Korean dancer’s houseplant passion sparks ceramics career

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This is the latest in a series we call Plant PPL, where we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have any suggestions for PPL to include in our series, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.

Artist Mipa Shin sits on a low metal stool next to her pottery wheel and prepares to talk houseplants. Smiling, pointing to the planters that line the shelves of her single-car-garage-turned-ceramics-studio, her excitement grows, just like her favorite plant: the tall, sculptural Adenia venenata.

She loves caudiciform succulents — plants that have an above-soil round caudex — and designs squat planters that highlight the plant’s swollen stem. She’s a huge fan of fern leaf cactus, which she likes to grow out of the bottom of her UFO-shaped hanging planters and has been known to drape delicate heart-shaped Dischidia ruscifolia variegata from the mouth of her macaroni-shaped vessels.

Left, a person holds up a macaroni-shaped planter. Right, another photo of a planter with a plant

Delicate heart-shaped Dischidia ruscifolia variegata, left, spill from Shin’s macaroni hanging planter. Mipa Shin’s pagoda planter with an Adenia glauca, right.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Shin’s planters are difficult to label because she designs each one to complement the rare plants that capture her interest. That’s what makes them so special: Each vessel is inspired by her love of plants. There are chocolate brown and speckled buff vessels for caudex, pagoda planters for Adenia glauca, checkerboard glazed pots for pussywillows, striped planters for Pilea peperomioides and philodendrons and donut-shaped vessels for hoyas and airplants.

Shin says it is undeniable, although unintended, that her background influences her work. “There is a Korean term ‘yeo-baek’ that is meant to convey an aesthetic ideal of empty space and simplicity,” she says. “I don’t intentionally try to design my pots in this style, but I think to some degree it’s the style that naturally comes out of me as a Korean.”

Three years ago, Shin was living with more than 50 houseplants in the bedroom of her Koreatown apartment. She became so obsessed with plants, the Korean dancer and choreographer set a goal for herself: “I want to make something to dress up every plant.” She is now creating custom ceramic planters full time in the garage behind her Cypress Park home.

Mipa Shin is seen through a window with her planters in the foreground.

Mipa Shin’s vessels are inspired by her love of plants.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Shin, 35, was born in South Korea and moved to New York, where she received a master’s degree in dance from New York University.

She concentrated on choreography and when she moved to Los Angeles in 2017, she taught pilates not far from the tiny one-bedroom apartment she shared with her husband, Isaiah Yoo.

“In New York, I always lived in tiny places,” she says. “So my apartment in Koreatown was no different.”

What was different was her obsession with plants, which struck her during a period where she was missing the Korean landscape.

“Growing up in Korea, my family was surrounded by lush green mountains, and my mother always maintained her own collection of houseplants,” she confides. “So I was used to always being around nature and plants. When I moved to New York City and later Los Angeles, I realized how much I missed being close to nature, and I think this is a big reason why I came to fall in love with plants. They allow me to always be close to nature.”

She vividly remembers the first plant she ever purchased, a small cactus from Ikea. “I still have it,” she says. “After that, I started buying plants and couldn’t stop.” When a friend recommended Mickey Hargitay Plants in West Hollywood, she was captivated by the rare and exotic varieties she discovered there. It wasn’t long before she had more than 100 plants in her apartment.

“My husband thought I was crazy,” she says with a grin.

When a co-worker invited her to attend a class at the ceramics studio across the street from the pilates studio where they worked, Shin viewed it as a way to break up her teaching schedule.

But soon she was skipping lunch just so that she could throw pots every day.

A hand shapes clay on a ceramics wheel

Mipa Shin creates custom ceramic planters full-time in the garage behind her Cypress Park home.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

She was also overwhelmed by the plants that were overtaking her tiny apartment, so she started to sell them, including the cuttings she propagated, on Facebook Marketplace and Instagram.

“I was selling plants for fun, but I quickly learned that people were really serious about plants,” she says.

In a similar fashion, her followers were equally serious about the pots that were featured on her posts. She was selling plants, but people want to know if she sold her pots.

A planter with vertical stripes and a tall skinny plant, left, and a UFO-shaped planter with a plant coming out the bottom

Mipa Shin’s striped planter, left, is paired with her favorite plant, an Adenia venenata. Mipa Shin’s UFO planter with a fern leaf cactus, right.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Following the enthusiastic response to her ceramics, Shin transitioned to selling planters on Instagram and Etsy, where her handmade vessels sold out as quickly as she could post them on her website.

It was a transition that she still tries to accommodate in her daily life. While she one day would like to install a greenhouse and propagate more plants, Shin says that for now, she is trying to manage what she can as a one-woman small business with a 10-month-old at home. Sometimes the logistics are demanding. Shin says that she was throwing pots two weeks before she went into labor and now trims her pots when Holly is sleeping. Packing and shipping fragile ceramics can also be exhausting. “One time it took me four days to pack 100 pots and bring them all to the post office and UPS,” she says. “I got sick for three days.”

But she’s not complaining.

Shin loves what she is doing — she even chose her home due to its close proximity to the Pottery Studio in Cypress Park — and although she has had to curtail her houseplant obsession following the birth of Holly — “my baby is grabbing everything right now” — she feels like her new career has connected her to her Southern California clients, half of whom live in Los Angeles.

Seen from above, three planters with young plants

Mipa Shin’s caudex planters with, from left, Stephania nova, Stephania erecta and Stephania cepharantha growing out of them.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

With the recent rise of hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Shin says she has been lucky. “I was home a lot during COVID so I didn’t experience racism. But I do worry about my parents. My mom was planning to come to visit, but I was glad she didn’t because I didn’t feel comfortable with her visiting right now.”

Looking ahead to the holidays, Shin plans on doing a holiday shop update in mid- or late November. (She announces the date and time of her shop updates on her Instagram account @mipas_pots_and_plants a week before her planters go online on her website. Plants and pots are sold separately and local pickup is available in Cypress Park). “I’m going to try my best to make enough pots for whoever would like them,” she says. “Being in this plant community has helped me to meet so many people. They’ve become my friends.”

A woman in a studio shapes clay on her ceramics wheel

Mipa Shin throws a pot on her potter’s wheel.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

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