that’s kind of nice. She had never done it full-time either. They were all weekend warriors.
Chelsea: What medium did your grandmother work in?
Windy: She was a painter, and she did the most beautiful petit point. She and my father had the most beautiful design sense. I get that from my dad’s side.
Chelsea: Do you still have some of her paintings?
Windy: I have all of her petit point. I made sure that I got them all when she passed, and they’re all hanging up in my home. I wish I could show them to you.
“I get all my rope from a supplier in Ohio. I would have bought it locally if I could have, but men are so awful to women who want to buy rope. You have to go to a rigger or maritime supply shop to get quantities of rope, and they are not friendly. (And I’m not the only one who has had that experience.) So I buy it online.”
Five Things I Learned From Windy:
- You don’t have to have your next step lined up before you release your current project. In fact, sometimes you can’t see what’s next unless you free some space in your brain and some time in your day.
- Don’t assume that certain paths come with certain parameters. Is there a way to do the parts of something that you love without having to do the pieces you dislike? (Perhaps this means you have a different customer or create a slightly different kind of product.)
- First you must perfect your craft. Then you must find ways to make your work completely original, unlike anything anyone else in your space is creating. The best way to ensure that you do this is to expand your vocabulary within your art.
- A big life change can literally happen by creating one small thing each day.
- You must ready your mindset and prepare your life for the “big fish” ideas. Lay the groundwork. And know that you can’t force a big fish to appear. But when you do see it, be ready to recognize it and catch it right away.