A narrative sculpture depicting Santa Lucia (right) by Mia Lobel at SMAart Gallery & Studio at 3135 24th St. on Dec. 30, 2021. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

Mia Lobel was holding court over three of her newest clay pottery pieces at SMAart Gallery and Studio, at 3135 24th St., surrounded by hundreds of her other sculptures, which passersby admire daily through the enormous picture windows.

Already, on a recent Thursday afternoon, she had hand formed-the large and small bowl and tall, cubic vase, and was attempting to finish the pieces by drawing folkloric beings directly on the bowls. But she was not satisfied with the progress.

I’m really miserable at it,” said Lobel, referring to drawing. Not that anyone would notice. But she has a point any artist would sympathize with: “There’s a disconnect between what I want, and what comes out.”

Lobel ultimately prefers working with clay (“it is what it is,” she says) and hand-builds her pieces versus using a pottery wheel. She typically makes what she calls “narrative sculptures.”

She was sitting among several examples, including a series of Metepec-style Tree of Life sculptures and three-dimensional tarot cards inspired by the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington.

Tucked among the rest of her original and unexpected pottery is the bust of a woman with a crown of miniature cars. Lobel said it is “the goddess of parking” which her friend invented and named, with ample humor, “Asphalta.”

Next to Asphalta is Lobel’s interpretation of Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, a martyr venerated in Christian cultures in December. 

Lobel has embraced a definite theme in her work. “Specifically I like women’s stories,” she said. “I identify with, you know, all the women whose shoulders I stand on, and I feel connected to all women.”

She pointed to a statue of a tall, slender woman she glazed in pure white. The woman has feathers because she is a harpy, or bird woman, explained Lobel.

She recounted a version of the creation story as described by the Jewish Kabbalah mystical tradition. “The story goes that God created man and woman, Adam and Lilith, and created them equal,” said Lobel. “And Lilith was strong and smart and, you know, loud. She was too much woman, and Adam couldn’t handle her.”

Adam complained to God, she said, and God turned Lilith into a harpy whilst creating Eve to be more subservient. “And this is why there’s two kinds of women in the world. There are Eves and there are Liliths.”

The story appealed to Lobel’s heritage and experience, having grown up with “all the scary women stories,” such as Baba Yaga, a well-known female character in eastern European folklore. At this point she laughed and clarified: “they’re typically ‘scary’ because they’re strong, and they have knowledge.” 

Lobel is a retired psychologist and professor who learned about the power of story while growing up Hungarian in the historical region of Transylvania, in what is now Romania, and what was then a “punishing, dangerous world” in the aftermath of World War II’s mass murders and displacements.

“And I figured out very early … that I just needed to create my own story and … speak myself into being,” she added.

In therapy, she helped clients “reframe” old, harmful stories about themselves and “inhabit” new, constructive ones.

Now, at 74, that energy is funneled into creating.

Through her new work, Lobel has also found a deeper sense of self, she said. “I love the woman I am when I’m doing this.”

She’s also clear on what type of woman she is.

“I’m certainly no Eve,” she said with a smile. “I’m a Lilith … I think I scare the people I need to scare.”

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"Annie" is originally from Nebraska, where she found her calling to journalism as editor of her high school newsletter. Before returning to the field, she studied peace and political science in the Balkans, taught elementary and middle school, and worked as an epidemiologist during the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter @anlancheney.

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