Mia is the daughter of Lisa and Fernand Fonssagrives. She is also the step-daughter of Irving Penn. Her mother was the world’s first supermodel, her father was once the highest paid beauty photographer in New York, and her step-father it goes without saying was one of the most prolific photographers of the twentieth century. Mia had a successful career as a fashion designer in Paris in the 1960’s, where she had a boutique on Rue Bonaparte with Vicky Tiel. When the decade came to an end, Mia decided to return to the States to study woodworking in California. A year later she returned to her hometown of New York where soon after she met her husband Sheldon Solow. She is now a wife of forty-seven years, a mother and a grandmother.
East Hampton Studio
On the grounds of her studio are two of her sculptures: Egg Plomb in red enamel on fiber glass, and Fala in white. There are also massive remnants of the Berlin Wall just outside. Upon my arrival, I was warmly greeted by Mia, guided to a seating area a comfortable sofa, and offered a glass of champagne. The studio - a converted barn - projects a gallery-like setting with its white walls and floor. Mia’s studio was a buzz with activity, in preparation for an exhibition and reception with Findlay Galleries. Large electric fans were aptly placed to help ward off the blustery and steamy weather atypical for East Hampton. Gauzy curtains at the entry doors were tied back, caterers were dashing about getting ready to receive guests within an hour later.
While we chatted, she then led me around her stunning spacious studio. Mia has arranged most of her sculptures into groupings of the materials she has worked in - wood, metal, Lucite and fiber glass. Neatly and carefully displayed, white Penguins and Rabbits that Mia had created for Cartier’s Christmas and Easter windows pop against the sky blue and white bookshelf. On another bookshelf are multicolored maquettes - abstract small sculptures in wood, bronze, Lucite, some of Mia’s larger scale sculptures stand alone allowing the viewer to take them all in.
All my life I have looked through cameras.
(Mia Fonssagrives Solow)
Mia moved away from working in wood for the most part as she developed asthma. She then turned to working with Lucite, bronze and fiber glass. In the beginning, she started to create her sculptures within a frame, working with the negative space to engage with the positive. Later, she decided that she didn’t need to frame her sculptures, making them more substantive.
Still Mia has continued working with negative space, which is most visible in her large scale abstracts with openings. These openings act as a camera’s lens, framing a view to look at, and perhaps as a place where time is captured - like a photograph. The negative space also serves as a reminder to Mia of where she has been, and where she has moved onto, and to people who have left, yet who are always present.
She did everything. She taught me so much. You have to be ready for the revolution… She taught me how to clean, cook, sew, change tires, drive a jeep, drive a tractor, plant plants, take care of animals, everything. Everything.
(Mia Fonssagrives Solow)
Our conversation went beyond her art. I learned something about her childhood, and life at large - the big picture. Her mother instilled in her practical life skills in order to be prepared for a revolution. When I asked what would be useful skills for such today, Mia said, it’s not going to be all cerebral. “Do something with your hands.” She doesn’t depend on a GPS, but has a map in the car, and she can also guide herself by following the sun and the stars. Since she has a lot of grandchildren, Mia said it is important to her to be aware of what the future may hold. She read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which she found a satisfying read. The general idea of the book is that humans are needed to maintain the structures, cities and art we have created without us nature would move in and reclaim the land.
As a child Mia would come out to East Hampton before it became as populated as it is now, and to Napeague to camp out on the beach with her father, Fernand Fonssagrives. Her father Fernand taught her how to live off the fat of the land. How to make a fire in the rain and how to pick berries near the airport. She also remembered the artist and illustrator Jan Balet a friend of her father’s who lived nearby.
She shared beautiful imagery of a table her parents made out of boards that had washed up onto the beach covered with seashells. It is no longer as idyllic as it was during Mia’s childhood as a portion of Napeague permits SUVS to drive on the beach at a place referred to as “Truck Beach.”
Mia works with salvaged items that would normally be destined to the garbage or recycle bin. A laundry detergent bottle, an old football, and egg cartons are transformed into her robots. She then covers them with paper before they go to the foundry to be cast in bronze or aluminum. In the process the original form disappears. She has based some of her robots on her grandchildren, and each grandchild knows exactly which one they are. The sculptures have a look of the future past, as if she has created a timeline for robots and this was their past-selves that never were. Thus, they have a literary quality to them yet - not human like the ones she mentioned in the Ian Ewan’s Machines Like Me. Mia’s Robots were launched last year in Shanghai and sold-out. Her next exhibition is at the Findlay Galleries in New York with a by invitation only vernissage on the 12th of September.
Will we always have animals?
(Mia Fonssagrives Solow)
Not only did I learn something Mia and about her art, I learned something about life - the big picture Mia got me thinking about our past, and our future through her art and our conversation, highlighting the urgent need for us to take better care of our planet. I hope that we will be able to preserve the beauty of Hamptons for many generations to come.