photo by  sara chars

photo by sara chars

“Public spaces do not belong to women.” Beau Sinchai, of Koonyai Studio, folds her arms across our table at The Bad Waitress in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

Sinchai’s confidence, and the precision of her language give me pause. “Alright,” I think to myself, “we’re not talking about jewelry anymore.”  Processing her statement forces me to reflect on my experiences as a woman navigating communal spaces. I’m called back to studying abroad in Paris during my junior year of college. At 21, I’d never had the opportunity to explore such an enormous city on my own. Truly, I’d never felt as vulnerable or as unsure of how to interact with the world around me.

My host mother’s commanding voice plays in the back of my head; I see her bending over a map of the city, scribbling notes, circling routes. Make sure you transfer at Place d’Italie, and try to avoid taking Rue du Château des Rentiers if you can…it’s quicker, but it’s poorly lit and even more poorly frequented. She’d lived in Paris all her life—claimed it as her own—but she knew exactly which parts of it she and I didn’t have access to. This isn't just Paris. This is Chicago. This is DC. This is your sidewalk.

As a graduate student in 3D Design at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Sinchai leveraged her background in architecture to create wearable commentary on this exact issue— the intersection of gender, race and public spaces. “If you’re a woman, or LGBTQA, or a person of color...poor, disabled...there are certain things that are happening to you in the public space…cat calling, harassment…I wanted to use my art to start conversations about that.”

photo by  susan simmons

photo by susan simmons

Fusing copper-plated steel and gold-plated wire, Sinchai built geometric structures that attached to, and encircled five different models in her exhibition, Minding Presence. These structures command attention— they look a little bit like a beautiful warning. Sinchai explains, “They seem really aggressive, but they’re so fragile…if someone chooses to invade my space, my chance of protecting myself is small. I guess my point is, it’s not our job to protect ourselves. It’s your job not to hurt us.”  For Sinchai, it boils down to one thing: respecting women and their space, with or without gold-plated fixtures.

Sinchai felt this vulnerability both in public spaces, and in architecture, her original field of study. According to the American Institute of Architects, men and women in the US graduate from architecture school in equal numbers, but only about 18% of professionals are women. Growing reports of wage discrepancies, poor work-life balance, and harassment certainly don't encourage women like Sinchai to enter the industry. “Especially as a woman of color, I found it so difficult…I remember presenting to clients who’d pose all of their questions to my male peers. Was it because I was a woman? Or Asian? Or young-looking? At that point, I kind of knew I wanted to work for myself.”

photo by  sara chars

photo by sara chars

Sinchai started her own jewelry line, Koonyai Studio, just as she graduated from Cranbrook in 2014. Her pieces reflect past works in their perfect balance of strength and fragility.  Mostly made of concrete and wire, she uses architecture in a way that feels feminine, strong, subversive. “For a long time, I couldn't get concrete to function on a small scale—it would crumble and turn to dust. I spent the whole summer after grad school mixing new formulas, and I finally came up with a concrete that works for me.”  Manipulating concrete to suit her small scale needs represented a personal victory. When the materials and the industry both felt rigid and unwelcoming, she excelled on her own terms.

Growing as an artist and as a business woman are particularly important to Sinchai, who is a first generation high school, college and graduate student. While business ownership and creative pursuits aren't celebrated by her more traditional Thai family, her grandmother taught her the importance of an enterprising spirit. “'Koonyai means beloved grandmother in Thai." Sinchai explains, “My grandmother raised me and my siblings in Thailand until I was 16. She was such a business woman, always making and finding things to sell in order to provide for us and our community… it’s my hope to honor her with my work as an artist.”

final photos by beau sinchai