Humans have documented almost 4,000 different knots, many of them invented by sailors. In 2016, Windy Chien set out to learn a fraction of them. That year, the San Francisco–based artist—an avid sailor herself—decided to learn one knot a day, embarking on what would eventually become The Year of Knots, a book detailing her diligent creative journey. “I had this idea that by the end of the year I would be fluent in this language,” she told ARTnews. “I’d have an entire vocabulary at my fingertips.”
Chien, who used to own San Francisco’s beloved record store Aquarius Records before working at iTunes, had left the corporate world with the express intent of exploring various arts. She took a macramé class and fell in love with the repetitive motions, the flow of morphing quotidian rope into patterns. But she wasn’t quite satisfied with the forms, which to her eyes looked rather one-note, largely because macramé designs tend to rely on just three or four knots.
That year of knot-learning expanded her perspective, shaping a fluency in not only knots—and she’s since invented her own—but also materials. In Chien’s hands, a simple rope (or line, in sailors’ parlance) can transform into meditative meanders—intricate sculptures whose contortions and textures reveal themselves the more you look. Highly dimensional, her large-scale pieces keep the eye moving over her consistent handiwork. “They mostly do what I need them to do because I never ask them to do anything that’s beyond their nature,” Chien says.
Chien, who often describes herself as “omnivorous,” has always been fascinated with the oddities inextricable from the early days of tech, from the Whole Earth Catalog to Steve Jobs’s “fruitarian” diet. It comes as no surprise, then, that many of her works are inspired by the humble but mighty circuit board. She revels in the simplicity of the line to invent her own exceptional networks that are temptingly tactile, charming with their eloquence.
Chien’s bodies of work are each born from a single knot that she learned during her Year of Knots. Each one had “this life and vitality to it,” she says. “It was just begging to be further experimented with.” One, which she calls a spoke hitch, became the building block of her Diamond Rings works, which involve meticulous knotting around a web of rigid circles. These pieces play with the limitations of circles and the unbound possibilities of a singular path of rope; each is unique, showcasing a distinct journey. “Making them is a wonderful entry into the state of flow,” Chien comments. “A big part of the process is making it in the moment, not preplanning the line, but following it as I make it.”
Historically, the spoke hitch was tied around the large wooden wheels of wagons or stagecoaches to increase traction—the old-time equivalent of snow chains. Chien started working a series of hitches around a ring—a technique known as ringbolt hitching, which sailors traditionally used to protect deck rings from chafing. She gradually built up the number of rings to create sprawling, standalone wall works. “It was an experiment in figuring out how I could apply ringbolt hitching with an eye to aesthetics,” she says.
The spoke hitch is a forgiving knot, in the sense that it can be executed with a braided rope that is soft or stiff, thick or thin. When Chien searches for materials, she seeks the perfect combination of pliability, feel, and aesthetics. Typically the rope in her Diamond Rings is made of cotton, but she has also opted for thicker and tougher manila rope, which can offer a more rustic look. Chien used to buy her line at hardware stores, but increasingly she has her rope custom made by Knot & Rope Supply or by Sunbrella. “So much of my work is about elevating the humble knot—these functional items invented by sailors to be workhorse objects—to really highlight what beautifully designed objects they are,” Chien explains. “One of the ways is to use really luxurious rope.”
Hitches have to be made around an object; lose this base and the knot will collapse. Initially, to maintain the integrity of her spoke hitches, Chien tied them around rings commonly used by macramé artists in plant hangers. She also found that wooden baby teether rings, widely available on Etsy, worked well. Many of her Diamond Rings use soft wood, but she has also produced them with translucent acrylic, which she favors for how they almost disappear against a wall to emphasize the path of the knotting. Currently Chien is using high-quality plywood that she sources from a provider in the Bay Area that uses a special computer-controlled cutting machine called a CNC to make her rings. “The world of CNC cutting is all men, and I called so many places and they were all so mean to me,” she recalls. “I finally found a woman-owned one, and they were amazing.”
Chien knots her pieces entirely by hand. Her vision requires that she otherwise interfere as little as possible with her line. A completed piece can be traced from start to finish, since she leaves the ends raw and visible. This signals to viewers that each Diamond Ring is made with one unbroken length of rope. “There’s a kind of conceptual rigor that’s very satisfying—that I’ve made this piece with 250 feet of a single line,” Chien says. To execute the snips, she favors Fiskars shears, which she sharpens regularly to maintain them in top shape.
Chien’s biggest challenge is often figuring out how to install her work, since her pieces don’t provide much surface area for installation hardware to latch on to. Depending on the substrate of the wall, she might use secure T-lock hardware or standoffs, which are often used for signage. The latter provide some distance between the work and the wall, which can enhance the viewing experience. “They create the most beautiful shadows,” Chien says of the Diamond Rings. “I want viewers to be able to stand sideways and look at what the back of the work and the sides look like. Because they’re all about texture and the traveling line. They’re little puzzles to figure out.”