Alumni Spotlight: Madeline Ellis
For Louisiana native Madeline Subat Ellis (BLA 2006), jewelry designer and MIMOSA Handcrafted business owner, creating stunning pieces inspired by the Louisiana landscape has been a lifelong passion.
“The landscape and natural world are an endless source of inspiration and I’m constantly learning and falling in love with it more and more all the time.”
Her artistic interests started early. “I come from a very crafty family,” she said. “Making things was just something we did, all the time. My mom put me in sewing classes in elementary school and I was able to make and wear a dress to school, so I think after that I more fully appreciated the function and practical purposes of making things at an early age.”
When she was in fourth grade, her teachers got together and paid for her to take art classes and after that she “was hooked on the creative/artistic side of making things.” She spent the rest of her grade school years sewing, crafting, making lots of friendship bracelets and beaded jewelry. By the time she went to college Madeline was still carrying around a big tackle box of beads and making things for herself and friends. “Making jewelry was a very accessible and portable hobby. The barrier to entry is very low. I didn’t need electricity or expensive tools, with just some inexpensive beads and string I could make jewelry just about anywhere.”
Madeline grew up most of her life in Denham Springs, and she was actually all set to go to Southeastern before her stepmom encouraged her to try LSU. Madeline hadn’t even heard of landscape architecture before coming to the nationally ranked top program in the field, at LSU. “I had flip-flopped on my degree for a couple of years, from environmental engineering to general studies and somehow landed in the ‘How to Do LSU’ class, I think it was for 1 credit hour. They gave us a survey type test that tells you what program might best suit you, and landscape architecture was what came up for me. I hadn’t heard of it until then and figured I’d take the intro class to see what it was all about. Within the first few days of Max Conrad’s intro class I was all in – this was where I belonged. Art, nature, travel, it was all the things I loved in one place.”
“This was where I belonged. Art, nature, travel, it was all the things I loved in one place.”
“In landscape architecture they train you to notice things, to be fully aware of the environment around you, all of it, the landscape, the culture, the weather, socioeconomics, drainage, infrastructure, history etc. We learned about ‘designing with nature’ by Ian McHarg and how all these layers we observe compile to create the environment and experience of a place. We were taught to design for all of those systems, not just one piece.”
“I jokingly call the landscape architecture degree the ‘think outside of the box degree,’” she said. “It changed how I see the world and how I approach problems solving. The world around me was much more interconnected, and by paying attention you learn there are so many fascinating things going on around us that are interesting stories to tell. We learned about aspects of the Louisiana landscape in that [most people] don’t typically know. I love the moment someone finds out the backstory to something that was already meaningful to them, and I love re-introducing part of our culture and landscape in a new way that helps us appreciate it even deeper.”
After she graduated from LSU, she was able to save enough money to take some classes working with Precious Metal Clay. “That was my gateway into metal work. I was spending all of my extra time and money making jewelry and it was piling up. My husband, the much more entrepreneurial minded one, suggested I get an LLC and start selling it at the local arts market. We got the LLC and landed on the name MIMOSA because it was my favorite tree.”
When she first started selling her work, Etsy had just taken off and the downtown arts markets were the main way an artmaker could sell their work. Like the rest of the country, over the last 15 years Baton Rouge has experienced a renaissance in the maker/craft/art world, she said. The internet allowed peoples’ side hobbies and handmade things to be much more accessible to customers and people could more easily pursue creative work with wider exposure.
About four years ago Madeline, along with LSU alumni team Justin Lemoine (fellow landscape architect classmate, BLA 2006) and Paul Claxton (husband to another landscape architecture classmate, Margaret Wilkinson) created the Baton Rouge Midcity Makers Market. “Selling at the markets quickly became one of my favorite parts of this whole creative journey. I loved telling the story of why I made a piece and hearing why some pieces resonated with people etc. I loved the culture of the market and dove in deeper. I eventually quit my day job and Dawson joined me full time a few years later. Now we are over 10 people full time.”
MIMOSA Handcrafted is now an online enterprise that sells jewelry to customers across the country, but as a Louisiana-based company the team is working to give back to the local community.
In the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Ida across the state, MIMOSA launched a donation campaign to support hurricane relief efforts. They sold 2000 necklaces for $25 each and were able to raise $50,000 to donate to the Helio Foundation out of Houma, Louisiana. In September they hosted a donation drive at the Midcity Makers Market and drove it down to Point aux chene, to give to residents impacted by the storm. Currently 1% of all sales at mimosahandcrafted.com go to the Helio Foundation for Hurricane Ida relief efforts.
Being from Louisiana and an LSU alum has affected her outlook on life, as an artist, independent business owner, and community member. “In Louisiana we have our fair share of problems. We’re on the worst side of most statistics when it comes to health and education (things that matter A LOT and we need to work to make them better always); our lows are low, but our highs can be so high,” she said.
“I’ll start with the people and the sense of community – we go through these insane storms and for a brief time all of our otherness is stripped away, we forget each other’s politics and arguments about whatever the latest thing to argue about is, and we are simply humans, trying to survive. We reach out to help each other, we meet neighbors we’ve been meaning to meet, we meet strangers we never thought we would.
“We go through a collective kind of trauma that allows us to see each other as people who want the same things, to have our basic needs met, a roof over our heads, food to eat and our friends and family to be safe. That wears off but in a silver lining kind of way the storms we go through together give us an opportunity to SEE each other.
When we pass each other in the grocery store after a storm we talk, we ask total strangers how they are doing, ‘Do you have power? Are you ok? Are your loved ones ok?’ For a little while our differences melt away and we get back to seeing the humanity in everyone around us.
“The other part and maybe because of that, we lean into the things we love a little harder like food, music, and our beautiful landscape. It’s no question we live in a place rich with life in all kinds of ways. I remember thinking I’d graduate and leave and go live where the quality of life was ‘better’ but every time I’d travel or live anywhere else and start to describe home, I’d realize I wasn’t just enthusiastically painting a picture of the culture and landscape of this place, I was reaffirming the things I loved about it in my bones. After school we decided to stay and take on some of the challenges of living here, work hard to improve our corner of the world, and hopefully we’ll leave it even just a little better when we’re gone.”
And she has seen enough of the world to know this is where she wants to call home – the LSU Robert Reich School of Landscape Architecture curriculum is heavily focused on travel, which made for some of the most meaningful experiences of Madeline’s college career. “By the end of my time there I had literally traveled the world with my class (who I just so happen to have just met in Bay St Louis for a mini reunion.) I can’t say enough good things about how the studio and travel time in that program gave me the tightest group of best friends I could have asked for.”
To current and future students, Madeline advises to get out and have new experiences. “Don’t stay in one little circle of friends you already know. Meet people, get out and take advantage of all the opportunities the school offers. I’ve heard so many people graduate and say they didn’t know they could have done ‘x,y,z’ in college. Dig in and see what is offered. Take advantage of all the extra things that you can, join the clubs, do the extracurriculars, make friends, as many as you can. You’ll almost never be in such a diverse pool of people with the opportunity to get to know and learn from them.
“Oh, and your professors are people, too. Don’t be too hard on them. They are doing their best, and before you know it, you will have graduated and be working and they can still be your mentors and teach you for years after. Mine certainly do.”