Syuan Zeng is a multidisciplinary artist based in NYC. She got her start on her family’s computer with online paint programs, and drew inspiration from her elementary school class mentor that led to art program enrollment. After studying at National Taiwan University Of Science & Technology for Commercial Design (BFA), Taipei National University of the Arts for Costume Design (MFA), Hofstra University (MFA Exchange Semester), and the University of North Carolina School Of The Arts for Wig & Makeup Design (MFA), her work now includes window displays with luxury brands like Coach and Louis Vuitton, costume design and build for Mon Li-Chun, The Moment Of A Loser’s Rocking, Weird-Looking Pug, Flowers Are Gone, and her UNCSA wig and makeup thesis production, Homer: The Great Teller Of Tales, Love & Depositions. When she’s not working, Zeng volunteers in the resource committee department of the Guild Of Scenic Artists, a nonprofit that educates and empowers those in that industry. Her advice to young artists? “Try as many things as possible… A lot of the time our works are experimenting with new techniques and new materials and the things we learned from other fields may be useful for future projects. You never know!” Read on to learn more about Syuan Zeng and what makes her an Amazing Asian in the Arts!
Name: Syuan Zeng (Ying-Syuan Zeng)
Hometown: Tamshui, Taiwan
Current City: New York City, USA
Currently working full time as a scenic artist at The Specialists Ltd. while designing and making costumes for IGE Entertainment on the side. (Our projects usually come and go with short turnarounds. It is changing all the time 😹)
What are some of your favorite credits/projects:
A lot of the projects I did at The Specialists Ltd were so fun, such as the Louis Vuitton 200 Trunks NYC window display, Coach X Rockefeller Center pop up shop Rexy Signboard, and many props painting jobs for films & TV shows. Some other theater productions that I did costume design & build for Mon Li-Chun, The Moment Of A Loser’s Rocking, Weird-Looking Pu, Flowers Are Gone… my wig & makeup thesis production at UNCSA Homer, The Great Teller Of Tales, and my personal thesis projects. A few years ago my entry “Seraph” for World Of Wearable Art made the cut to the final round and was showcased in Wellington, New Zealand.
Any advice for young people getting into the arts?
Try as many things as possible. Have a solid foundation of your chosen niche, but remain flexible and curious. A lot of the time our works are experimenting with new techniques and new materials and the things we learned from other fields may be useful for future projects. You never know!
How did you get your start?
I took the scenic route, but I have been lucky. As a kid we had internet at home and I would spend hours every day drawing with my mouse on the online Paint BBS sites (it was such a great talent pool there, I was always amazed and inspired) while also taking art hobby classes outside of school. Our 5-6th grade class mentor was a fine art major so he not only taught me and my friend some painting and drawing techniques but also gave us freedom to practice on our own during regular class hours. Then I entered a middle school art program where I was trained structurally.
In college, I was studying commercial design at National Taiwan University of Science and Technology 2009-2013. Then I worked for 3 years (with last year overlapping my first year in my first MFA program in costume design at Taipei National University of the Arts) at a graphic design studio as an assistant, and at a sports magazine house as an editor, illustrator, graphic designer and sometimes photographer. I was working for these two places at the same time – although the two companies were considered small, their clients were famous brands such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, Hong Kong Sotheby’s, some major publishers in Taiwan and some featured films posters. Such as, my boss designed a few main versions movie posters of The Assassin 聶隱娘 2015 movie by Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢 and I was assisting her photoshopping the elements used in those posters. We also did a few seasons of HK Sotheby’s modern Asian art auction catalogs together for their VIP collectors, the new editions of John Le Carre spy fiction series book cover designs, to name a few.
The experience I learned from the two companies holds a strong influence on me. I have always appreciated their aesthetics and their design philosophy. It was very demanding too, because both my bosses had high standards for everything. But there was always a little voice nudging me, that my true calling was somewhere else. Part of it was that I am a person who loves working with my own hands. I need to be able to see, touch and feel the materials I am working with directly. And graphic design or editing through a monitor is very indirect for me. The other part of it was, my ex-bosses both said to me “Syuan, you will not become a great artist or designer, but you can be a good editor.” Those words fueled me to prove them wrong. I knew I could do so much more if I had the opportunity.
Back when I was 17 applying for college, I didn’t know much about theatre, TV, films, and design programs and nor did my family so it wasn’t really an option for me. But then when I found it out (my enlightenment show was Once, Upon Hearing The Skin Tone…膚色的時光 2009by Shakespeare’s Wild Sisters Group 🙂), I wanted to give it a try. I started to take sewing and pattern making classes on the side throughout my college 4 years whenever I could and I enrolled in the costume design MFA program at Taipei National University of the Arts in 2015.
Do you have any favorite moments in your career that you'd like to share?
Although seeing my work receiving recognition is wonderful (and important too!) I actually enjoy the process of designing and making things more. It is the whole process of “giving birth” to my brain children the most fulfilling and satisfying. I love being in my zone and staying connected to my spirit. Creating is my mediation.
What have you found is the biggest challenge in your career?
At the moment, it is keeping a cool head and remaining confident when things don’t go as planned. I have a tendency to worry too much and doubt myself sometimes. But this tendency only pushes me into the circle of procrastination. When that happens, I’d try to remind myself that “intuition whispers and fear screams. Now review it again, is this an intuition or a fear?” I am still working on this, but these words do help.
Do you have any organizations or non profits you work with you’d like to highlight?
I volunteer at Guild Of Scenic Artists in their resource committee department, which is a nonprofit career driven organization for scenic artists. We post informative articles such as skill share tutorials, introductions on materials/products, jobs. We hold webinars and events to help people in the industry connect to each other and we have a forum for QA discussions that many members would generously share their insights with. It is a very supportive community! Check them out here: https://www.scenicguild.org/
Who do you admire?
Costume designer Eiko Ishioka, director Tarsem Singh, Jan Svankmajer and Sergei Parajanov, art director Yuni Yoshida, photographer Muga Miyahara, Cho Gi-Seok, Zhong Lin and Han Yang, makeup artist Simone Gammino, writer Italo Calvino, scenographer Dimitris Papaioannou… I feel that I have missed a lot of people 😹
Do you have any mentors?
I am very lucky to have met many wonderful mentors on this path. During my first grad school at Taipei National University Of The Arts I was taught by Donato Moreno, Wan-Lee Chan, Heng-Cheng Lin, Yi-Mei Wang, Pin-Pin Chin, and Pei-Chi Su and the two costume shop faculties Liang-Su Yien and Shih-Fen Lin. In the 2017 spring semester, I went on an exchange program to Hofstra University in Long Island New York, where I studied with Pei-Chi Su and the 2 costume shop faculties, Jacquline Benedict-Mantell and Meredith Van Scoy. And it was because of grandpa professor Donato that I got a second master in Wig & Makeup Design at UNCSA, where I studied with Holland Berson, Christal Schanes and I took scenic art independent study with Susan Crabtree.
Did you always want to be in the arts or did you have another path before you got here?
I have always wanted to be in the arts but I didn’t quite have the right information to point me to this film, TV and theater path when I was choosing my undergrad program. Also at that time, doing commercial design at NTUST was a middle ground agreement with my parents. There are times I wonder what my path would look like if I was a little braver to transfer to theater design school/program during my college years, but looking back I do appreciate the training and experience in my undergrad. I also took as many clothes making courses off campus as much as I could during that time.
When did you know you wanted to have a career in the arts?
Since I was a kid! I just didn’t have the lingo to articulate my passion and the exact direction for it. There’s a line in One Hundred Years Of Solitude that describes it so well: “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” What I am doing now me and my family didn’t even know it existed back then. And with the ever-evolving nature of the industry, I am certain that there will be more new jobs that we can’t imagine now.
Is where you are now where you thought you’d be?
Where I am now is a place that I wasn’t able to even dream of. From high school, college to the first two years after college, I was a bit lost and feeling very unfulfilled. I couldn’t even imagine where I will be after I turn 30. Giving costume design MFA a shot was the first major choice I made for myself and I am so grateful that my younger self did that. Although no matter which path we take, there’re always gonna be bumps in the roads, but choosing your paths do make it easier to endure and to try to overcome those obstacles. My life started to make more sense after I made that choice.
Did you have any interesting “odd jobs” you worked at between gigs to pay the bills?
Now, I feel that all of my past jobs/gigs were related to art and design fields. Back in Taiwan, I had taken on some graphic design gigs for friends and family friends. I worked part time as a teaching assistant at an art studio teaching young kids and teenagers how to paint and draw. I also did a few scenic art projects painting escape rooms and a b&b. Those scenic art jobs actually turned out to be the most fun and economically rewarding jobs because I got paid hourly, while all my main focus design gigs or the graphic design assistant & magazine gigs were paid by projects and I wouldn’t get my full paychecks until a production was done. And since I often had to work with a tight budget, I couldn’t outsource the builds, I had to build them myself or with friends. If I plugged those hours in I was earning very very little money (thank goodness I was lucky to have cheap rent back then)!
Do you have any other “special skills?”
Maybe more like ”superpower” – I sometimes would remember random information or weird things that I later on find connections to. When that happens, usually it would be the happy moments for both me and the other party. I feel that our connections are destined and things just come full circle, and the other person feels seen/heard because I remember the tiniest thing about them.
Do you have any side projects you’d like to highlight?
It is so sad that my time and energy are so occupied at the moment. But when my time frees up I would like to do a series of photography works in which I will be building all the visual elements, such as special effects makeup and wigs, props, costume pieces, backdrops… Pretty much like how I operated my thesis projects. I have been brewing some ideas. The most difficult part is to find time and keep that momentum.
If you come from parents who aren’t in the arts, what parts of them do you see in yourself that have helped you succeed in the business?
I think it would be curiosity and persistence. Both of my parents have very academic backgrounds, and their original families were kinda struggling to make ends meet. My mother even got a master degree in atmospheric science at the top university in Taiwan. (she is my hero and inspiration). Whenever she is learning something, she puts all her focus and energy into it. She is curious about what the hidden patterns are behind the subjects of her interests, and she’ll dedicate years trying to find out the answers she’s looking for.
I remember when I started first grade, I asked her to accompany me doing my assignments. She told me “No, it is your homework so you have to do it yourself. But, if you have any questions that you can’t figure out, feel free to come ask me any time.” My father basically adopted the same attitude towards my schoolwork, but he had a tad more anxiety about my grades and he could get scary sometimes. But overall, I think I have always been curious about the subjects of my interests, and later on when I applied that persistence I picked up form them into my art pursuits, I usually found great joy exploring materials and techniques. Even the times that my “theory” failed I’d still feel content because I learned something from the failure.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
I would like to tell my younger self two things:
1) If you feel a calling, just do it. You’re still young, you have room to make mistakes. You will learn from it and it will be a precious experience. Don’t stay in a place that you feel stuck in. That stagnant feeling won’t go away until you do something to get out of that place.
2) Stay in touch with your surroundings. It is okay that you detach yourself a little bit from time to time to do your introvert recharging thing, but don’t stay in your “woman cave” for too long. Look around, open your ears. See the things that are happening at the moment and hear what people are saying. Think what you can do to help the situation.
What skills did you find to be the most helpful in your career?
Not sure if it’s counted as “skills”, but I think being flexible and open-minded is the most helpful. Due to the nature of this fast-phased, ever-evolving industry, we are always looking for new solutions for new problems that may not have existed before. Therefore, having a good foundation of everything and the flexible mindset to try new things and build on top of the previous experience is usually the way to solve a problem and improve the outcome.
If you work in more than one facet of the entertainment industry, tell us a little about what else you do!
I consider myself as a multi-disciplinary artist and I have very broad interests. I do special effects makeup and wigs, costumes, props, scenic art, photography and graphic design.
Where did you study at?
I studied at National Taiwan University Of Science & Technology for Commercial Design (BFA), Taipei National University of the Arts for Costume Design (MFA), Hofstra University (1 exchanged semester, MFA), and University of North Carolina School Of The Arts for Wig & Makeup Design (MFA)
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest accomplishment has yet to come. :)
What are some goals you hope to achieve?
Some of the dream goals on my list are:
1) Being part of the production team of the 2028 LA Summer Olympic opening ceremony. Anything related to my profession is great!
2) Work on a few stop motion animations.
3) Do character design for feature films.
4) Paint sets for big theater shows/tvs/films.
5) Do art direction for (fashion/fantasy) photoshoots.
If I can achieve any one of those goals in my lifetime, that would be awesome!
But the very basic and the most important goal for me is to find peace and fulfillment within myself. I think this will be an ongoing, lifelong practice.
What do you love most about what you do?
The wide variety of works. The stimulation that comes with each project. I love that I learned something new through almost every project that I’ve worked on, and there’s new things I can experiment on with each project.
What helped you most to rebound from what you considered your biggest failure or mistake in your career?
Start working on a personal project. Redirect my focus to something I love doing. Learn from the experience but let the energy flow. I was asked to design costumes for a dance show towards the end of the pre-production period a few years ago. Therefore, I had a lot to catch up with the team – and I was the youngest, the “newbie”. The other key members all knew each other very well, as they were friends and collaborators for decades. I soon realized I didn’t “speak their language” – and compared to them, I lacked experience. They told me to surprise them, or to challenge them even. But being the “newbie, the junior”, I was not standing on an equal scale with them. After many tries, it just didn’t work out. They eventually stopped the collaboration with me, and I had this mixed feelings of disappointment of myself and yet a slight relief. A week later I heard that they got a renowned dance costume designer who had collaborated with them many many times in the past to take over the project. The first thing she did was drop off a roll of stretchy fabric at the rehearsal studio and told the choreographer and dancers to play with it. Upon hearing this, I developed an admiration towards her. What a genius idea! But also, I felt a great relief. Think about it – even if I could come up with this idea, it wouldn’t have worked out since I didn’t have the same level of connection and trust built with the team. No one would take my idea seriously and thus this experiment wouldn’t have been executed thoroughly. They were all well seasoned artists, but they were not my “tribe”. This was not the project for me. I then moved onto my own things and very soon after, my director friend Yun Li asked me to be in his upcoming theatre production The Moment Of A Loser’s Rocking.I said yes right away. It felt so fitting, so right. We had great fun making that production together with other teammates, and this show has been holding a special place in my heart.
Do you have any self care practices you do to stay focused and sane? What was your self care routine before the pandemic and how has that (as well as your views of self care) changed throughout the pandemic?
Regular exercise. I was very lucky that the apartment complex I lived at in North Carolina had a small gym and I would go in as much as I could when no one else was around. I would take a hot shower afterwards and get back to what I was working on. Sadly the place I currently live in New York City doesn’t have that luxury, and I have been wanting to sign up for a local gym. I do feel that ever since I stopped exercising, I get overwhelmed more easily.
Who is your favorite designer, and what do you find interesting about their work?&Do you have a favorite makeup/costume design from a show/tv/film?
Filmwise, my all time favorite would be Bram Stoker’s Dracula designed by EikoIshioka. I remember watching a behind-the-scenes documentary of this movie and the director Francis Ford Coppola told her that he wanted the costumes to be the “sets”. Eiko san nailed it. Every element of her design was so thoughtful and every costume, hair, & makeup look told the story and state of that character. It was so rich. There’s no boundaries to Eiko san’s imagination. Later on, all her films with Tarsem Singh proved her pioneering visions time and time again. Together they were the power combo. I can never fully express how much I admire their works.
With TV shows, I think my enlightenment show was CSI Las Vegas for special effects and props. I watched it with my dad when I was about 10 years old. Definitely too young for it, but I love the detective process of the story and lab examination scenes. Later on, I realized it was the special effects and props that made the whole production so convincing and engaging. My more recent favorite TV show with great costume, makeup and prop design goes to the Game Of Thrones franchise (for obvious reasons). As a kid, I didn’t know that I could make a career out of these elements, but now I am in this industry. It all comes full circle. :)
When you are creating certain looks or styles for a project, what is your research and creation process for those?
To me, making emotional connections is the key of my creative process. If this is a scripted production, after digesting the script I would try to recall if I have any related experience or memories that I can draw inspiration from as the overarching theme, and then take a short break and come back to review it again as a “third person point of view” to see if this approach has been translated so that someone else can relate to this as well. Then once I have the cast list, I will try to make connections between the characters and the talent themselves to look for the right elements that I can incorporate into the design. It is very important for me to have individual consultation sessions with my talents to get to know them better. After all, as a wig & makeup designer or a costume designer, we are co-creating the characters with our talent. If this is a non-scripted project and I have the full freedom, I usually try to find a model first and my design will evolve around my model. Either way, I really see my talents as my muse.
When designing for a project, how much freedom do you allow yourself to take with your initial drafts? Do you try to stay fairly true to the inspirations you are provided with, or do you feel like you can take your creativity and push the limits?
Based off my experience so far, it heavily depends on how open-minded the directors are and how much trust, freedom and background information/materials they provide. A lot of the time I was very lucky to work with likeminded people who I could brainstorm with, and we would see where the “spirit” took us. In those cases, we were shooting for the moon and we usually landed on a star. Yet there were a few times when I just couldn’t get the directors/clients. It usually happen when they say they are open minded and flexible and they want you to surprise them but they don’t provide enough information/materials to begin with, or they actually had a vague idea of what they think it should look like and they don’t tell you, or they don’t know what they want and thus can not make up their mind. They would be asking their friends’ and family’s opinion and get confused, and start giving you conflicting feedback. Those are the worst because now you are shooting moving targets. It’s a matter of respect, trust, and reciprocation. Both ends need to be held accountable. If the collaboration dynamic is good, then 99.999% of the creation will be amazing. If the dynamic is bad, then even provided with the best resources it can still turn into a disaster.
How do you think your creative process has changed over time?
My process hasn’t changed much so far.
Since so many of us spent a lot of time isolated during the pandemic, how has that experience specifically changed your creative or preparation process or your outlook on life?
For me, my biggest anxiety is usually not being able to get the materials I need for my projects in time. Prosthetics are messy, so you would want to do them at a properly set up studio space. When the pandemic hit, I was still in school so luckily it was more forgiving. I tried to be more creative with the material choices. It kinda brought me back to how I did things in Taiwan: being crafty, looking for easier accessible alternatives, being experimental. But it’s still hard. That spring/summer, I ended up doing more renderings and wigs at home, things that I didn’t need a specialized studio for. And I substituted my urge of doing prosthetic work into baking and cooking – because surprisingly, they are pretty similar in terms of planning the process and multitasking, sometimes “sculpting” even! Hahahaha!
If you used to be in the arts and have gone into a new profession, what prompted the change, what skills that you already had led you to gravitate towards it, and what was your transition into your new profession like? What kind of challenges did you face, and what did you find you were very comfortable with? And what skills from your arts training did you find helped you in your new profession?
It’s a mixture of self-exploring and the feeling of stagnation in my previous jobs that prompted the change as previously mentioned. But my past experience as an editor and commercial designer, as well as the pattern making and sewing techniques I learned were immensely helpful for me to transfer into the theater design field. I had good drawing skills, I was very hands on and crafty, and the editor experience helped me analyze a given text and found my own perspective fairly quickly because being an editor was actually very similar to being a director. As far as challenges, I would say it’s the “scales”. My graphic design aesthetic is heavily influenced by my ex-bosses. We loved to play with the subtle differences in colors, textures, and sheens. Things like printing gloss black on matte black, doing translucent white on coated white papers to create depths. And we’re always looking at the tiniest details up close like holding a magnifying glass over our work because that’s how the work was being viewed – like a customer holding a book you designed up close. But theatre has a very different scale. The audience will be seeing our design from yards away, and the lighting changes everything. And then for film and tv, it’s whatever is picked up by the camera that matters. We have to adopt the camera as our “new eyes”.
What looks do you most enjoy creating?
I love creating fantasy looks, yet they have to be somewhat based on a certain level of realism. For me, it is that ambiguity, blurry gray area that makes things dreamy and poetic. We recognize the subjects in the artwork, yet the surreal take on provides us with a whole new perspective and transforms the ordinary into something spectacular, other worldly and mind blowing. I often think to myself “this is it!” Like little Aureliano Buendía first discovered ice with his father, I always thought this was the mystical boiling ice.
What inspires you?
Everything. If I am able to be present and just take in what I see, hear, and feel, usually inspiration strikes me at those moments in my ordinary day to day life.
If you could name one point in time when everything changed for you, what was it?
There are 2 moments that I remember clearly. The first one was applying for the TNUA costume design program. I remember I was hitting the deadline getting my freshly printed and assembled portfolio to the post office right before they closed. The post office was located by the river bank, and it was a sunny winter day. I watched the sun setting into the river. It was kinda dramatic and poetic. Fast forward a few years later when I was about to finish my MFA in costume design and was looking for overseas jobs or internships, but I didn’t have much luck. Grandpa Professor Donato wrote me a sticky note that read “UNCSA Winston-Salem, Wig & Makeup MFA” and told me to look it up. It seemed nice, but I thought he was mostly joking, so I put it on the back burner for a while. A few months passed and one evening when I was shopping for materials and clothes for the production The Moment Of A Loser’s Rocking, I got his email saying, “Syuan, if you still want to apply to UNCSA, now is the time!” I didn’t know why but at that moment, having several bags in my hands standing on the side of the road and reading his email, I suddenly felt the urge to apply.
To find out more on Syuan Zeng, please visit her at
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