- Ella Wu
An #importedAsians POV: Mia Kaplan
The Universal Asian got to know Mia Kaplan, a multi-talented artist with a focus in metalsmithing and jewelry. Visit her store here!
Give us a brief background on you.
I’m 24 years old. I was adopted from China when I was six months old. I’ve lived in North Carolina for most of my life. I grew up in central North Carolina in Durham, and got to go to an arts high school, which was really great. I went to undergrad in the Midwest, in Indiana, and that was at a school called Earlham College—a Quaker liberal arts school. I graduated, and now I’m in this program at the Penland School of Craft. It’s a two-year fellowship that has now turned into a three-year fellowship because of the pandemic. I had a full year where everything was normal and it was really great—I’ve gotten to learn all these other mediums, but have mostly stayed working with metals, and got to meet a bunch of different instructors—then this year  happened, and all the programming was canceled. So I’ve just been hanging out in Penland, North Carolina, which is where I currently live.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I mentioned that I went to an arts high school, and that was probably one of the catalysts for wanting to become an artist. I got to learn 3D art, ceramics, and woodworking, and that was a lot of concentrated time for me to just really dive into that stuff. Even before that, I was always a creative kid. I went to a lot of art camps and really enjoyed making or playing pretend or just building stuff. I’ve just always been really excited about working with my hands. But really, that high school experience paved the way for all the work I’ve been doing now. It was such a good foundation for a lot of skills, and learning about other art schools.
How did you get into metalsmithing?
Well, I went to college thinking I was going to do ceramics, and that totally got blown out of the water when I saw the metals studio there. It was just so cool, and I didn’t understand any of the equipment, but I wanted to know. I took a class there and had a really amazing teacher, and just fell in love with the intricacy of the material and the processes.
What are the challenges and rewards of working with metal?
It’s pretty hard on my body. This year especially, I’ve had a lot of wrist problems. The repetitive motions can be kind of strenuous when it comes to grabbing small things and holding onto them for filing or sanding. It’s also a pretty expensive medium to work in. That’s something I always have to consider, especially since I work with a lot of silver. The cost of that just adds up. But I really like how physical it is, making the material move, figuring out how it can transform, and learning the processes to make it do what you want. Some other processes like soldering—using a torch to heat up a piece and melt silver solder into seams to attach pieces together—can be really fast and exciting, and you get to play with fire. You learn to move quickly and be coordinated, and it’s been really fun to learn to hone my skill in something that’s really complicated. Metalsmithing as a craft is also so connected to all of these different techniques and tools, and I’m such a nerd about all of the equipment.
What is the process of creating a work, from start to finish?
I usually start in [sic] sketches. Then I make a lot of models, sometimes out of paper or cardboard. It’s really helpful in figuring out how a piece is going to come together if you can figure out some of the nitty gritty in the beginning. It saves you a lot of time later on. I usually make a lot of my work in sheet metal, so the next thing to do is transfer the design onto the metal and then saw it out, which can be pretty fun. Then, working through the mechanics of putting something together, a lot of times things can change from the original sketch because something on paper can’t ever capture the complexity of how an object is going to come together. So, whenever I’m making a piece, there’s all of these adjustments and mistakes, because it’s pretty easy to melt something or mess up a solder seam. Sometimes, I’ll mess something up or not think it all the way through, and I’ll have to go back a few steps. A lot of it is problem solving, even just trying to figure out [how] to make something attach to something else. I do enjoy it, and it definitely gets frustrating sometimes—especially if you’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve been learning to be a lot kinder to myself with the process, and [to] really allow myself that time from start to finish.
What inspires your work?
Geometrical forms, architecture, and nature. I find that I’m often replicating or reimagining architectural elements, like brick patterns or doorways. I like translating that into smaller components that get put into a larger piece. I draw a lot of inspiration from icons or symbols, and making them illustrative but also 3D. Like, I made this brooch that looked like an orange slice, and that was pretty fun. For a while, I was making work that was based off of cloud imagery. Other times, it’s more gestural, like I’m inspired by natural forms branching off or geometrical patterns that are tessellating out or building off of themselves. It’s hard for me to hone in on one particular style, since I’m in this space where I’m freshly out of school and still playing with all these different interests. All these different things inspire me, and I just follow what I want to do in the moment.
What is your favorite medium to work with?
I really like working with copper, brass, and silver. And I really like using metal as the base material for color. You can patinate, which is how you color metal, but you can’t really get that much color out of it. I like using the tones of the pinkish copper, the yellow-gold brass, and the silver of the silver, and using that palette to construct imagery, because even though it does provide some color, it’s still super clear what the material is. I think the metal itself is really beautiful.
Whose work has most influenced yours?
I’m a big fan of Ai Weiwei and his modular sculptures, as well as all his humanitarian and activist work. There’s also Maya Lin, who made the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They both make a lot of huge installations that use little pieces to form vast landscapes—accumulated objects to form a larger whole–but each object itself is a piece of art. Ai Weiwei’s "Sunflower Seeds" piece is all these tiny, hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds laid out in this giant field in a museum. Metalsmiths that I’m inspired by include Gary Schott, Lola Brooks, and Shingo Furukawa. I’ve been really interested in kinetic artists lately, because I want to start including movement in my work.
How does the business side of art influence the way you create, if at all?
That’s something I’m thinking about a lot. I’m trying to figure out exactly how to make my art practice sustainable for the rest of my life, and it’s a really hard thing because there’s all these different paths you could take, like grad school or becoming a studio artist. I could put out a production line, and try to sell that to support myself. A lot of times, what people will do is a sort of parallel approach. They’ll sell their production work to give them the money and time to set aside for the work they actually want to do, or [make] larger, more complicated work to use to apply for grants. I’ve been working on a production line and [have been] struggling, honestly. I’m trying to figure out if it’s the right thing for me. I don’t quite enjoy production or the repetitiveness of it, or how hard you need to work to compete with manufacturing and be the sole owner of a business. So yeah, it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot, and it’s something I’m going to need to figure out if I want to keep doing this, which I do.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists today?
I would say: “Just be kind to yourself.” I’ve been trying to do that in my life recently. I was going through a lot of self-doubt this year, and I didn’t have a lot of people around me for encouragement or motivation. In a normal year, you would have people working around you, but there are no students now and no instruction, so I’ve just kind of been let loose. At the same time, this has been nice because I do get a lot of uninterrupted work time. However, the self-doubt is definitely real as an artist, so the number one thing is to just be kind to yourself and see all your time as productive. Don’t put yourself down for mistakes you’ve made. It’s just a process, and you’re always learning.
Cover photo credit: James Henkel