In conjunction with her CCBC gallery show, we asked artist Monique Huynh to share with us a bit about herself, her inspiration, her audience and her other projects. In this interview, Monique recounts her long history with art creation. She demonstrates a drive toward ethical and sustainable practice rooted in a passion for art making.
Mythology’s Fiercest Females will be on view in our gallery from january 20 – february 10, 2022.
Mealtimes were the most important time for my parents growing up, it is no surprise then that my earliest memory of creating art was at a Chinese restaurant while waiting for our dinner. I would trace my hands with a pencil on the disposable paper placemat. One side would be the Chinese zodiac. I would fill the blank backside with drawings of my hands that I would turn into a bird, a flower, or some abstract landscape. I think it was then that my mother labeled me an artist, when I was probably no more than 4 years old.
Art was something that I always excelled in at school, and I took it seriously. In high school, I asked my art teacher, Mr. Lewis, if I could spend my lunch hour in his class so I could continue to work. With classical music playing in the background, we never spoke. Mr. Lewis’ best piece of advice came with no words. That he allowed me to figure out my own path, without guidance or discipline, and this had more lasting impact than any forced compliments or canned wisdom. I have come to learn that because feedback is often subjective, it is not always as constructive as intended. Thanks to Mr. Lewis, I still listen to Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi and other composers while I work.
I applied to the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture after high school because I wanted to pursue a creative career that was also practical. My application perhaps also fueled by my high school career counselor who told me that architecture was out of my reach. The curriculum was focused on design studios with technology, history, theory, and research integrated through design projects. In the final third year I majored in interior design as my professional option. I knew within the first 6 months that I was not going to pursue this field, but I finished the three grueling years anyway, probably because someone once told me I couldn’t. Did I mention I was stubborn? In the end, I got my first degree, made lifelong friends, gained a hefty student loan, and bought myself a ticket from Winnipeg to Vancouver where I was accepted into Emily Carr University.
” I have come to learn that because feedback is often subjective, it is not always as constructive as intended. .“
At Emily Carr, I studied graphic design. I had a knack for layout and computer renderings, pattern making and solving complex communication design issues. I found that graphic design allowed me more artistic freedom to create content covering a diverse subject range. In the morning I would be creating a coffee logo for a start-up company in LA and by midday my focus would shift to designing assets for a Diversity + Inclusion strategy firm. The breadth in subject matter was thrilling.
I worked at LUSH Cosmetics right after graduating from Emily Carr University. I was assigned to a small group of two designers that blossomed over the years into a full-scale creative team by the time I left. I’m proud to have stuck through LUSH’s growing pains to become the company that we now know.
My career duties shifted from in-house production work, to designing the quarterly catalog to traveling frequently to the UK to collaborate with the European creative team. By the time I left I was a senior graphic designer heading the campaigns department that was responsible for greater than 150 shops across North America. I wasn’t particularly a soaps and bath bomb fanatic. So why did I stay almost a decade at this company? During this time, I was also a single mother trying to navigate parenthood alone, acting as a role model for my young son and growing my career as a designer. I was juggling a lot of balls in the air. I was trying to find my voice — not only as an artist and designer but as a better human being.
Early in my professional career I was lucky to join a company that allowed me to fight for what I thought was right, and to be a person that lived with awareness, especially around issues of global significance. Yes, we were a store that sold soap, but it was more than that. We were also a campaigning organization that used its resources to bring focus on fundamental social, environmental, and humanitarian issues. During my time at LUSH, I created campaign material to end the tar-sands, to legalize gay marriage and support the LGBTQ community across North America, and worked with the (late) Rob Stewart in his quest to save sharks. I was part of a team that helped to expose the brutal cruelty of the fur industry. I worked with the buying team to design materials for ethical sourcing. I volunteered at an animal sanctuary and cleaned beaver cages. I participated in local beach cleanups and was given the opportunity to clean a beach in Mexico.
I attended a conference in London to hear Vivian Westwood speak about the climate revolution and subsequently created campaign material to help raise awareness for global climate change and the many charities that aid this cause. My most cherished career memory during this time was when I was chosen to travel to Tanzania to work alongside a women’s cooperative that helped to build clean drinking water for a small village in Arusha. This project was through the organization Save the Rain, which was started by one woman. I saw firsthand how poignant the power of community and how resilient and strong women are, and most importantly, how one person can really make a difference. Wherever life and my artistic endeavors take me, I hope to be given the chance to put out meaningful work that can make an impact, no matter how big or small.
I left LUSH in the summer of 2015 when I got engaged to my now husband. My son and I relocated to Northern BC and shortly after to Victoria BC to start a new life as a family. Life slowed down for me, and I was able to just focus on being a mother, plan my wedding and do a few contract design jobs. Going from a hectic life and slowing things down was very scary for me in the first few months. It was as if I couldn’t function without the extra dose of stress that came along with the fast-paced-corporate-job-single-mom-hustle. Who was this person staring back at me in the mirror?
In hindsight, quitting my job was the best decision I made. This time allowed me to re-evaluate what meaningful and thoughtful design was. I threw myself into the realm of the hand-crafted to regain a new relationship with art and design that was more tactile. To feed my creative soul, I explored pottery, textile design, leather working and printmaking. But the “ah-ha” moment really came when I started researching wedding bands for my fiancé (now husband) and myself. Designing and making some of my own wedding adornment was what brought jewelry design to my attention.
The difference with jewelry for me was with the process of making. Having such a physical and tactile relationship with the materials I worked with sparked a rebirth of creativity. I felt I was going back to childhood where I first discovered art by tracing my hand. Making art on the computer all day, there is a certain level of removal from the work you are creating. With metalsmithing you are literally melting your own metal. Forming it and shaping it and using tools that have been around since ancient times. I love the field of jewelry-making for the deep connection that an artist has with her materials. The end result isn’t always the most important element to me – for example I personally, wear minimal amounts of jewelry. It’s about how lost I can get when in the process of making something.
Being avid travelers, my husband and I saw learning about jewellery also as an opportunity for adventure, to explore parts of the world that we would not have seen otherwise. From traveling to the East Coast in Portland, Maine to study wax carving in Kate Wolf’s studio, to a road trip in our RV heading south all the way to Nashville to eat BBQ and learn stone-setting under the guidance of Blaine Lewis at The New Approach school in Tennessee. When Covid hit, like for so many others, travel became impossible. So, in 2020, with the support of my husband and our sons (now three of them!) we decided to make the move from Victoria, BC. to Vancouver so I could pursue jewelry full-time at VCC.
While I am studying to be a goldsmith, I am also trying to develop my own voice within the industry. I believe jewelry can be a very powerful medium to celebrate, to narrate and to pass on stories, both personal and/or with a historical or cultural context. Jewelry can empower and connect us to communities. And as future jewelers we have the responsibility to not only carry on this craft to honor the talents of past goldsmiths, but to add our own flavor and leave behind our own mark. Most importantly, as in any field, it’s also our responsibility to do so in the most environmentally and respectable way possible. Sustainable design should be taught in every school — it was part of the curriculum in architecture school and is just as important in the jewelry field.
When people see my work, they first comment on how intricate and detailed the pieces are. My designs are often always content driven, the form is then inspired from that, with some pieces having multiple complexities. In my collection, “Mythology’s Fiercest Females” I have several pieces that are interactive in some way:
A spinning pendant that is double-sided to represent female equality, justice, truth, and harmony for my piece on the Egyptian goddess Ma’at. A sword pendant that pierces through a snake broach to represent the story of Medusa – A symbol of fury, protection, agency, victimhood or strength. A whip handle, built to full scale and created from mixed metal and alternative materials tells the story of Inanna – A goddess that has a bold assertion of feminine power, sexuality, and aggression.The pieces have all been developed with layers of hidden meaning and thoughtfully designed with the character from which it was inspired from.
I have one more semester to go before graduating from the Jewellery Art and Design program at VCC! I am also currently writing a few short stories based on my childhood as part of my year end graduating exhibition project. I’m essentially teaming up with my childhood self to create a line of surreal, fantastical pieces of jewelry inspired by the child’s imagination. It’s so exciting and therapeutic as well to revisit some things that I’ve explored as my younger self. It’s funny to say, but I’m learning so much about myself from myself. I’m also working behind the scenes on my dream company, Sutori Jewelry, that I’m hoping to launch late 2022. My husband and I are also planning for an exciting sabbatical where we hope to return to the north of Canada We are always up for our next adventure.
I don’t think I am ever not creating. If it’s not a piece of jewelry I am designing for school, then I’m dreaming up a piece in my head for my future line. If I get a break, then I’m working on a freelance graphic design project. If I’m not working or doing school assignments then it’s drawing, making art, or creating a fantastical world up in a space with the kids. Watching my kids’ imagination at play is what sparked my final graduating diploma project.
Monique Huynh has been a visual storyteller for most of her life. Her formal education in the creative fields include an Environmental Design degree in the Faculty of Architecture from the University of Manitoba and a Communications Design degree from Emily Carr University. She worked as a senior graphic designer for social impact company LUSH Fresh Handmade Cosmetics for almost a decade. She eventually left LUSH to pursue long-distance love and raise three sons. After spending most of her creative focus on the 2D world of design she decided she needed a medium that would allow her to put her design skills to use while also allowing her to be more tactile. She set out to learn a craft and soon landed on jewelry making. Currently she is enrolled in her second year of the Jewellery Art and Design program at VCC.