Margaret Almon - A Mosaic is a Conversation
How has the process of seeking beauty changed you?
Beauty…comes to us with no work of our own;
then leaves us prepared to undergo great labor.
- Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just
In the midst of depression, and anxiety, I searched out beauty during the great labor of emerging. Beauty reached me, sustained me when I was in the insistent circling of an anxious mind seeking rest. Allowing my eye to delight in color, and my hands to be guided by my visual sense and my heart was a new experience. Choosing to be in the studio making art was a way to encourage the mending in my heart.
I let go of being a poet who didn’t write poetry, and became an artist who made mosaics. Trusting my decisions in the studio gave me a guide to trusting myself outside the studio. The disheartening persistence of anxiety constricts the world through a lasso of ever tightening questions and questing for certainty. The process of seeking beauty allows expansion and relief. Anxiety is not a conversation; anxiety is a monologue of rhetorical questions that cannot be answered, and yet feel urgent to answer.
A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.
- Terry Tempest Williams, Finding Beauty in a Broken World
Beauty is a way to converse with myself, as well as extending the conversation outside myself. Those who ask me to create a work for them are asking me to listen to their stories, and bring forth some beauty that converses with those stories. The multiplicity of colors in a Love & Laughter sign for a therapist’s office, where she wanted it to radiate acceptance and healing. The retired Episcopal Priest who wanted the word Ruach, Breath of Life, in his hospital room while recovering from Pneumonia. The seminary student who said my mosaic pendants were for her a real spiritual symbol, a very tangible reminder of the beauty and potential in each of us, no matter how life has broken us.
Describe a moment in your life when you were in the presence of beauty.
There is a studio in the Pennsylvania woods, not far by car, where Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) lived, and created a handmade world. I went on a tour, and the docent gently tapped the front of a wood cabinet and the door responded immediately to his hand, and opened to reveal a set of drawers. He pulled one drawer forward, and a light came on, illuminating the inside. I had that sensation of being ready to cry from the beauty of the unexpected, Scarry’s idea of beauty coming to us with no work on our part. The closer I looked around me, the more beautiful details were revealed. To have even the smallest detail be beautiful is a gift of mattering. Beauty can reside in small things. Having the present moment reveal joy rather than sorrow was sustaining.
Where do you locate the beauty in the things that you make?
Perfection is not a prerequisite for anything but pain.
- Danna Faulds
I locate the beauty in imperfections and in light and in stories. I love gold smalti, the fabulous chunks of glass with an exquisitely thin layer of gold sandwiched under a layer of colored glass, but I love the seconds even more, “Gold Nails,” irregular, chipped, scratched, crazed leftovers. They are harder to get because the smalti factories have their pride resting on their firsts. One time, I pulled out the most compelling pieces, and realized where some of the gold was completely missing, the gaps could flow together like a river of pure watery blue.
I listened to the missing places and flaws, and let them shine forth in their own Wabi Sabi beauty of the imperfect. Another incarnation is the Navajo Hozho with its principle of harmony of natural variation in size and form. Navajo Weaver D.Y. Begay, in collaboration with mosaic artist Nina Solomon for the Heard Museum, created Weaving in Beauty, Floating Weft. Begay notes, “I didn’t want a mural that was flat and polished. I wanted it to have a dimensional effect, giving it an undulating formation, and to try and capture what you would see in the yarn itself.”
I feel a thrill of recognition, an articulation of what I love about making mosaics–the landscape of textures, the gradations of color, of light, not perfect, not even. The bumpy topography is what catches the light, and there is always more to be revealed with a mosaic, depending on the time of day, the quality of the light. My wise artist self says, “If it has to meet some imaginary idea of perfect, you won’t make any art at all. So what shall you choose?”
How did you find your subject matter?
Collage was my first foray into making art, and my husband Wayne was exploring making quilts, like his grandmother Helen. I was inspired to make Christmas cards in a log cabin quilt design with magazine papers in red and green, and it was a delight. And then when I started making mosaics, I made quilt designs in glass, and this was even more delightful! At the library, I came across the book Quilt Artistry: Inspired Designs from the East by Yoshiko Jinzenji, with her story of becoming smitten with Mennonite quilts, and I realized I was not alone in my affinity for these patterns. The first time I found the book in the Art section. The next time it was recatalogued into the Craft/Quilt section.
The impulse to make something beautiful can be incarnated in many forms, and is beyond the division of Art vs. Craft. Women’s work has beauty arising from it: needlework, sewing, quilting. A quilt is often the only legacy from women in our family histories, their biography in cloth. Artists, often women, creating amazing work which lays in wait for us to discover, and our own hidden selves waiting to be illuminated. Quilters on Instagram are my people, with love of color and pattern.
Color is my other compelling subject. The first book I read about mosaic was by Kaffe Fassett, creator of knitting patterns, quilts, fabric designs, and resonant color is the common theme. One of my early memories in Grade 2 is learning to mix watercolors to create new colors. This was magic, and to discover as an adult that I could use this magic was a revelation.
What is beauty?
There is an often quoted saying of William Morris about what objects to have in your home. I was curious if Morris had anything to say about mosaics, and found the preamble to the familiar directive,
You may hang your walls with tapestry instead of whitewash or paper; or
you may cover them with mosaic; or have them frescoed by a great
painter: all this is not luxury, if it be done for beauty’s sake, and
not for show: it does not break our golden rule:
Have nothing in your
houses which you do not know to be useful
or believe to be beautiful.
- William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art
This is a challenging idea, that tapestry or mosaic is not a luxury, if done for beauty’s sake. It is an honor to create work that speaks to someone’s heart, that it is a thrill to witness that moment of connection and response. I believe beauty is a need and nourishment for the soul. Beauty heartens me when I feel despair.
Tell me a bit about the things you’re making now and those that you want to make in the future.
I am working on the word grace in the studio for a woman who wants to receive it on what would have been her mother’s 90th birthday. Her mother’s name was Grace. My Partner in Craft and Life, Wayne Stratz, designed the lettering while on a silent retreat at Wernersville Spiritual Center. Wayne inspires me with his stained glass designs, and our collaborative projects in the studio, from words, to house numbers to mandalas. There is always a rainbow in my future.
Margaret Almon grew up in Edmonton, AB, and now lives in Lansdale, PA with her Partner in Craft Wayne Stratz in their 1-bedroom-2-studio row house. She was a poet and a librarian before becoming a mosaic artist and opening her Etsy Shop Nutmeg Designs, and you can find her images on Instagram and her writing at her website.