Some 16 years ago, Erica Millner and Mai Orama Muniz started designing artistic jewelry on their native Puerto Rico using materials close to hand.
“We make very contemporary pieces. We use a lot of different materials — mostly wood and metal — and a lot of our pieces are more architectural, more sculptural, than something you might just wear to the grocery store,” Millner says.
“Well, you might wear them to the grocery store,” she adds with a chuckle. “But you also could wear them on a red carpet.”
This weekend, their work at Mio Studio will again be featured at the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show, which runs Thursday through Sunday at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
Millner recalls how their work began.
“We were working with materials found naturally on the island,” she says. “Seeds, coconuts, exotic wood — those gorgeous tropical woods. Actually, we started using wood for display purposes, then ended up incorporating into our art.”
The couple then started looking at ways to reuse materials that otherwise might end up in the trash heap — scrap metal, for instance, and wood that was on the discard pile at a local sawmill.
“During the process, there’s no sketching, there’s no planning ahead of time,” Millner says. “We just move from one piece to another and assemble it, and see what happens. We don’t have any preconceived notions.”
When they moved in 2003 to Lancaster, where they maintain a workshop on Columbia Avenue and a gallery on North Prince Street, they continued their habit of seeking out unusual raw materials for their work.
For instance, she says, David Garcia-Hommel from the former Carmen & David’s Creamery has given them pieces of leftover wood from his workshop.
Even the silver they use is refined, not mined, meaning it’s derived from older pieces.
In fact, their innovative reuse of materials earned them one of 21 nominations for the Honoring the Future Sustainability Award, which will be presented this week to an artist “whose work educates the public about climate change or inspires or models a sustainable response to climate change,” according to the organization’s website.
“That’s what they’re looking for — innovative work,” Millner says. “We’re fashion-forward ... but art can also make people think about sustainability.”
Millner and Muniz previously showed their work at the Smithsonian in 2011 and 2012.
This year, they’ll show some 300 pieces of jewelry.
Besides their more familiar work in stark colors — polished ebony and silver, for instance — the artists are now incorporating more color into their work, Millner says.
“We’re branching out, including colors like hot pink and aqua,” she says.
They’re also working on larger sculptures, Millner notes — but they left those pieces at home.
“The sculpture isn’t ready for the Smithsonian yet,” she says.