The creations are timeless; simple but extraordinarily beautiful. The earrings are meticulously created in striking mixed metals of brass and silver that sing of the earth’s natural textures. The necklaces, whimsically inspired by nomadic wanderings and unique lands, are ever-evolving and spirited in their playful inspiration. One might think that the genius behind these gorgeous compositions is a wizened elderly savant, but in fact, this gutsy brilliance belongs to Katie O’Neill, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Mushmina.
Katie’s breathtaking talent is unparalleled. It is rare that one finds a female master metalsmith, let alone one with such a fierce fervor to continue learning and honing her intricate, luminous skills. Katie is not only an accomplished metalsmith, she is also a textile and clothing designer.
Soft-spoken and with a dazzlingly genuine smile that shines with compassion, Katie is a force with which to be reckoned when it comes to her passion-creating enchanting, enduring art in all forms.
Katie treks the earth, seeking illumination. She has traveled to the Sahara desert of Mali to study the famed Tuareg ‘Blue Men’; well-known for their mastery of crafting spirited jewelry. She walks the walk, one could say. She sits with local artisans. She teaches them. She learns from them. She is constantly changing, growing, advancing herself, and searching for understanding and self-betterment. And she does all of this in the most humble of ways.
What inspires her? She pauses and is reflective. ‘ That special visceral reaction that happens when people “connect” in the world.’ Katie explains, ‘ I found that what inspires my interest in craft is its relationship to cultural anthropology and the deep rooted connection to our ancestry or childhoods,’ She continues mindfully, ‘It’s a nostalgia, a comfort, a trigger. It is important to me that we be reminded of the origin and integrity from which art is created, its roots; the force behind the innovation and craftsmanship.’
Katie also has a passionate appreciation for unique storytelling though artistry. Luckily, this mindful mission is embedded in the soul of Mushmina. ‘I do what I do in order to allow other artisans to tell their story through our collaboration. As artists we have been given the duty of continuing to carry out these traditions. I think in a past life, perhaps I was a metalsmith or weaver and decided that in a future life, when I was in a position of freedom and opportunity, I would come back and use my skills to empower the fascinating stories of others. It is truly a gift to be creative.’
Katie and Heather have been honing authentic, reciprocal, learning relations with their team of skilled Mushmina artisans for almost 10 years. It is deeply rooted in their philosophy to support and employ local artisans from all over Morocco. It’s taken years to establish and the genuine rapport between the Mushmina Sisters and their team of experts is something of which they are extremely proud.
Katie looks to her own spirituality for guidance. Simplicity, earthiness, and the pure beauty in nature. Blending the unexpected. Mixing metals. Who creates striking earrings inspired by the lovely historical Art Deco period in Casablanca? Katie does. Who hand-draws and designs a best-selling line of handbags ingeniously taken from a vibrantly upholstered Moroccan couch? Katie did. Katie sees color and light in everything.
Fortunately, Katie has the best of collaborators in her adventures. She explains pensively, ‘Heather and I just mesh. We fit perfectly as sisters and work partners. There isn’t anyone who knows me better. Mushmina is not an actual word but rather, the nickname my sister gave me as a child. It doesn’t technically mean anything, but in Algerian Arabic, we’ve been told “Meshy mna” (spelled phonetically) means “Not by us”. I loved learning this as we often say the that the work happens “through” us. My creations are inspired by a myriad of things and are largely due to the people with whom I have the honor of working. This is what makes our items unique. They tell stories. The fact that the results are often a collaboration leaves room for the element of surprise…I then combine old and new, so it’s relatable.’
Lastly, I have to ask Katie what her favorite Moroccan food is. ‘All of it!’, she says without missing a beat. She explains with enthusiasm, ‘I actually love Moroccan food so much that Heather says she’s never seen me eat so much as when I’m in Morocco. I think it’s possible that I finish one meal and then start talking about the next one immediately afterwards. It’s a constant joke with Heather. ‘The food is yet another sensory stimulating combination of Morocco’s magic that makes you want to come back for more.’
You will often find Katie in the tiny, rugged workspace of Mushmina’s master jewelry mallum, Ahmed, in Tiznit, southern Morocco. Or in the high Atlas Mountains designing clothing with the women of the Eve Branson Foundation. Katie will be there, sitting with women’s co-ops and artisans, studying and participating, guiding and advising, and becoming enlightened herself. And of course, laughing with her peers. Because Katie is a friend to everyone. Her warmth glows as her gorgeous metals clink gently against her strong stride.
Luckily for us, enchanting Morocco has this bold, visionary woman to tell its beautiful story.
By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina blogger