The concept of jewelry as sculpture has existed in art jewelry for years, but Asagi Maeda’s work brings new meaning to the phrase. She is known for creating miniature, wearable sculptures of everyday scenes and stories, which even include tiny human figures called “ningen.” She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about how she transitioned from making sculpture to making jewelry, what she hopes viewers get out of her jewelry, and why she tries to capture snapshots of daily life in her work. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, my guest is art jewelry maker Asagi Maeda, who is talking with us from Tokyo. Her jewelry is recognized for featuring what are, in essence, miniature sculptures. Today, we’ll hear about the inspiration for her work and her own jewelry journey. Asagi, welcome to the program.
Asagi: Hello. Thank you for having me.
Sharon: So proud to have you. It’s a privilege. Your work is so beautiful.
Asagi: Thank you.
Sharon: Let me ask you a couple of questions. Can you tell us about your jewelry journey? When did you know you wanted to make jewelry?
Asagi: My grandfather on my mother’s side was cultivating pearls, and my mother made and sold pearl necklaces and raised me. I grew up watching her assembling the necklaces next to her. I loved daydreaming, making stars and drawing and handiwork. I grew up and chose to go a university. My major was sculpting, and I sculpted stones in granite and marble. I just loved stones and wanted to touch them every day.
When I was 20 years old, I was still in university. My mother asked me to learn rock carving and make pearl links for her clients. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t interested in jewelry at all at that time, but I took a rock cutting class on weekends for her. The class was boring. I was used to creating freely my own style of art, but I had to make boring jewelry designs the same as everyone else. I was bored and quit after three months, but there I met the world of contemporary art jewelry. I showed pictures of my sculptures to one of the teachers, and she showed me Metalsmith Magazine. She was subscribing at the time. She said, “You do not belong here. You may like the world of contemporary jewelry.” Jewelry in Metalsmith Magazine was very interesting, and I felt I might want to make jewelry like this. I started to be interested in jewelry for the first time in my life. I thought they were sculptures to exhibit on the body. I started to feel that I needed to go the United States to learn jewelry making.
Sharon: Did you study jewelry? Were you doing painting? What did you study? When you came to the U.S., what did you do here?
Asagi: I studied jewelry in the United States. In Tokyo at the art university, I studied sculpting.
Sharon: And then you came here.
Sharon: And then what?
Asagi: I moved to New York after my graduation. First, I went to the Gemology Institute of America to take graduate gemology. Then, I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology to learn jewelry making. I moved my credit from the art university in Japan. I took only practical skill classes and finished a two-year program in one year. It was quite fun.
Sharon: It sounds intense.
Asagi: Yes, it was very intense. I was at school from 8:00 a.m., sometimes, until 2:00 a.m. It was crazy, but I really liked it there. I learned a lot. I could learn many different skills from many directions. It was an excellent program. I could start working by myself right after graduation.
Sharon: Wow, I’m envious. It sounds like a fabulous journey. Are you a graduate gemologist?
Sharon: Oh you are, wow! I was also curious, because on Instagram your handle is @MorningYellow. Is that an exact translation, or does that have some meaning to you?
Asagi: It’s because of my first name in Chinese characters. “Asa” is morning and “gi” is yellow, so I put “Morning Yellow.” When I started it, I didn’t think it would become such a big thing. I just used my nickname.
Sharon: I know you’ve had several exhibits on the East Coast, at LOOT and Mobilia. Do you exhibit as Morning Yellow or Asagi Maeda? How do you exhibit?
Asagi: Of course I exhibit as Asagi Maeda, my real name, but people recognize me as Morning Yellow. Some people call me Morning Yellow.
Sharon: Looking at Instagram, your jewelry is so immediately recognizable; it’s so different. In a previous conversation, you were talking about a class on making clasps at FIT.
Sharon: Can you tell us about that? You’re known for putting little people in your jewelry. How did you start that?
Asagi: I started when I was a student, actually. There was a class on making clasps at FIT. In the class we made a bracelet, and as long as it consisted of seven parts, we could make anything we liked. I don’t remember why, but I made a bracelet about the routine life of an office worker.
Sharon: The routine life of an office worker? I just want to understand.
Asagi: Yes. In the bracelet, he wakes up, goes to work, comes back and sleeps. Every day is the same. The scenes of his routine life are inside of seven acrylic boxes, but the clasp is an exit. When you open the bracelet, he can come out of the routine life boxes. That’s what I made in class. The exit came from the movie “The Truman Show” with Jim Carey, and I stamped the story on the back side of the bracelet. In this work, the person was not like the ones I make these days. It was like match sticks, just a stick with round stones on the top. After FIT, the bracelet was sold immediately to Mobilia Gallery. When I was asked to make a similar bracelet for the gallery, I thought I would make something realistic and came up with a human figure I still make to this day.
Sharon: You have a name for the figures you have.
Asagi: Yes, I call them “ningen,” which means human being in Japanese.
Sharon: Human being?
Asagi: Yes. Ningen are perfect for me as my expression. I love making up stories with ningen. Ningen don’t have any facial expressions, no gender or age. The viewer gives it a face, gender and age by their imagination. People look at my work through their own filter of their experience and memories. If there are a hundred viewers, a hundred ways of looking at it exist. I like it.
Sharon: I can see why, yes. You have to study the work. Somebody like me can pick up a piece of your jewelry, and I have to study it to see what’s happening.
Asagi: Yes. I think it’s kind of fun.
Sharon: Definitely, it’s very different. You were attracted to doing the ningen.
Asagi: Yes, I feel empathy between me and the viewer when I use ningen. Someone tries to see his or her childhood memories in my work. Someone laughs and says there are people like these. My jewelry is jewelry, but it’s not only about what’s beautiful or cool or fashionable. I would like my jewelry to move people’s hearts. It may tickle something they’ve forgotten. It may let people feel like kids again. If the experience makes the person shine from the inside, it’s possible to make people beautiful from both the outside and the inside through my jewelry. I think ningen have potential. I’m still attracted to them.
Sharon: And you’ll keep making them.
Sharon: Do people come to you and say, “I want you to make a piece of jewelry with these memories,” and tell you the memories they want you to show in the jewelry?
Asagi: Yes, it started to happen this century. Two years ago, I was asked to make a sculpture by a lady who lost her parents and sister in one year. She wanted a sculpture for their memory. She told me about her family. From her stories I created scenes of their memories using the human figure, the ningen, in circular boxes, forming them into a hemisphere shape. She was very happy with it. Last year, a Japanese lady who lives in the United States asked me to make a pendant of herself folding tons of laundry. I know it sounds strange, but she is super busy with her job raising kids abroad by herself. She was exhausted every day, but she knew the crazy days wouldn’t last long. It’s about how kids grow up and become independent. She wanted to crystallize these hard days into jewelry, so I made her the laundry pendant. She really liked it, and she would like me to make more pendants in her different life stages from now on. She would like to link all the pendants together at the end to make a necklace to leave her children to show her life. It thought it was a great idea. That’s what I would like to do in my life with jewelry. I would like to listen to people life’s stories, their feelings, and crystallize the stories into jewelry. This year I got orders from the former chairman of the board of the Museum of Arts and Design to make different, personal jewelry for three couples. I made each piece of jewelry based on the questionnaire interviews and people’s talks. It was a wonderful experience. I really enjoyed it. I think this is the kind of work only I can do. It’s special.
Sharon: Wow, that’s quite an honor to be asked to do something like that!
Sharon: Do you hear stories, maybe on television or from friends, and say, “I’m going to make a piece of jewelry with those figures”?
Asagi: I would like to listen to their life story personally so I can make more personal stuff.
Sharon: So it’s not that you create something from TV, because that’s not personal. The connection isn’t personal enough for you?
Asagi: Yes. It’s a personal order for making custom-made jewelry, with ningen and with the real-life story and something special for that person. You know what I mean?
Sharon: Yes. Are the people who ask you to make jewelry all over the world? Are they mostly in Japan? Where are they?
Asagi: Yeah, in Japan and in the United States mostly.
Sharon: I have a beautiful piece of yours that doesn’t have ningen. You were telling me you also like to do enamel, yes?
Asagi: Yes, I used to. I like to use many different materials. I really like to experiment with different materials, and at that time, I was very into enameling. I still do enameling, but at that time, I liked enameling the most.
Sharon: I feel even more honored to have a piece that you might not be making so much anymore. You’ve changed to make a different kind of piece, which is just beautiful.
Asagi: Thank you. I like the work very much. Enjoy the one you have.
Sharon: It was right after the birth of your daughter, right?
Sharon: Oh, sorry. I misunderstood.
Asagi: Not that one, but at that time I made ice and water necklaces. That one is glass, maybe. The water can be like water, ice and gas. Is that right?
Asagi: Yes, it’s clouds.
Sharon: Yes, it’s clouds and birds. That’s what it is. It’s just gorgeous. It sounds like you have quite a clientele that recognize your jewelry. It’s totally different, and I love when you post things on Instagram.
Asagi: Thank you very much. Maybe it’s because I studied sculpting first and I think jewelry is sculpture exhibited on the body. I like making stories and I do what I like. It’s more like a girl playing with it.
Sharon: A lot of jewelers talk about jewelry as sculpture, but you literally make little sculptures in your jewelry, and that’s what makes it so unusual. You’re having an exhibit at Mobilia soon, right? Oh, no, I’m sorry. I’m confusing that, but you were at LOOT a year or two ago, right?
Asagi: I’m not going to LOOT. I think Mobilia is exhibiting my jewelry now.
Sharon: Yes, I’m sorry. I first saw it at Mobilia. For those who don’t know, Mobilia is in Cambridge, Massachusetts and has a fabulous selection of art jewelry and art. If you get over that way, near Harvard, it’s definitely worth a stop. Asagi, thank you so much for being with us today.
Asagi: Thank you very much. It was fun.
Sharon: Thank you very much. That’s all for today’s Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget we will have images posted on the website. You can find us wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Please join us next time, when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience and expertise. Thank you so much for listening.