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Committing to Her Personal Voice

by Art U News

JEM graduate Yolanda Chiu’s metalwork designs are strong in technique and concept

By Nina Tabios

Yolanda Chiu already had almost a decade of experience as a creative professional before she arrived at Academy of Art University in 2015. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Chiu got her start in the New York fashion industry as a graphic designer while she also started creating her own jewelry. She mastered the basics quickly, maybe even too quickly. “I found that I wasn’t satisfied by just making jewelry, I wanted to do something else—something like jewelry, but I wanted to use metal,” said Chiu. “So I went to pursue an artist’s degree. At the Academy, I could have more freedom in my ideas and what interests me.”

Chiu graduated from the School of Jewelry & Metal Arts (JEM) M.F.A. program in 2017 and emerged an emboldened artist. Now living in Gainesville, Florida, Chiu creates both contemporary and commercial metal works, sometimes collaborating with her husband, Thomas Phillips. Their most recent collaboration was to create a series of very unique, sustainable goggles for Phillips’ Broke Deck Creations (BDC) brand, where he creates goods out of broken skateboards.

Yolanda Chiu creates the hinges and buckles for the goggles by hand. Photos courtesy of Yolanda Chiu.

“With all the plastic produced in this world, it has hurt our environment, taken down craftsmanship and the quality of products we use,” Phillips said. By using broken skateboards to create art, jewelry, utensils and now googles, BDC takes discarded materials and makes them into something beautiful. Inspired at the time by Chiu’s metal box project, called “Box Fetish,” Phillips carved the goggles and Chiu created the hinges and clips to hold the pieces together.

“Her work is so strong, it made me want to create something that was also strong and had a lot of integrity,” Phillips said. “I wanted to create the goggles with that same type of strength.”


Broke Deck Creations goggles are made of wood from broken skateboards, metal and acrylic lenses. Photo courtesy of Yolanda Chiu.

Even as a student, Chiu’s work always exhibited strength in technique and concept. Her thesis project, a series of ball-jointed dolls, was rooted in the juxtaposition of Chiu’s Eastern and Western educations. She was “trying to put my struggle into my artwork” and worked meticulously to carve and cast the individual pieces that made the eight intricately detailed dolls.

“Each doll, itself, is one of a kind, so I had to make all the modifications, all the effects on its own,” said Chiu. “I had to make them fit perfectly so it could move smoothly. It was a lot of work.”


For her Academy thesis, Yolanda Chiu created metal dolls to represent the juxtaposition of her Eastern education and Western ideologies. Photo courtesy of Yolanda Chiu.

Purely from an execution standpoint, JEM Director Charlene Modena remembers Chiu’s dolls as “technically accomplished and amazing.” Conceptually, the dolls acted as a portal into Chiu’s perspective.

“The ball-joint dolls were very startling, metaphoric imagery opening mysterious doorways to [Chiu’s] personal insights,” Modena said via email. “[The dolls] shared her reflection on, and interpretation of, her life experiences.”

Chiu recalled those first days at the Academy, remembering she marveled at how small JEM was. But Chiu appreciated that the smaller class sizes meant she could work closer with the instructors and double down on developing her craft and concepts, including an acrylic eyewear collaboration with the School of Fashion for the Academy’s Spring/Summer 2017 show at New York Fashion Week in 2016.

“[I think] when I got to the school, they were trying to build traditions within [JEM] and I looked at it as ‘I could be a part of that,’” Chiu added. “The students’ work was bold, it was interesting, and I thought that was something I could aspire to.”

Chiu was already a designer when she first arrived at the Academy, but she walked out armed and ready to be an independent artist. Chiu sells her handmade spoons, pendants, and other jewelry in her own online shop as well as Taiwanese e-commerce retailer Pinkoi, in addition to her and Phillips’ BDC brand, which now offers hurricane relief pendants. For every handmade piece sold, Chiu and Phillip will donate $10 of the proceeds to relief and rescue organizations.


Following the hurricanes striking the southwest United States in 2018, Yolanda Chiu and her husband Thomas Phillips generated relief funds by selling handmade pendants. Photo courtesy of Yolanda Chiu.

“[Chiu] never loses sight of her commitment to her personal voice,” Modena commented. “All her works express a layer of commitment to quality and uniqueness of vision combined with a personal, social, and political caring for others and the planet.”

See more of Yolanda Chiu’s work at yolandacstudio.com.

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