“I want my work to expand beyond form and function—without excluding diligent consideration of these elements—into sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and overall cultural conversation. My ultimate goal is to integrate my love of craft and my concern for minority people’s well-being,” explains Ada Chen.

Ada Chen chose the font for her connected earrings, which read “Speak English We’re in America,” to recall those used on name necklaces.

As a graduating senior focusing on jewelry, Ada wanted her thesis collection to spark discussion around Asian-American social issues—an area that she has found particularly wanting since relocating to Brooklyn from California to pursue her degree at Pratt. Her collection, Made in Chinese America, illustrates and celebrates Asian-American culture through the use of social motifs and mundane objects that are specific to Chinese-American and Asian-American experience in its entirety.

Ada’s work bench in the Engineering Building.

Throughout the fall semester, Ada worked with jewelry coordinator Patricia Madeja to further hone her vision and improve both her craftsmanship and her conceptual abilities to create a collection that is both beautiful and provocative. Two of the strongest pieces, which are meant to be worn simultaneously, are a pair of connected earring with the words “Speak English We’re in America” and a set of dental grillz with Chinese characters that read “Speak Chinese We’re in America.”

To create the grillz, Ada made molds of her own teeth using professional dental materials.

The idea for the pieces came from Ada’s own experiences of being embarrassed about being Chinese and having internalized the linguistic standard for being American in the United States. “The phrase, speak English, we’re in America, is something my 14-year-old self actually said to my friends who were speaking Cantonese.” She had previously explored the connected earring form for a different concept and found it to be particularly suitable for “Speak English We’re in America” because earrings by their nature are directly noticeable due to their proximity to the wearer’s face.

“Earrings are very declarative and draw immediate attention from anyone speaking to or looking at the wearer, similar to how readily recognizable faces and ethnic features usually are. Their position on the ears relates them to hearing—since this is a phrase that immigrants who speak languages other than English hear all the time in America—and their position over the throat relates them to the wearer’s own speech.”

The grillz, which read “Speak Chinese We’re in America” in Chinese, reflect the appreciation she has come to have of her Chinese heritage and are also a satirical counterpart to the earring necklace. “I chose to impose this message on grillz because the mouth explicitly relates to speech. Also, in popular hip hop culture, grillz are a symbol of wealth, akin to the way I now value my ability to speak Chinese. Many Asian Americans have lost their ability to speak their families’ native language because societal norms do not encourage non-English languages, which is why simply speaking the household language is such an accomplishment in the Asian American community. The implicit conversation between the connected earrings and the grillz is that when all I hear is ‘Speak English We’re in America,’ my response is ‘Speak Chinese We’re in America.’”

The grillz reading “Speak Chinese We’re in America” are a satirical counterpart to the message on the connected earrings.

To make the grillz, Ada made impressions of her teeth with alginate and filled them with dental lab stone to create a positive. She then molded and carved green sheet wax over the molds of her teeth to make the body of the grillz. After getting the shape she wanted and the characters carved in, she sprewed it, invested it, and then cast them in silver using the lost wax method.

The Fund for Pratt supports the rigorous conceptual thinking and refined craftsmanship that are the foundation Ada’s thesis collection—and work created across the Pratt campus. To learn more about the intellectual and creative activity made possible by The Fund for Pratt, check out the next FfP post.