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Great at Eight: Tool Set for a Girl who Wanted to Build

Happy Birthday Card when I turned 8.
Happy Birthday Card when I turned 8.

On the occasion of celebrating an Orange Tuesday Birthday, I went into the archives for this birthday card with a whimsical orange giraffe.  My mother neatly wrote what my gifts were inside the card.  I don’t remember the dress, but I remember the tool set.

You're 8.  That's Great!
You’re 8. That’s Great!

I found the dollhouse I made with this tool set at age 8.  My father supervised as I hammered together scraps of plywood.  The wallpaper in the kitchen may be a scrap of the wallpaper from our actual kitchen.  The stove is an empty vanilla pudding box.  That is an orange light switch on the right.

Kitchen in the Dollhouse
Kitchen in the Dollhouse of the 1970’s

The wallpaper in the living room came from our neighbor Mrs. Firth.  The loopy orange carpet was found in many parts of our full size house.  Can you tell it was the Seventies?  I created a pastel bookcase and just noticed the row of love poems across the top shelf, which is in counterpoint to the rather forlorn spool person facing the wall.  I feel like interrupted a serious conversation.

Living Room in the Dollhouse of the 1970's
Living Room in the Dollhouse of the 1970’s

I don’t remember playing with dolls inside this house, but only the process of creating the building, and furnishing the rooms. In a journal from grade 3, I describe building a yard for the dollhouse out of Lego. The dollhouse was my world to bring forth.

One Pebble at a Time

One Pebble at a Time
One Pebble at a Time: Making Mosaic Stepping Stones in 2005

When I started making mosaics, I felt an intrusive guilt that I wasn’t making collages anymore.  Collage was my first step into art, my first furtive kindness to myself in allowing myself to make art.  When I started making collages, I felt anxiety because I believed I should be writing poems instead.  I had been a poet since I was 12.  I was good at writing poems.  I won awards; I had poems in magazines; I was a Poet and had no room for any other self.

There is a fierceness in kindness, protecting the unfurling heart.

The stepping stones were practical.  Stratoz and I had bought a rowhouse with a long narrow backyard, and I decided to make pebble mosaic stepping stones for our garden.  A stepping stone allows a firm footing for walking  through mud, and can define a space, guide a path.

As a child, stepping stones were magical, jumping from one to the next, each a self-contained world.  Stepping stones are human scale.  I had an anxious mind demanding superhuman scale, a speedway, a leap through time, tessering.  When I took a small step, there were large repercussions in my fearfulness: what if I am choosing the wrong thing?  What if I am meant to write poetry and I displease God, and vanish from the earth?  What if I am moving too slowly?  Or too fast?

I had given myself a year to explore different mediums of artmaking, and it took all my grit to continue exploring.  When mosaics spoke to my heart, I felt both joy and fear, because to enjoy making mosaics stirred up the the thoughts of doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and the fear of never ridding myself of the fear.  That I continued on, one pebble at a time, is grace.

There is a fierceness in kindness, protecting the unfurling heart.


What kindness will you give yourself?

Color Can Be Learned: Nita Leland and Exploring Color

Alas, Nita Leland’s Exploring Color: How to Use and Control Color in Your Painting is out of print, but used copies are still around.  I found a copy at the public library in 2004, and was entranced with Nita Leland’s assertion that color can be learned.  As I explored collage and other visual mediums, I noticed how strongly I responded to color, and I wanted to understand this language of hue and tone and contrast.  I took a watercolor class, and all I wanted to do was mix colors, which didn’t translate into actually painting much.

RYB Color Wheel rgbcoded
RYB Color Wheel rgbcoded

It was exciting having a name for why two colors practically vibrate next to each other(ie. orange and blue, complementary colors), and learning how colors transition into each other around a color wheel.  I found my notebook of color experiments, and it brought back the thrill of trying these combinations out for myself.  I played with a “tetrad” of red-orange/yellow-green/blue-violet/blue-green.I wrote a page of anxious notes about whether the colors were what I thought they were, but that’s part of what happens with colors. They shift and shimmer depending on context.  Fortunately, I wrote at the end the page that I really liked the red of the ship against the blue, and the yellow-green against the red-orange.  Color sense cannot be completely articulated in words, and along with learning the language color, I’ve also learned about the unspoken nature of color.


The Artist’s Way By Julia Cameron and the Accidental Artist

Collage circa 1997 While Reading The Artist's Way
Collage circa 1997 While Reading The Artist’s Way

When Abby Sernoff of 111 Collage Design and I had a chance to meet, we discovered our shared experience with The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron, and how this led us into collage.    I got my copy out, and looked in the index, and “collage” only has one mention, in the chapter, Recovering a Sense of Connection, as a kind of pictorial autobiography, with past, present, future and your dreams.  That one exercise opened up a whole world of visual expression for me, a language I didn’t even know I knew.

I was reading The Artist’s Way in 1997 because I wasn’t writing poetry, and I was searching for ways to move toward my writing, rather than wrapping myself in avoidance.  I had gone from getting my MFA in Creative Writing in 1992, to going to Library School in 1993, to getting my first library job at the reference desk of the University of Scranton in 1995, and I felt lost, as if I wasn’t real.

The beliefs we have about ourselves can be constricting, painful, damaging.  What I noticed, when collecting images for my collage, was the open doors, a window, and up in the corner, the phrase, “Have your next Escape Clause.”  This was unsettling, since I’d just gotten my first real, professional library job, and that was supposed to be my escape clause, my way to be self-sufficient in the face of a degree in poetry.

Now, I notice that I have two artists toward the center of the collage, Frida Kahlo and Maya Lin.  I resonated with visual artists, but until I started making collages, I didn’t believe I had kinship with them.

The collage task was the main thing I took away from reading The Artist’s Way, Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.”  I kept making collages, and I enjoyed searching for images, and then laying them out on the table and making connections, finding patterns, symbols, colors.  I was beginning to find my escape clause.

What became or is becoming your escape clause?  What doors opened in your life?


2010 Retrospection: Creativity and My Unfolding Life as a Mosaic Artist

Fortune and Creativity
Fortune and Creativity. Photo by Margaret Almon.

This fortune came with my Chinese lunch(at the tasty Chong’s Dumpling House in Lansdale, PA).  Rarely does my fortune cookie resonate with anything in my life, so this was a surprise.  This is indeed what I want to do:  use my creativity in making mosaics as my vocation and a way to prosper.  Prosper is from Old French roots, and has connotations of “cause to succeed and render happy” as well as hope and flourishing.

2010 has been quite a year.  The biggest leap came when the library I worked at was closed without warning in July.  I was shocked and disoriented and sad, and librarian jobs scarce, but my art was always there for me, and I am very grateful for that source of joy, and for the opportunity to imagine a life where I am a full time mosaic artist.  2010 also brought:

  • The premiere of my mosaic pendants.  I had people asking if I made jewelry and at first I couldn’t imagine myself as a jeweler, but then I found square pendant trays, and it was like making trivets on a tiny scale and I loved the challenge.
  • Film Noir Mosaic Collection.  My friend Joanne Leva created Poetry for her Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program, culminating in a showing of Sunset Boulevard at the Ambler Theater, along with a reading of poems inspired by the film, and my Film Noir mosaics in black and silver in the theater lobby.
  •  For those who enjoy Etsy, thank you!  Nutmeg Designs reached a hundred sales in 2010.
  • I taught a Glass Mosaic Basics class at the Goggleworks in Reading, PA and enjoyed talking and making mosaics all weekend with enthusiastic students.
  • Taking the plunge and buying a tent and doing outdoor summer shows for the first time this year.  This helped increase Nutmeg Designs total shows to 17 for 2010.  Both Wayne and I are very grateful to our friends and fans who come by our booth and for all the cool people and crafters we’ve met.
  • The encouraging commission of 25 patchwork photo frames my job.  I had trouble sleeping the night I said yes to the commission but I am so glad I did.
  • The opportunity to see a retrospective exhibit of Hildreth Meiere‘s work, my first mosaic inspiration.

When I was first laid off, I wanted to know right away how everything would work out.  It was a challenge to let things unfold when the sense of urgency is overwhelming, but the irony is that the more we  push to know the future, the more we erode the present moment which is the only truly functional moment we have.

For 2011 I wish all my readers the vision to see what is emerging in your lives, and the courage to stay in th present moment.  I would love to hear your stories of what has unfolded for you in 2010, and how your creativity in whatever form contributed to your prosperity.


25 Random Art Things About Me

Learning by Going Where I Have to Go: The Slow Process of Getting Going

Tower of Mosaic Books
Tower of Mosaic Books.

In 2005, I spent some time with Master Career counselor Damona Sain, as I was feeling restless in my librarian world.  Every inventory I took said art, art, art, and librarian was not coming up, and in fact may have been on the “make me loopy” list.  I was making collages at my dining room table, and loving the world of color and pattern, but I assumed that I wasn’t an “artist”.  But I started listening to the voice that said “you can make art,” and when I discovered mosaic, I knew this was my medium.  The challenge was the kernel of truth in my librarian self, my attraction to research.  I read 20+ books on making mosaics.  The photo of the tower of books only represents books I own, not the ones I checked out of the library!

I read until I thought I would burst if I didn’t make a mosaic soon, but I was still in a holding pattern, wondering if I should read one more book.  This limbo was an uncomfortable place, as I searched for everything on “doing” but remained in my head.  Making the leap was the scariest part, but once I landed, I was on holy ground, feeling truly like myself.  I loved the poem The Waking by Theodore Roethke when I was in high school, which captures the paradox of learning by going where we have to go:

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Aptly, my first step was making pebble mosaic stepping stones, for the house Stratoz and I had just bought.  I was in heaven, sorting pebbles, seeing the subtle gradations of color.


Pebble Mosaic in Progress
Pebble Mosaic in Progress. Photo by Wayne Stratz.
Pebble Mosaic Stepping Stones by Margaret Almon
Pebble Mosaic Stepping Stones by Margaret Almon.
Big Pebble Spiral Stepping Stone by Margaret Almon.
Big Pebble Spiral Stepping Stone by Margaret Almon.

What was a first step that you took toward learning by going where I have to go?


I’ll leave you with Kurt Elling’s lovely jazz interpretation of Roethke’s poem.

Putting the Pieces of My Story Together

Today was the beginning of the SITS Problogger Challenge, and the assignment is to encapsulate what my blog is about.  One thing I learned in my previous life as a poet and teacher of creative writing and composition is that what you think you are saying and what you are actually saying are often two different things.  Maybe you have had the experience of writing something, or making art, and putting it away and coming back to it a few months later, and it looks entirely different to you. You see things.

Megan Auman over at Crafting an MBA has a cool post about your story being valid no matter what.  She’s a jeweler who got a degree in jewelry, and she assumed that was prosaic.  But then she tells how excited she was to discover you can go to college to learn metalsmithing, and only one of two people in her class to get this degree.  I remember when I went to graduate school in creative writing, and like Megan, felt apologetic for being a poet who got a degree in poetry.  In fact there was a whole school of criticism of MFA programs, declaring them homogenizing and bland, and arguing that only craft can be taught, not how to write.  “Well crafted” was an insult to hurl at a poem.

The turning point in my story came when I realized in my mid-30’s that  I wanted to make visual art.  I knew I loved making things, but assumed that was irrelevant.  I didn’t think of myself as an artist.  I thought of myself as a poet who spent most of her time avoiding writing poetry.  This  is such a familiar narrative of writers’ block, that I assumed I just needed to try harder, especially since other people told me I was good at poetry, therefore of course I should write it.  But I voluntarily make mosaics.  My husband, partner in art and love, calls me the “Mosaicing Mad Woman of Lansdale.”   It’s not that I don’t meet obstacles of perfectionism and procrastination, but they are not my sole focus.

So what is this blog about?  I am taking my best guess here.  I’m sure this will evolve, but for now, I see

  • Mosaics.  I love their capturing of light, how they change every time I look at them, and I learn more about the nature of illumination, and the beauty of the creation of our hands.
  • Hidden history.  Artists, often women, creating amazing work which lays in wait for us to discover, and our own hidden selves waiting to be illuminated.  What we love is relevant to our lives.
  • Mending of brokenness.  I am drawn to art as healing.

What do you see?  I’d love to know.

From the Attic:

Will this be me?(1973)

A Monument More Lasting Than Bronze: The Minerva Mosaic and the Disappearance of a Library

Minerva Mosaic Library of Congress by Elihu Vedder
Minerva Mosaic Library of Congress by Elihu Vedder. Photo by Wayne Stratz


My husband and I are back from a vacation to Washington DC, which was a visual delight.  I made sure to go to the Library of Congress, since I am a librarian by training, and the Jefferson Building’s mosaics coincided with my artistic passion.  This mosaic of Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom and Learning, has its own niche at the top of a flight of stairs and was designed by Elihu Vedder.

The mosaic even has its own lesson plan online for teachers, and explains the symbolism of the shield being on the ground–it is a sign of peace, though Minerva is ever vigilant with her double pointed spear.  Observing such a display of tribute to learning, I felt a sense of loss of library as place.  According to the LOC website, “The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing ‘such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress — and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein….'”

Minerva Mosaic Library of Congress by Elihu Vedder, Full View
Minerva Mosaic Library of Congress by Elihu Vedder, Full View. Photo by Wayne Stratz.

Ironically, in spite of this gorgeous building, the Latin motto at  
foot of the mosaic translates to “Not, unwilling, Minerva raises a monument more lasting than bronze.”  The knowledge that is gleaned from this great collection is enduring.  But I also believe that the beauty of these mosaics endures as well, speaking to another kind of knowledge.

I came back to work at my hospital library on Tuesday, and was met by my supervisor telling me that the administration had chosen to close the library and eliminate my position as librarian.  He was very kind, and gave me all the time I needed to gather up my things from 12 years of service.  It was very difficult to believe it was happening.  I am deeply sad about leaving the people who have come to me with questions and needing information to help patients or further their education.  I am also sad about leaving people who were my friends without a chance to say goodbye.


I do know that the knowledge I shared with them cannot be closed down, that it will remain.  I also had the opportunity to bring my mosaics to a hospital craft show in March, and I am happy to know that several of my colleagues have some of my artwork as a presence in their lives.  But it’s still hard to be gone.

Every Last Scrap

Margaret Almon's Studio
Margaret Almon’s Studio, 2009

I once took a collage workshop where an array of beautiful handmade paper was spread on every surface, and we could choose which sheets we wanted to work with.  When we finished the first collage, the instructor then told us to gather all the scraps left over, and use these to make another collage.  After the initial spike of anxiety, this challenge had a kind of thrill, as I worked within limits, spurring on my creativity.   I liked the 2nd collage even more than the first one, and it was satisfying to use the scraps, the leavings, and create something new.  I keep the two collages in my studio(1st one on the right, 2nd one on the left), a reminder of two kinds of working–one out of an abundance of materials, an array on every surface, and another out of sparseness.  Too few choices can lead to a paucity, a deficit, but too many choices can lead to overwhelm.

Scraps of Glass in the Studio.
Scraps of Glass in the Studio.

In making mosaics, I create a lot of fragments.  The nature of cutting glass, and tile, is like sculpting or woodcarving, paring away the material until the form is revealed.  Fortunately in mosaic, the fragments are every bit as valuable as the original uncut glass or tile.  For a couple years I saved all the tiniest bits, because I hated to imagine throwing them out.  Then one day I noticed that I had enough to cover a surface, and I was using them in delight.  I opened an tin of jagged scraps, non-linear ones, and set myself the challenge of making a mandala with them.  I used only fragments in the center, and then relented and let myself cut some larger pieces for the border.  My definition of “large” is still quite small, at least according to my husband.  Working with these scraps must be akin to scrappy quilts, crazy quilts, all the ways to use up the stash of small pieces, and make something new.

Scrappy Mandala in Progress by Margaret Almon
Scrappy Mandala in Progress by Margaret Almon

Scrappy Mandala Grouted

Over at Stratoz:

Stratozpheric Suncatcher from Scraps