Young Alumna of the Month: Mia Cinelli, MFA’14

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Look at the world. Touch it. Take it apart. A graduate of the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design, Mia Cinelli, MFA’14, says “tactility” is a big part of her creative process. She demonstrates that best with “The Weight,” a heavy shawl she created with hands one can hold to help ease grief. An assistant professor of art and design at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio, Mia’s journey has taken her from a Michigan ghost town to Northern Europe to the TEDxUofM stage.

Michigan Alumnus spoke with Mia to glean insight into her artistic vision.

Let’s start with your time at Penny Stamps. How did your studies inspire the work you do now as an artist and associate professor?

I had an interdisciplinary MFA in art and design at Stamps. I studied with the most glorious people I have ever met: performance artists, sculptors, cinematographers, sound artists. Being a designer with all these people really expanded the way I was thinking about the work I was making. We had such a range of wonderful faculty who acknowledged these differences, similarities, and methodologies, and really pushed us.

Part of Stamps was the international travel requirement. I spent roughly a month traveling in Northern Europe from the Netherlands to Sweden, Finland, and then back through Iceland. My biggest takeaway was that aesthetics are always a product of where they’re coming from, the values of the designer, and that particular culture. No design happens in a vacuum.

You were hired as an assistant professor at Defiance in the fall of 2013 while you were still a graduate student at U-M, and began working there in the fall of 2014. What was that like?

As a graduate student, you look at your experience and say, “What worked? What didn’t work? What do I do now as an educator?” There were a lot of really wonderful instructors who modeled what it was like to be a good teacher.

Defiance had a fine art program and a separate graphic design program but the two didn’t mingle at all. Coming from Stamps I said, “Let’s make a program that is a B.A. in design, but also incorporates the structure and the theory of maintaining an artistic practice.” I designed a curriculum that focuses on both. It has been a massive undertaking, but a really wonderful experience.

I am also director of the Women’s Commission Gallery. I reach out to all sorts of artists, set up and market shows, and arrange artist talks and workshops to provide a rich educational experience for our students.

You gave a very popular TEDxUofM talk in April 2016 about a new font you designed that was inspired by a visit to a ghost town in the Upper Peninsula (see video below). How did you find the Ted talk process?

The whole TEDxUofM team was incredible to work with. My speaker coaches were undergraduates. For me, it was really about how to tell an amazing story about how something came to be and then also talk about its relevance? Why does it matter?

Mia gave her TEDxUofM presentation, “A New Kind of SuperPower,” on April 1, 2016 at the Power Center.

Tell us about “The Weight.” It picked up a lot of attention for its goal of easing grief and anxiety by simulating another person being with you. I know you created it after your fiancé’s father passed away in 2014, when you were grieving. Is it your goal to have an impactful, gut reaction like this come through in all your work?

It depends. For “The Weight,” yes, absolutely. I think the reason it resonated with so many people was that grief is the universal experience. The work was not made for anybody other than me. I put it online as kind of a whim and everybody said, “I’ve been there. I get that.”

Only two exist in the world. I own one and I made one for a young woman who wrote to me and had just experienced a tremendous loss. Sometimes my work is a personal exploration. Sometimes I’m responding to something that happened to me or that’s happening in the world. I’m a visual tactile person. I understand the world by touching it and looking at it and taking it apart.

What artists do you follow or look to for inspiration?

One of my favorite artists right now is Keetra Dean Dixon, who is a kind of multidisciplinary artist, designer, sculptor, graphic artist who makes progressive, just beautiful, work. Steven Fryckholm, who was an in-house graphic designer for Herman Miller for years. In terms of industrial design, I’ve always loved the work of Philippe Starck because it’s playful and unexpected.

Any reflections to share with our readers?

For undergraduates: meet your professors, go to their office hours. I promise they want to talk to you. For graduate students: There is an end to graduate school, there’s another side and you’re going to make it.

I’m sure they’ll be happy to hear that!


Gregory Lucas-Myers is assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus magazine.

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