By Brooklyn Brown
Mia Loia, a Western Carolina University graduate student in the Master of Fine Art program, just completed a mural on the side of Kountry Kupboard health food store in Sylva.
Loia is originally from Morristown, New Jersey, but worked as an art educator in Charleston, South Carolina before pursuing her master’s degree.
The bright and bold mural is a beautiful addition to the journey through Sylva to WCU. Loia had a vision for the artwork of a woman farming that would speak to Appalachian communities, and specifically Appalachian women.
“A lot of people have commented that they love that she has a ponytail and she is a woman. Everybody I worked with on this project was female identifying, so to me, that felt natural,” Loia said.
“I think working with a team of people who identify as women and being a woman gardener with aspirations of being a farmer, that is something that is very real to me, but we don't see represented. Our stereotypical idea of a farmer as an older man –that's a comforting image as well – but it's one that we've seen so much. I think that a big role in public art is to create new imagery and to create new symbolism so that people can begin to see themselves represented.”
Loia began working on the mural as part of a project for a nonprofit organization out of Waynesville. After seeking grant funding from WCU’s Graduate School to support the project, an unfortunate chain of events led to the dissolution of the organization and left Loia without a wall to paint. Loia began seeking a new mural space in the community.
“A lot of my work is about people and our relationships to the environment, which is why I love painting farmers and talking about food and farming in my work,” Loia said. “My interest really lies in people and our connection to nature and farming, so I approached a bunch of businesses in the area.”
Loia made a connection with Emily Southard, who graduated from WCU with a bachelor’s degree in studio art in 2021, Louise Beale and Jeannie Kelley at Kountry Kupboard.
“Emily and Louise were both wonderful to work with and very supportive. It was also awesome to work with Jeannie. She spent so much of her life here with her husband and that building is such a prominent piece of local history,” Loia said.
“To have her blessing and encouragement meant so much. She paid for the materials and the cost to pay my assistant that came in and helped me, which allowed me to really hone in on doing brick, which was not the original plan. She's such an upstanding community member and I feel really lucky to have been able to work with her and get her support.”
Through this mural, Loia feels connected to the community in a new way.
“I really am an outsider,” Loia said. “I'm a northerner. I’ve lived here only a year. This was the first thing that I have done here where I felt part of the community and felt like I was able to do something that was endorsed.
“I'm really glad that I chose the imagery that I did because I think a lot of people in this area can relate to, if not working with the earth, working with your hands and wearing a baseball cap and a pair of jeans and some boots and getting out there and getting dirty. I certainly can – even though I'm not from here – that's still something that I think most hard-working Americans can really empathize with.”