Mosaicist Oliver Budd asks Maggy Howarth about her career as a pebble artist, which has spanned the last 35 years. During that time, Maggy and her team have created dozens of public pebble mosaics.
BY OLIVER BUDD
Whenever I think of your work (often!), I recall the creations of artist and sculptor Barbara Hepworth. This isn’t just a geographical reference but the result of what I imagine must be a life-long passion for natural stone fashioned by nature’s actions. Like Barbara’s upbringing in Robin Hood Bay, did you grow up near a pebble beach or were you influenced by beach holidays as a child?
I grew up in Derby but, like any child, I enjoyed trips to the seaside and often collected pebbles and shells. However, my initial inspiration came during my former life working in theatre. I was working on a theatrical installation at Conis Head Priory, a Buddhist retreat. There, we made a river of white stones, selected from the adjacent beach, running up to an ancient yew tree, which we adorned with handmade birds. The process of selecting and placing these beautiful pebbles proved to be a catalyst for my subsequent artistic venture into pebble mosaics. I wasn’t intending to do this as a career at first but, when my work started getting admired, I started getting ideas! Once I decided that pebble mosaics were what I wanted to do, I set about perfecting my pre-cast technique to enable me to take my work to the next level. The techniques I use today have been perfected over the years – involving a lot of trial and error.
Does your inspiration just stem from nature and the material or from the pebble artists of ancient history? Or have you been influenced by any contemporary artists working in a similar genre?
At first, I just wanted to make something with pebbles. Later, when I was established, I went around the world researching pebble mosaics for my book. It was amazing to see the history and all the different styles. Pretty inspirational. However, most of my designs were dreamt up out of my head.
Do you see yourself as a “mosaic artist” or as a separate entity entirely?
I see myself as a pebble mosaic artist. I love conventional mosaic art too, but I’ve never messed with it.
Your team of craftsmen is obviously crucial to the consistency and quality of your work. Did the elements of expertise come together naturally or was there a long period of training?
One of my first commissions back in 1986 was for Lancaster city council, making a large mosaic for the Ashton memorial in Lancaster. There, I had to train up a team of people who were on a Jobcentre scheme to help me. Out of 12 people, there was 1 who stood out. He is still working with me today. Right now, we have two others in the workshop. Both have had to do a lot of training before they can work on our commissioned work. Luckily, they’re all perfectionists! They’ve not been easy to find. It takes a certain patience and an eye for detail and form.
Did you attend art school or undertake an apprenticeship of any kind or were you self-taught?
I did a fine art degree at Reading University. That was a long time ago!
How do you procure pebbles? Of the few I’ve made, I’ve either bought them from suppliers or I’ve upgraded their status from beach coverings to art material by collecting them from the shoreline. I was once confronted by the “pebble police” and told that it was illegal to remove them from the beach.
We import pebbles from China, Indonesia, and India. We also have special permission to pick from certain beaches within the UK. This is not an easy thing to get! Most of these permissions have come through commissions we’ve had with authorities local to that beach. We do have permission from some private landowners who own certain stretches of coastline. Procuring pebbles is always an issue for anyone wanting to have a go. We do sell pebbles for pebble mosaic now from our website.
Pebble mosaics seem to be particularly synonymous with courtyards, pathways, fountains, ponds and grottos. Have you ever produced work for an entirely unlikely location?
Probably the strangest, or at least the most ambitious a project in that respect, was a 3D lion we made, which was installed vertically into a wall surrounding a swimming pool. It was made around a fountain, so it had a stream of water coming out of its mouth. It was the only three-dimensional pebble mosaic we’ve done and it required a modified version of my pre-cast technique to be built. There were many problems to overcome and I’m not sure it’s something we’d consider doing again!
Have you ever turned an enquiry down? If so, why?
Yes, often! The most common reason is when clients want us to do a design they’ve created themselves. Although I’m not opposed to this in principle, not everything is feasible in pebbles and there’s only so much you can fit into a given area. I also tend to avoid man-made subjects such as buildings or machines (although I have done the odd one) in favour of the naturalistic; animals, fishes, waves and trees.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently if you had the chance to start again?
No, it has been an evolving process. Not for the fainthearted! Perseverance and patience have been key, and I have no regrets.
What advice would you give artists considering specialising in pebble mosaics?
Always look at the materials you have available before you try and design anything. You must design around the pebbles you can get your hands on. Play with them. Learn the medium before you try anything too ambitious. Buy my book!