Meet Rita Manalastas, the Filipino artist behind Mahalin Studio
Clay earrings inspired by queer love, phases of life, and Filipino culture
By Aleenah Ansari
This story is a part of the Modern Maker series, which focuses on womxn-owned businesses in Seattle and beyond.
Rita Manalastas (she/they) is a rising senior in social work at Seattle University. These days, you can find them dreaming up grad school plans from their Capitol Hill apartment, supporting incoming students at Seattle University, and baking clay earrings for Mahalin Studio, their small business that sells clay earrings. We sat down with Rita to learn more about her journey to embrace her identity as an artist, and how her identity as a Filipino woman informs her work.
Tell me a little about yourself!
I work with orientation programs at Seattle University, where I support student leaders. There, I’ve seen the impact that student development and affairs can make, especially for underrepresented students.
I’m applying to Seattle University’s Student Development Administration program, which is for folks who want to support students outside the classroom. This work supports students once they get to college through programming and resources for first-gen students, Indigenous students, Black students, and students with a military background among other identities. The goal is to get the word out about these resources and work closely with students so they feel supported.
One day, my partner showed me some clay earrings on social media, and I was excited about the idea of making wearable art. I discovered a whole community of artists, and I decided to take the leap and join them.
In addition to your career, I’ve been following along with your journey on the Mahalin Studio’s Instagram, your small business where you design and sell clay earrings. Why did you start making earrings in the first place? What inspired you?
I’ve always been a creative person, but I was looking for an outlet to express it. One day, my partner showed me some clay earrings on social media, and I was excited about the idea of making wearable art. I discovered a whole community of artists, and I decided to take the leap and join them. I’m also starting grad school soon, so I wanted to find a way to make some extra money on the side.
I wanted to buy some supplies to get started, but cost was initially a barrier. Around this time, my landlord forgot to pay us back for something, so she sent all of us some money. I took it as a sign to buy my first set of supplies and started making earrings for my partner because she inspired my business.
How did your partner inspire your business?
My partner has a big collection of earrings, and I wanted to be a part of it. I want her to wear my art, and she’s very involved in the creative process. I’ll ask her if certain colors look good together, what shapes to make, and what designs to try next. She’s inspired most, if not all, of my designs.
I made my first pair for my partner. It was so bad, but she still wore them. If I didn’t have my partner, I would have stopped at the first pair and re-evaluated my life choices. Her support pushed me to keep going. I kept telling her, ‘I’ll make you more and they’ll be better.’
You named your small business Mahalin Studio. Where does that name come from, and how does your identity as a Filipino woman inform your art?
Mahalin means ‘to love’ in Tagalog, and the name is a nod to my Filipino background. As a Filipino woman, I always felt like being creative wasn’t enough to make a name for myself. Being creative or good at art is often undervalued, and creativity has even less weight for women in underrepresented communities.
When you’re a child of immigrants, we’re often told that linear careers are the only way to be successful. As we form our own identities, we have more options to decide what careers we want to pursue, and financial security isn’t the only way to be successful. Success also comes from being fulfilled by your work and feeling connected to it. Was it challenging to change your definition of success?
In Filipino culture, we’re expected to be an engineer or doctor. In my own family, being creative wasn’t enough. Whenever I did art in school and brought it home, it was never displayed or celebrated. Instead, it was lost in the garage. This time around, my parents are really supportive. It means a lot to have that affirmation for something I did artistically, versus landing an internship or getting a good grade.
My work supports the idea that being artistic is enough. I don’t have to pursue art on the side and prove myself in other ways. I can just be an artist.
My uncle graduated with an art degree and my cousin Andi Paredes is going into digital design — she’s the one who came up with my branding and announcement for Mahalin Studio. It was affirming to know that it’s not just me. It’s no secret that my family is talented, and my work supports the idea that being artistic is enough. I don’t have to pursue art on the side and prove myself in other ways. I can just be an artist.
I also want to acknowledge my privilege of pursuing higher education and having the time to pursue my art. I was able to quit my second job to work on Mahalin Studio, and I know not everyone has the ability to do that.
One of your signature collections features poppies — tell me more about how this collection came to be.
My pieces are inspired by seasons and phases of life. My favorite collection features poppies, which started as an accidental piece. I was trying to make roses, but I accidentally squished them. I thought, ‘this is actually a look’ I ran with my mistake and turned it into a poppy. I started with two pieces with red poppies with a blue background, and I decided to expand into more colors.
The poppies are my favorite collection, and that breakthrough showed me what I’m capable of making. I had made around 20 different test pieces that were less than perfect. When I made my first pair of poppy earrings, everything fell into place. It’s hard to describe what I did or why I felt like they were good, but it was all that practice making those really bad ones that helped me be comfortable with the clay and my tools.
In past jobs, I felt like I had to give up a little piece of myself just to make money. It was affirming to know that I could do something I love while raising money for my future.
You recently launched your first collection of earrings on Instagram, which featured everything from your signature poppies to the opal collection. How did people respond?
It was a learning experience for me. After my earrings went live on Instagram, I received a flood of DMs, and multiple people wanted the same pair of earrings so I knew I’d have to make duplicates. My partner helped me make a spreadsheet to track my orders and get in touch with everybody.
Despite some of the challenges, it was really rewarding to see how many people were interested in my earrings — I sold 50 pairs in one day.
How did you feel after your first launch?
I felt really proud of myself. In past jobs, I felt like I had to give up a little piece of myself just to make money. It was affirming to know that I could do something I love while raising money for my future.
I think that’s something that will resonate with a lot of artists and creatives. You don’t always get to do what you love as your day job, but I’m glad that Mahalin Studio has been such a fulfilling creative outlet that you can use to support yourself.
In the beginning, it was about me making earrings for my partner, friends, and me. It’s been rewarding to see others get excited about my work. Even my parents share my earrings with their friends and coworkers. I didn’t need their approval, but it was the cherry on top.
How does Mahalin Studio fit into your future as an educator, grad school, and your journey to bring your dreams to life?
I got really excited with the turnout during my first launch, and it’s that moment when I saw myself working on Mahalin Studio in grad school. There’s the monetary component — it helps me pay my bills and rent, but I’m also building my confidence.
Advice for building a small business from the ground up
What advice would you give to other artists and small business owners?
There’s pressure to please the masses and make something that everyone will like. I’ve learned that it’s even more important to make something that you’re proud of, even if it doesn’t sell out. I made two pairs of earrings that no one has bought yet, and they were the most technically challenging to make. At the end of the day, I’m proud of myself for making them — that’s enough for me.
There are a lot of ways to measure success beyond the number of sales. If someone doesn’t buy a pair of earrings, I remind myself that the piece isn’t wasted. It’s contributed to my practice, and I can add it to my portfolio of designs. I know that someone out there would appreciate it.
Your feelings about your work are the most sustainable affirmation in your creative journey.
Think back to when you were growing up and still embracing your identity as an artist. What advice would you give your younger self?
Keep your art and guard it, even if no one appreciates the time and work you put into it. It’s easier said than done, but your feelings about your work are the most sustainable affirmation in your creative journey.
Your success is a testament to your artistry and commitment to community. What can people expect to see from you next?
My fall collection will launch on Oct. 2 at 5pm PST, and check out my Instagram for behind-the-scenes photos and announcements. 30% of the proceeds are given to crowdfunding, and we’ve raised a little over $200 so far. If there’s one thing I can do with my platform, I hope to keep raising funds for people who need it.
I’ve sold my earrings to people across the country from Seattle to Minnesota. It’s especially heartwarming to see so many people supporting my work, especially during a time when we can’t physically come together.
Like this story? Check out the other founder stories in our series:
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How She Gifted This: Tokki
Bridging connection, thoughtful technology, and sustainable design to make gifting unforgettable.