a talk with caroline pham from ora-c

you know us by now, we have a thing for well-curated mood boards. when we stumbled upon caroline pham's work, we were in awe with her colorful universe and delicate pieces of jewelry. we set up a meeting at ora-c's studio in montreal to discuss her art and heritage.

hey caro, how has your day been?

busy!!! but luckily the sun is out. so all is good :)

do you have a morning ritual – what do you do when you wake up?

most mornings are about sleeping. I allow myself to sleep late, snooze and snooze too many times. then take a shower, dress up, tend to my plants and leave the house. I grab a coffee and a snack to go (my terrible new yorker habit) - and head to the subway. 40 minutes is the commute to my work studio, which I am sharing with 3 lovely gals since last october, and where I spend all my time these days.

I read that you were raised in both montreal and hong kong - what was that like?

I was born and raised in montreal, but left to live in hong kong at age 14, when my parents decided to move there for my father’s job. that leap was brutal from my teenager point of view. I was a girl raised very quebecois in a french lycée, in hong kong, with parisian kids. that’s when I understood the skills of fitting in, analyzing foreign cultures and navigating multiculturalism. it wasn’t just the french of course, the cantonese loud manners were deeply rooted in our daily routine as well. looking back, it was an amazing way to grow up. it was the fast paced city life intertwined with laid back beaching, island hopping and jungle hiking. we traveled a lot around south east asia at that time as well. sometimes I think my work somehow reminisce on those tropical days. the distant dream of my warm and colourful teenagehood.

what kind of things were you drawn to as a kid?

I guess as a young kid I was always hands-on. always crafting something. drawing, painting, knitting, collaging and collecting knick knacks… but nothing that could have predicted my interest in the arts really. I didn’t even know you could be an artist for a living. my parents were both engineers, and no one in my extended family, or friends family were close to being in the art or design world. I was very much a sporty kid, and a total tomboy.  

were you always interested in jewelry? making bracelets and stuff… where does your passion come from?

from alI the crafty things I did as a child there was definitely a lot of friendship bracelets making involved, and large wooden bead necklace wearing, haha. but other then that, I was never that interested in jewelry as a profession. I’d say my true entry in the jewelry world, came from the desire to get into sculpture and weaving, in the last 5 years or so. when I lived in new york, I worked as a freelance graphic designer, art director, curator, prop maker, wood worker, set stylist and miniature set builder. but always worked for other people’s projects. once I moved back to montreal, I had more time and less distraction. jewelry became my way of building a project for myself, and make a living out of it. I could now do my own photo shoots, make my own products, create my own branding and website. and since the brand took off. it was a very organic development. with no intention to build a fashion brand, but to create something that was mine, expressing my own vision for once.

your dad is vietnamese and your mom is french canadian. did it have an impact on your identity as a woman and artist?

of course. growing up between two cultures, I have constantly felt like an outsider, an intruder, a foreigner within my own people, from either sides of my families to the various places I have lived in. so the idea of the unknown has become a form of regularity for me, a form of identity. all of this made me extremely curious, analytic, cautious - I found out that I could mold myself to fit any situation, like a chameleon. I have found myself attracted to all things I am unfamiliar with. that must be why foreign arts, traditional techniques and distant cultural visuals speak to me so much. they are distant from my common knowledge but they are familiar in their unfamiliarity.

on another note, being a woman from a dual cultural heritage brings constant questioning about the history and state of mind of the world today. with my work I seem to fantasize about my own exotic heritage viewed from the perspective of my western half. it’s a strange position to be in. but somehow my work, touching upon the aesthetic of the tropical and exotic, helps me resolve that contradiction. like I was able to pay homage to the foreign cultures who served as fetishes for the western colonies for centuries. my work is like my own bow to their majestic traditions that have nourished the escapist imaginations of so many westerners. a perspective I have ironically inherited by growing up in north america…

you went on to study at parsons in nyc. pretty impressive! was it stimulating, being surrounded by young artists and promising designers in school?

yeah parsons was a great school. it’s fascinating to see what classmates have become since we graduated. such talented people. I think what that school taught us all is to work HARD! I learned my endurance there for sure. it was so intense. not for everyone, now looking back… it was like design bootcamp.

spending 10 years in the big apple, how did it influence you and your work?

it definitely made me a hustler! that’s for sure. but most importantly I was very lucky to meet amazing people there. so much talent, so much hard work and so many wild ideas. It’s an inspiring city on every front. there was an eccentricity and search for an ever evolving originality that fascinated me, I like to think this still fuels my work motives. I think nowadays things have changed in new york. the art community used to be a lot more subversive. I think it’s still there, but much more spread out and a lot cleaner. so many people had to leave the city due to the skyrocketing rents. and people realized new york isn't the only nourishing place to live.

at what point did you decide to go back to montreal?

those raising prices to live in new york were definitely a large factor in my decision to move back to montreal. also I ached to work on my own art projects, without the distraction of juggling 2-3 jobs. I didn’t know many people in montreal, only childhood friends. it was tough coming back like this. it always feels like a defeat to go home because you can’t afford the big city. turns out it was my lucky strike. montreal is my loving home again now :)

have you ever thought of working from somewhere else? going back to nyc or exploring a new city somewhere.

sure I used to think about it all the time. at first, as soon as I moved back to montreal, I thought of going back to new york already. new york is a hard city to leave. its energy, eccentricity, multiculturalism and rhythm are hard to find elsewhere. but then I settled in here and started to love the slower pace. I thought I’d move to los angeles at some point. I still think about it sometimes. but it just didn’t pan out. we’ll see. I’m open to anything. lately I went to mexico and I feel like this it about to become my new love. all I want to do is go back. who knows!!

we’re obsessed with your latest lookbook - so colorful! what was the idea behind the collection? what inspired you?

my current collection is called “eye give hue”, which is a wordplay comparing my pieces to offerings. gifts to be shared through our eyes and appreciated by their colourfulness. color is always intentional in my work. so much that I think of my photo shoot colour schemes at the same time as choosing the actual colors for my pieces in the collection. I like to believe that jewelry becomes a part of the person who wears it. and vice versa. there is a strong bond between a piece of adornment and the statement it gives the person who dons it. this is one of the themes I tried to emanate in my photoshoot. but more simply I am a lover of plants and stones. I like their endless intricacies, and how effortlessly nature seems to fabricate them. I feel like it grounds my work. perhaps humbles it. my pieces are honouring all natural things, but also pay homage to tradition, and early cultures that still sway our imagination today. hence the use of ancestral materials and colorful techniques such as bronze, textiles, weaving, embroidery and beading. my vision is more and more rooted in a modernist approach however. I see cultural references mainly as a starting point, but love to knot the influences with their opposites. it's my attempt to marry simplicity with old craft, brilliant colors with elegance and the exotic with my vision of modernity.

your designs are very delicate - what’s your creative process like?

my design process is always organic. it doesn’t necessarily come from one specific idea or inspiration source, but rather is an evolution of my previous collection. I recently re-listened to an interview with david lynch who explained his creative process. he says: "it's as if you are in a room, and in the room next to you there is a puzzle. when suddenly a piece of the puzzle appears in your room for you to find, then another and another. your task is to find and collect the pieces to finally form the mystery puzzle." sometimes this is exactly how I feel when ideas for inspiration come to me. I would have no idea what I am about to create, but only bit by bit do shapes and forms take place, based on cues and clues of my day, things I read, memories, images I find, etc. it's as if I act like a sponge for a period of time until I am full enough to squeeze out everything I digested and layout it out perfectly into place. I think it's a beautiful exercise.

what keeps you focused while you’re working – what’s your mood music?

well in the past few months i’ve mainly been listening to podcasts. working endless hours manually requires some form of intellectual entertainment for the mind, so podcasts have been a go to remedy for that. but if I was to put on music I’m usually a sucker for old obscure finds that I add into my spotify playlist. otherwise, anything instrumental or moody is the kind of feel I like to hear for a good zen work session.

and when you’re not working, what do you like to do?

relaxing! doing nothing. sleeping, drinking coffees in the sun or cocktails in the breeze with friends, reading, watching movies, strumming my guitar and piano keys, and in the summer biking! I also try to go to new york as often as I can. I visit my dear family of friends there, go to museums, check out music shows. the trips grow more and more sparse nowadays, but last year I would go almost every month. and now I may want to go to mexico more as well. at least making time for sunny destinations is a new goal.


interview by elisabeth labelle
pictures by ariane poulin