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JEM Grad's Wearable Art Fuses Fantasy and Electronics

Crystal Gauntlet - hand

The Gauntlet, a piece by alumnus Ryan Hsiang, is a forearm-length metal cuff studded with chunky blue and purple crystals made from resin. Photo courtesy of Ryan Hsiang.

The fantasy worlds and characters depicted in films such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings and Batman have captivated Ryan Hsiang since he was a little boy growing up in Shanghai, China. As he got older, he grew more interested in uncovering the deeper meanings of these tales and how they relate to real life. Enrolling in Academy of Art University’s School of Jewelry & Metal Arts (JEM) provided him with the means to create wearable art, sculpture and other pieces that reflect his passion for connecting fantasy and reality.

“Jewelry and metal arts give me a unique way to express my ideas,” said Hsiang, who graduated with a B.F.A. in December 2017. “I really like mixed media and making things that people don’t get directly. I like to explore the benefits of each material. It gives me more possibilities for including different shapes and textures in my work.”

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School of Jewelry & Metal Arts alumnus Ryan Hsiang. Photo courtesy of Ryan Hsiang.

Hsiang’s designs are often exaggerated, colorful and infused with whimsy and drama. Take his Fire Crown, for example, forged from silver, enamel and copper. You can almost feel the heat—and maybe a bit of magical power—radiating from the circle of glossy red and orange flames that shoot up from its circular base. It’s also easy to picture a female superhero or warrior princess from one of the fantasy films he loves sporting The Gauntlet, a forearm-length metal cuff studded with chunky blue and purple crystals made from resin. The faux crystals twinkle and glow courtesy of LED lights he added inside the piece.

Hsiang confessed he found it challenging, at first, to translate his imaginative ideas into end results that matched his vision. “Using metals, and learning the techniques and skills to master them, takes time,” he said.

“The materials were new to me when I started at the Academy. I learned a lot in my JEM courses. Not just the skills, but also that you have to be patient and, of course, creative in order to make the object from your mind into reality. Sometimes, it doesn’t turn out the way you first see it.” 

He appreciated all of his courses, but found Electronics and the Wearable Form, a class taught by Mark Hellar, especially inspiring. In addition to covering basic electronics, Hellar helped students learn how to incorporate interactive elements, such as motion and lights, into their work. 

“It was really interesting because I learned about connecting technology into my art,” said Hsiang. “That was a new thing for me, so it opened up a lot of possibilities for my creations and making things that move like a robot or use LED lights.”

According to Hellar, Hsiang was a “very dedicated and very creative” student. JEM Director Charlene Modena echoed Hellar’s opinion.

“Ryan is hard-working, confident and creative,” she said. “He brought his own unique, and often playful vision, to the world of wearable electronics art. By combining professional-level metalworking skills and a strong sense of discovery with 3-D printed elements, self-contained chips and LED lights, he added movement—along with shifting and flashing colors—to an already amazing portfolio.”

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Hsiang collaborated with fashion student Jeanne Marie Sanguinetti for the 2017 Graduation Fashion Show. Using 3-D printing, Hsiang created oversized red, white and yellow headphones featuring ear pads that look like characters from the iconic ’80s arcade game Pac-Man. Photo by Danielle Rueda.

Last spring, Hsiang’s talent was in the spotlight at the Academy’s Graduation Fashion Show. He collaborated with fashion student Jeanne Marie Sanguinetti to amp up the fun of her Pac-Man-inspired collection with the perfect accessories and finishing touches. Using 3-D printing, he created oversized red, white and yellow headphones featuring ear pads that look like characters from the iconic ’80s arcade game. Paired with old school Walkmans, they delivered a vibrant jolt of pop-art flair. Hsiang also added LED lights to Sanguinetti’s chic black column dress to mimic the maze Pac-Man players must navigate. The duo’s work was a hit on the runway and appeared on the cover of California Apparel News. In addition, Huffington Post fashion blogger Angela Han called the collection one of the standouts of that year’s Graduation Fashion Show. 

At the time Academy Art U News spoke to Hsiang, he was looking forward to his next adventure—moving to the Big Apple. In New York, he will concentrate on making more accessories with kinetic and movable components that people can wear in their daily lives. He also plans to launch a brand with his friend and Academy School of Fashion graduate Jocelyn Liao. 

“We want to collaborate on a brand that blends our works together,” said Hsiang. 

Just before going to press, we learned Hsiang’s Sakura Armor cuff was accepted in the 2018 Enamelist Society’s online student exhibition, a competitive juried event. It’s on display now at www.enamelistsociety.org, along with works from his fellow JEM students Wonhee Kim and Sabrina Hsu.