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Art as Inspiration: A Trip to the MIA

Karin Jacobson design process inspiration jewelry design opals sapphires

When I’m running low on inspiration, sometimes I’ll take a one-woman field trip to a local art museum to see if any of the masterpieces spark new design ideas. Last week I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. As I often do on these inspiration-seeking trips, I brought a sketchpad along and jotted down notes and ideas as I walked through.

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 1
 My favorite little sketchbook in hand, I headed into the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

The institute is massive and, at any given time, has numerous exhibitions running, including both centuries-old and modern art. I went on a Wednesday morning, right when they opened, so I had a lot of the museum to myself. There were a couple of groups – kids practicing their drawing skills and docents leading tours – but I found most of the galleries empty! Such a nice, quiet place to contemplate.

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 2
There were some aspiring young artists sketching at the entrance to the Asian Collections, but most of the galleries were empty that morning.

In my wandering, I came across some stunning Navajo turquoise jewelry from the 1930s and 1940s, which combined skillful design and execution with breathtaking natural stones. I  also spent a good long time admiring an amazing pair of Christian Louboutins that had been hand-beaded in the tiniest of beads by a contemporary Lakota artist from the Oglala Sioux tribe. The shoes were made to honor the artist’s grandmother whose name is transcribed into English as “Many Horses Woman.” I wish the photo captured the intricacy of the work, as the beads were absolutely miniscule.

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 3
 I love visiting the vintage Navajo turquoise, but these beaded Louboutins were new to me!

Then I headed off to the Asian collections. The MIA is well known for its extensive collections of Asian artworks, and I enjoy wandering through room after room, each showcasing pieces from a different region. There’s a huge variety of works from ancient to modern.

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 5
Clockwise from upper left: Here’s a detail of a Chinese ink painting from 1752; a Japanese woodblock print from 1930 by Kawase Hasui; a modern lacquer piece depicting a chestnut seed – part of exhibition Contemporary Lacquer; and a porcelain pot from a 20th century Japanese artist.

A favorite work that I always make a point of visiting is also one of the museum’s most famous pieces; the Jade Mountain Illustrating the Gathering of Scholars at the Lanting Pavilion (1784) is the largest jade carving outside of China and depicts a gathering of Chinese calligraphers that took place in 353. I see new details every time I look! Note the tiny teacups floating down the river.

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 4
 It's hard to capture the scale in a photo, but the Jade Mountain weighs 640 pounds!

I usually spend the first hour or so just wandering and drinking in the beauty, but when I’m ready to get down to work, I like to pick a piece or two that really captures my imagination and sparks some ideas. I’ll hang out with it for a while and sketch and take notes. (On a good day, there will be a bench in front of my artwork of choice – and on this recent visit, I was in luck!)

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Inspiration Trip to the MIA 6
 The minute I saw this piece, I knew I wanted to spend some time with it.  It wasn't long before I was sketching ideas for a new pair of earrings!

This two-panel folding screen called “Lying Dragon Plum Tree” is relatively contemporary – it was completed in 1983 by Funada Gyokuju. But to create the “richness and density of thousands of plum blossoms” the artist applied many layers of paint to the paper over the course of multiple years. I was struck by the colors and softness of the style that the artist used to capture the blossoms. My absolute favorite time of year is when the apple, cherry, and plum trees are blossoming. After a long winter in Minnesota, the greens are at their brightest and the fruit trees are full of color! This screen made me so happy, I had to hang out with it for quite a while.

I sat and sketched and it inspired these earrings!

Karin Jacobson Jewelry Design Plum Blossom Earrings with Opals and Sapphires
These earrings came out pretty much as I'd envisioned back in the museum - they feature Australian opal doublets set in 22k gold and a dozen little pink sapphires set in 18K gold, accented with oxidized sterling silver.  I'm loving the scale of them - definitely statement earrings!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m always careful about seeking inspiration from other jewelers; I never want to inadvertently riff of someone else’s idea as I create my own designs. But I feel comfortable and happy letting my imagination play over paintings, sculptures, and other works of visual art. Seeing the creativity and prowess of master artists nearly always inspires me to tease out a few new ideas!

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