In artist Maria Maea’s hands, the palm becomes a medium

A female artist in profile poses with a palm over her face.

During the pandemic, artist Maria Maea began pondering the idea of ​​“resource” and developed a relationship with the ubiquitous palm tree, using the process of weaving fronds into sculptures as a meditation to unlock ancestral memories.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

It’s a sunny afternoon, just before the golden hour, and multidisciplinary artist Maria Maea is surrounded by palm fronds growing in the corner of a nondescript parking lot in Echo Park. She grabs her curved knife and cuts off a few leaves before moving on to another location. This has been a ritual of hers for almost two years, using the ubiquitous palm tree as material for mixed media sculptures made from wire, dried plants and often casts of the faces of her family and friends.

Pointing to the small palm tree, she notes that the palm tree is the same one she has in her garden – although “it grew so differently.”

It all started with that palm tree in her backyard. Stepping into Maea’s backyard is like stepping into her creative mind: chard, squash, and mint growing in concrete cracks, fruit from a citrus tree falling next to a spiral staircase that leads to nowhere, and a table adorned with dried seashells Flowers, photos and a mirror create a kind of altar, a collection of items when inspiration is needed.

A woman looks at a palm up close.

Maria Maea’s process has included walking around her neighborhood, sourcing palm fronds from nondescript parking lots, sidewalk ripping, and even Echo Park.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

She points to a dried, towering sunflower that has grown out of the concrete. Maea, in awe, explains that she accidentally dropped a seed in a crack, not expecting to be greeted with a giant flower. For her first solo show at Murmurs Gallery, which opened October 28 and runs through December 17, the dried plant will be used as a fishing rod held by a sculpture of her brother, a nod to her Samoan family member’s connection to the Fishing and canning work on arrival in the US

It’s clear Maea’s greatest inspiration is nature itself. She has the ability to see the potential of plant matter to create new worlds. “Plants have a body, we mimic it, it mimics us,” explains Maea. “I’m going to use corn as the backbone and people recognize it because we’re mirrors of nature.”

During the pandemic, Maea took up gardening and used the soil and land available to her to grow food. Through this process she began to think about resources and abundance.

One afternoon as she sat looking at the palm tree in her yard, which was then just a baby tree, something clicked. “I wanted to see the environment as plentiful rather than scarce,” she says. “Palm trees are ubiquitous but invisible. They’re decorative, but we don’t really see them as plants.”

A woman stands in front of a palm tree.

“I see a palm tree growing in desolate areas and I feel like I automatically relate to a space differently than I did before [working with palms],” she says. “I’m going to say, ‘How long have you been there? What’s your story?'”

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

A controversial symbol of LA, the palm tree is a ubiquitous, non-native invasive species brought to the city decades ago to cement Los Angeles’ myth as a “semitropical” paradise. For Maea, the palm tree’s complex identity felt like a mirror of her own identity growing up in Long Beach as a Samoan and Mexican in punk and DIY scenes. The palm tree inspired her to take this abundant, resilient but often discarded element and recontextualize it.

“I’ll see a palm tree growing in desolate areas, and I feel like I automatically relate to a space differently than I did before [working with palms],” she says. “I’m going to say, ‘How long have you been there? What’s your story?'”

For the past two years, Maria has criss-crossed the city collecting palm trees at Echo Park, the LA River and her hometown of Long Beach. “The palm tree feels like a mapping tool, some of them are planted on purpose and some are breaking through the concrete of a parking lot. I can remember when I cut it. How I cut it,” she explains.

A woman walks with a palm.

Maria Maea collects palm trees for her sculptures in Echo Park during the golden hour.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

Maea taught herself to weave the palm fronds using a Samoan technique. The repetitive action became a meditation. “What is this unlock?” she wondered. “I know my dad is from Jalisco and my mom is from Samoa, but our real story was kind of melted and formed when we got here. These practices are a way for the body to remember things that the mind cannot understand.”

Finally, as she prepared for her solo show, Maea brought her family to help with the weaving and made the effort collaborative. As patterns and sculptures emerged from the woven objects, they became like quilts of the city and her own family’s history.

On a hot September day in Long Beach, Maea’s mother, her little sister, two brothers and their aunt sat holding palm trees in the front yard of her mother’s house. Some cut thorns from stalks, others weaved. Her aunt, Sanita Tuufuli, took a palm tree and began weaving it, explaining how the braided palm tree has a variety of uses in Samoa: a fork, a spoon, a plate, a window to keep the rain out. While weaving, the family joked, laughed and told stories.

They did this together for three weeks, Wednesday through Friday, in preparation for the solo show. “I feel like my whole family is putting on an art show,” says Maea, describing opening week.

Several people are sitting on the grass, cutting and weaving palm trees.

For three weeks, Maria Maea met up with her family in Long Beach. Together they cut and weaved palm trees in preparation for their first solo show at Murmurs Gallery. “I feel like my whole family is putting on an art show,” says Maea.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

In many ways, for Maea, the process is more important than the outcome. By gathering their family and creating art together, they infused memories and emotions into the objects themselves, they connected in new ways and they had the opportunity to show their creativity.

“I can remember the parts of the sculpture where I was mad at my boyfriend or talking to my mother,” she explains. “We collect memories along the way, they all live in these weaves and these moments that are in a larger piece.”

The result is an allegory, a myth of her own creation: a whirlpool of palm trees from which emerges a figure of Maea’s mother, her brother’s sculpture standing nearby, separated from the whirlpool with the sunflower fishing rod that has its characteristic Long Beach Cap puts on Converse Chuck Taylors. Beside him is a cast of his son’s face, encased in a jasmine bush that grew in Maea’s garden. To bring this sculpture to the gallery, the jasmine bush was supplanted, resulting in root shock, a metaphor for migration and diaspora.

“When I make these humanoid sculptures, I see them as storytellers,” she explains. “I keep using my mother’s face because it tells this story about who we are.”

Maea’s sculptures have a broken element, much like the broken nature of memories.

Ultimately, this work, this process, asks us to think about how memory, whether ancestral, familial or cultural, works. How does it bend, break, evolve over time to serve our needs? How does it finally become a myth?

Maria Maea's mother, Susan Tuilaepa, helped weave many of the sculptures in the exhibition.

Maria Maea’s mother, Susan Tuilaepa, helped weave many of the sculptures in the exhibition, including the centerpiece: a whirlpool of palm fronds from which a sculpture of Tuilaepa emerges. She also created a body of braided palms wearing a traditional Samoan headdress, which is on display in a dedicated room within the gallery.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

Maria Maea's brother, Martin Tuilaepa, collaborated with his sister and mother to create the sculptures.

For almost a month, Maria Maea’s brother, Martin Tuilaepa, worked with his sister and mother to create the sculptures featured in All In Time, Maea’s first solo show at Murmurs Gallery.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

Martin Tuilaepa worked with his sister and mother to create the sculptures shown.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

A sculpture of Maria Maea's nephew.

A sculpture of Maria Maea’s nephew, covered in jasmine and spurge, stood in Maea’s backyard until she moved it to the gallery.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

The complex identity of the palm tree in Los Angeles is both inspiration and mirror for Maria Maea.

The complex identity of the palm tree in Los Angeles is both inspiration and mirror for Maria Maea.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

The complex identity of the palm tree in Los Angeles is both inspiration and mirror for Maria Maea.

The complex identity of the palm tree in Los Angeles is both inspiration and mirror for Maria Maea.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

A woman holds a palm tree.

Maria Maea holds a palm tree, a medium she often uses in her work.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

A woven hot tub in the front yard of Maria Maea's family home in Long Beach.

What would eventually become a woven whirlpool at the center of the gallery sits in the front yard of Maria Maea’s family home in Long Beach.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

Maea's own garden is a reflection of her own creative spirit, plant material abounds, grows wild and creates dreamscapes.

Maea’s own garden, pictured above, is a reflection of her own creative spirit, plant material abounds, grows wild and creates dreamscapes.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

The sculpture of Maria Maea's nephew in a new home.

Over several weeks, the sculpture of Maria Maea’s nephew, now in a new home, shed threads and seeds, milkweed beetles wandered through the vines and parts of the plant slowly died while others grew.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez / For the Times)

A whirlpool of palm fronds takes center stage in Murmur's gallery as a sculpture of Maria Maea's mother emerges.

A whirlpool of palm fronds takes center stage in Murmur’s gallery as a sculpture of Maria Maea’s mother emerges.

(Samanta Helou Hernandez/For the Times)

“All in Time”

Where: Murmur’s Gallery, 1411 Newton Street, Los Angeles
When: Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.
The information:

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-12-09/maria-maea-artist-palms-los-angeles In artist Maria Maea’s hands, the palm becomes a medium

Sarah Ridley

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