Burmese teacher-turned artist Wynn Wynn Ong, one of the world’s most copied designers, recently turned the Yuchengco Museum into a colossal cabinet of curiosities – treasures, rather, as she filled a couple of floors with bespoke jewels, accessories, furniture and clothing she created this past 15 years.
Her pieces – quirky, playful and breathtakingly beautiful – echoed the colors and textures of a globe-trotter’s life – family roots in Myanmar, a childhood in Vienna, coming of age in Manila, motherhood in Singapore, empty-nest syndrome in Boston.
Her nuclear physicist father brought the family to Austria when she was three. During her teens, her mom, who had master’s degrees in sociology and library science, took a job with the Asian Development Bank, relocated them in Manila.
Wynn Wynn took up business management, married Filipino investment banker Norby Ong and started a family in Singapore before she could finish her thesis. At the International School, she taught literature for almost a decade until her two kids flew the nest.
Suddenly, she found she had nothing to do in her family’s second home in Massachusetts.
Wanting to amuse herself, she became an “accidental artist”.
From her mom’s old necklaces, she wove Swarovski crystals and beads with gold and silver wire and taught herself how to make jewelry.
“When you work with your hands, it’s like therapy. And as long as I’m creating, I’m happy.”
Only later did she study the craft – goldsmithing, wood carving, wood staining, lost-wax casting, miniature painting, to “understand what can and can’t be done.”
Yet, she found, “There are no rules. There’s nothing to fear. You don’t question yourself. You just do it.”
I loved how she transformed everything, from monkeys and molluscs to geckos and peacocks into pendants, necklaces, minaudieres and cabinet handles – each of them little masterpieces of metals and gems.
My favorites on the first floor, her “Inspired Chaos” section, include chambered nautilus shells – symbol for perfection and beauty, which she fashioned into a clutch with labradorite eyes, 888 freshwater pearls (the number of prosperity in triplicates) and brown tourmalines embellishing its tentacles and insides.
She sculpted a neckpiece in the form of a coral branch, more like a bib, enmeshed with labradorite beads, repoussé leaves, frosted green glass, Swarovski crystals, button pearls and sculpted charms.
And there’s that peacock clasp, perched on a bark clutch made of recycled metal alloys – gold set with peridot and sapphire beads, a prasiolite crest, long fan tail feathers flowing.
A mother-of-pearl octopus pendant dangled a repoussé galleon from one tentacle and antique carved crystal quartz in another.
Wynn Wynn’s whimsical take on furniture showed on her cabinets – one had spiral ram’s horns for handles, others had jewel-studded geckos crawling on their faces, or miniature toucans grasping gems in their beaks. A jade-beaded frog perched on metal leaves on a tray’s edge.
On the third floor, she displayed her Couture: Sartorial Symbiosis.
She interwove jewelry into the fabric of the clothes she designed, creating stories through textiles, playing with pure silk, tribal hand weaves, tulle, French lace, organdy, neoprene, silk rope, twine and cords.
A huge gold leaf Burmese water serpent god (“naga”) gathered the folds of her black draped gown together at the back.
A quirky cape of black silk leaves had bespoke suspenders of gold chicken feet holding up a pair of tailored gray wool fish-tail pants.
One of her jackets, assembled and handstitched out of silk cords, pleated silk, silk braids and tassels, featured three jeweled monkey tailors clambering over its front.
Gold plated repoussé snakes crawled in and out of her “Modern Medusa” corded black fitted vest worn over a billowing black tulle ball skirt.
A gladiator-inspired ensemble featured a pure black silk tunic with outward extending butterfly sleeves paired with handmade repoussé gold arm and shin guards.
And they are all wearable.
If there’s one thing in common between designing jewelry and clothing, it’s “not just about form but function”, Wynn Wynn acknowledged.
“A fashion designer has to make sure whoever wears her clothes can move, sit and walk. Can it take a woman from the boardroom to the ballroom? Is it flexible enough to bring in her travels?”
Interestingly, she wants her retrospective to be a “learning tool, to open people’s minds”, to inspire students of design and art.
For this exhibit, she’s not even interested in selling at all.
“My collectors will always be there. I was never driven by money, or by how many pieces I could sell. You have many choices in life. You can call yourself a designer, a jeweler, or a businessperson. Some designers are very successful because they’re savvy in business. But there are those who endure because they nurture the work, not minding the trends, what sells, or what others are doing. In a world of mass production and robotics, originality is still sought after.”
When it comes to style, “I’ve been drawn to the ‘different,’ the unique, and the quirky, my entire life. I believe that jewelry should reflect a person’s individuality and that the pieces should form stories that tease the mind and taunt the senses. I have no interest in creating two pieces that are exactly alike. The gems I find drive the designs. The piece must resonate with the wearer and, in turn, they must be transformed.”
As is, “We live in a world of mass production where artisans are vanishing and skilled crafting by the human hand is rare… I believe in the tenet that the number of days, even weeks, put into designing and crafting a single piece makes the difference between a common commodity and a piece of art. Few understand the hours spent studying a gem so that ‘dialogue’ and understanding exists between it and myself.”
“We are only bound by the walls we create.”
And the future?
After her retrospective, Wynn Wynn intends to go back to writing and pursue other creative interests, from designing spaces to building things and cooking.
“Normally a retrospective is once in a lifetime, so maybe this will be my only one,” she smiled. “You never know. But I hope it will be subsumed by a different form of creativity.”
(Pictures of most exhibit items and their details were taken with a Vivo5 Plus.)