It isn’t just location that makes “Swamp Flower,” the steel sculpture recently installed at Penn and Poydras Streets, a piece of “New Orleans Art.” As its creator, Mia Kaplan, sees it, the work—like so much of her output—grows out of her deep-seated ties to the city itself. Kaplan grew up along Bayou Liberty in the outskirts of Slidell and, except for a stint at the Memphis School of Art, has remained in the area throughout her adult life. At one point, she planned to move to New York City; she had even gotten a New York phone number. But she ended up staying here. “New Orleans pulled me back,” she said.
“I want to make art about the place I know—the place I’m from,” said Kaplan. “This is the city surrounding the landscape where I grew up. I like the inclusion of the natural world into the city—in the parks and the native plants. This is the place I know most about. I just feel that I want to make work here.”
Most of Kaplan’s creations examine the sunlit beauty of the natural world around her, but, paradoxically, she works mostly at night. She is the mother of two young daughters, ages eight and one; her husband, travel photographer Cedric Angeles, is often out of town on assignment. The older girl attends a “virtual charter academy”—an arrangement, akin to home schooling, that demands parental supervision. Kaplan is only really able to work after the children have gone to bed, and often plows forward until 4 or 5 A.M. Luckily, she finds herself summoning the energy and the stamina to be a full-time mom while still maintaining a thriving career as an artist.
“Swamp Flower” is part of the Sculpture for New Orleans project, launched in 2008 as a way of helping the city, post-Katrina. “I just wanted to bring beauty to the city,” explained sculptor Michael Manjarris, the project’s founder. The sculpture is one of 25 planned for the Poydras Corridor, between the Superdome and the Convention Center, in an endeavor modeled after New York’s Sculpture on Park Avenue program. The Poydras Corridor program, co-curated by the Ogden Museum, has drawn heat from critics who worry about its cost to the city; in fact, it is entirely underwritten by a private funder, the Helis Foundation. The sculptures themselves are on loan from the artists, who are free to sell them to collectors.
Most of Kaplan’s three-dimensional work has been with paper, but “Swamp Flower” presented her with the challenge of a wildly dissimilar material: steel. “Steel has a very different language,” the artist noted. “It’s industrial, cold, hard. I had to think of how I identify with steel. A lot of what I do is very fragile. But some of the most fragile things are very tough. The composition of “Swamp Flower” doesn’t seem to be that strong—it’s a flower! But it’s made of that strong material.”
Kaplan created a series of maquettes--scale models—before embarking on “Swamp Flower.” Some of those models were painted, but when it came time to build the work itself, she and Manjarris decided instead to leave the steel in its natural state. “I wanted to leave it there and let it oxidize,” Kaplan said. “I want my pieces to be affected by nature. I want them to change. Even though ‘Swamp Flower’ is made out of steel, it’s vulnerable.”
Perhaps the element that binds “Swamp Flower” most to its environment, though, is its flower imagery—in large part, a response to post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. “Being around after Katrina made me pay more attention to life cycles,” Kaplan said. “The swamp flower is on the marsh in the spring, when everything’s covered with lily pads. Things die and other things live. After Katrina, everybody accepted the idea that “here we go again.” And flowers do that.
“I see myself as a flower,” said Kaplan. “I see the life cycles around me and identify with the plants. I don’t even know if I’ve bloomed yet!”
Photos of "Swamp Flower" and of Mia with her children are courtesy of Cedric Angeles.