Artisan Insights: Tia Salmela Keobounpheng

Artist and sculptor Tia Salmela Keobounpheng weaves a universal story with her one-of-a-kind works

Photos by David Ellis

Tia poses for a portrait in her studio.

“I’ve always been in the art realm,” says Tia Salmela Keobounpheng (who also goes by the moniker Tia Keo), even though she has long practiced design and architecture. A high school exchange program in Finland not only granted a connection to her ancestral place, she says, but also the opportunity to take every art class imaginable. In college, she took courses in weaving and art therapy but eventually transferred to and graduated from architecture school.

Along with her husband, she founded design studio Silvercocoon, which became an umbrella for every creative endeavor they undertook. After years of working mostly in acrylic, she started creating sculptures using wire and strips of fabric.

Today, her practice features a unique series of works, including “Bloodline,” in which she combines electrical conduit and wire with textiles to explore ancestral and inherited memory, and “Force Forced,” comprised of metal pieces produced by misusing her dapping tool. “It speaks to being forced into a mold not made for us in order to discover our true nature,” she says. 

Ever the polymath, Keobounpheng has a vibrant product line of fabric and wallpaper designs on Spoonflower. Plus, the Duluth Art Institute will also devote an entire gallery to her new works this June.

What’s your primary intention in creating your sculptures?

My goal is to make work that’s evocative and creates a visual connection, but also shares a story that opens another door to help people engage with the art. I believe the more personal my work is, the more universal it is. 

Explain how that manifests in your series “Bloodline.”

“Bloodline” is about connecting. The series started with me yearning to understand the feeling of disconnection I have with my grandmothers, who died around the time of my birth. I began with copper conduit, which represents a continuous bloodline, then added hand-coiled electrical wire that hangs from the conduit. The fiber elements—strips of sail cloth, knit pieces, thread—create their own channels and energy. The resulting work beckons people to look at their own history and understand who they are in the context of something bigger. We’re all yearning for authentic connection.

Describe working with these materials.

I’m using off-the-shelf products, but the concept elevates these basic materials. The expression and tone of each piece in the “Bloodline” series is set by the shape of the conduit (which is tricky to bend), but there’s a beautiful, organic quality to the resulting shapes. Sometimes the combinations are a practical decision when the wire is only available in certain colors. My response to what’s happening in the world comes out in both material and color. With “Force Forced,” I use metal sheets pressed into a form—not meant for that use—to create the folded forms that are quite visceral. Each one is different.

How do your sculptures bring you back into the realm of architecture and space?

When I’m installing a piece, it also needs to respond to the space in the home, gallery, or outdoor site. For me, design is more than simply making something that looks cool. Design is based on principles that provide the foundation for the emotional and conceptual work I’m doing. 

Where is your sculptural practice taking you next?

Private collectors buy the sculptures, or they’re sold through interior designers. I’m also open to commissions. Right now, the “Bloodline” and “Force Forced” sculptures are branching into three types of pieces: smaller wall installations people can have in their homes, large-scale installations in galleries, and outdoor installation pieces. Each time, the sculpture changes in material and expression. I’m always navigating between being an artist and a designer.

Keep up with Keobounpheng on Instagram at @tiakeo.art.

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