Sue Tsai (Interview)
Words by Adelle Platon.
Photos by Jason Del Pilar and Sue Tsai.
Art by Sue Tsai.
Next to Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream parlor in New York City, is a Bowery studio where in September Sue Tsai, jewelry designer turn artist, showcased her 10-piece collection in an exhibit called “The Only Place I Feel Like Me.” Vibrant acrylic artwork, such as a piece featuring a woman with a jigsaw puzzle mind and heart-shaped caricatures, span across two large, white walls. A porcelain installation of lotus flowers with illuminated bombs and live goldfish swimming in a little pond brings a touch of nature to the room, while spotlighting a signature theme in her designs. “Lotus flowers are a staple in Asian history,” the 28-year-old creative explains of her infatuation. “Lotus flowers have to grow through mud and rise above water to bloom. It kind of represents going through struggle and hard times. But in the end, it’s something beautiful.”
Adding the bomb not only meshed with the Wale slow jam or the Viktor & Rolf perfume of the same name, but also introduced an alternative side on canvas. “Beautiful things hide really explosive, dangerous interiors,” she says.
Raised by immigrant parents in Locust Valley, Long Island, Tsai’s upbringing doesn’t scream wild child. Her mother and father, both artists, came to New York from Taiwan at 20 years old with no money. Their hustle was selling jewelry in city subway stations. They were once homeless. “I’ve watched them and have grown for 28 years,” she says of her inherited work ethic. “Now, I’m using it to apply to myself.” After playing with clay in her parents’ studio as a two-year-old, Tsai became an addict to art. Designing her first jewelry line in 2007, the then Hofstra University undergrad created cheap rubber bracelets that she would sell at street fairs and markets for $14 a piece. She eventually sold 100,000. She then created higher-end accessories made of sterling silver, 14-karat gold and, for special requests, diamonds, worn by the likes of Angela Simmons, Vanessa Simmons, and Jim Jones. These days, her jewelry and paintings can sell for $10,000.
While Tsai applied her marketing degree to real-world business, she kept her palate full by illustrating children’s books. “I was just always surrounded by creativity,” says Tsai, who began painting on her kitchen floor before holing up in her current Long Island studio. “I couldn’t imagine growing up anything besides an artist.” Heartbreak then became the gateway for a different passion: painting. “When I started painting, it was a culmination of everything I was going through, like cheating, disloyalty, and me not being able to trust men in relationships,” she says. Thus, her first piece, “All Is Fair in Love and War,” was born. It depicts a shapely woman wearing only a ski mask and two X’s on her breasts while holding a gun. In 2012, she released her first collection called “Heartbreak On Canvas,” an ode to damsels in distress, especially in love.
If Tsai had a Tinder profile, her “About” section would probably read: “Artist and aspiring chef looking for respect, trust, and loyalty,” her self-made guidelines for a strong and healthy relationship. With her parents having been together over 30 years, Tsai’s expectations of love could be considered Louboutin-high for the Twitter generation. A serial monogamist since age 16, Tsai says she’s been single for about two years, her longest vacation from long-term relationships. Even her work reflects that. “My paintings have really transitioned from when I first started. I was really known for my ‘scorned woman’ art,” she says. One of her initial works shows a woman with voluminous black hair, a dollar sign in one green eye, and black tape across her mouth with the punchy phrase in white letters, “Fxck Love, I’m Paid.”
Tsai’s success has probably been the best revenge. In March 2013, her social media buzz landed her two cover-art looks from Wale’s second No. 1 single, “Bad,” featuring Tiara Thomas and its remix with Rihanna. The bad gal even saluted the artist on her Instagram, posting what Tsai says has become her most famous piece, “Love Saves.” The painting was never finished because Tsai found out her aunt had committed suicide the following morning. “I was originally going to add more, but then I just left it because it seemed like too much at the time.” The art features another beautiful woman with red lips, wavy, black tresses and eyes closed, and a pair of black X’s on her breasts. She holds her well-manicured hand in the shape of a gun to her head. While the art was separate from the family loss, Tsai’s concept was timely. “I wanted to create a piece about love and the sacrifices that we make for love.”
Her dating history shows she’s no stranger to putting others before herself. Her first love as a 10th grader was loaded with lessons. “It was the first time I genuinely put someone else before myself, and I was only 16 at the time. That’s super young for you to invest so much of yourself into one person,” she says. “I don’t regret it because I’ve always put more of myself into relationships than they probably deserved or I’ve received back. You can’t regret investing so much of yourself because one day, it’s going to pay off.”
Her optimistic point of view on love has also translated to an even deeper sense of self. “I definitely learned you can’t depend on people to complete you,” she says. Coming up with an entire diamond jewelry line in a nine-hour meeting, or compiling her artwork into one book, are signs that bad days with a lover doesn’t affect her ethic. “I don’t stay up for nights and nights, and cry myself to sleep. I just keep moving and focus on myself.” The fight for love has become a more prevalent theme in her work, specifically “A Love Worth The Fight,” which places an old school boxing glove, bruised from wear-and-tear over presumably many years, alongside a clean and glossy boxing glove, meant to represent the generation that’s allergic to rough times. “When we’re in a relationship, we give up when it gets hard,” she explains. “It’s so different compared to that older time before, like my parents and how they’ve stuck together for so long. No matter what, you have to go through rough times. You have to stick it out for the things you love.”
Tsai’s explanations for her art feel biographical. After taking the DIY method to her career and diversifying her business portfolio, her passion never runs on empty. Still, the self-described perfectionist faces her own set of challenges beyond internet trolls. One piece in particular, titled “A Beautiful Mind,” is an extension of Tsai, where a black-haired woman has a cage atop her head containing snakes, lotus flower bombs and a tinier lady hugging her legs. Inspired by her battles with anxiety, the art also serves as a positive reminder. “Once you free your mind…,” she pauses. “That’s when I’m happiest.”