Seven questions for… Valerie McGarry

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pictured above: Opened Up

Rhona Duffy talks to Canadian mosaicist Valerie McGarry about her mosaic journey, influences, techniques, plans for the future, and more.

By Rhona Duffy

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to mosaic art?

I did a course in stained glass back in the early 1990s so I had lots of little pieces of glass left over. I found a book on mosaics in the library and thought it would be a great way to use up these pieces. So I started making mosaics and I got hooked! I joined a mosaic chatroom, which is how I met the mosaic community – I made good friends there who are still my friends today. Through the chatroom, I heard about the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA) and I went to one of their conferences, which was a great way to meet other mosaicists and learn by taking workshops. It was around that time that I got into the texture in mosaics and I stopped grouting my pieces. I then took a class with my friend and mentor Sophie Druin, which got me excited about mosaics. The first time one of my mosaics was accepted into an international juried exhibition was in 2015.

Remembering Australia (detail). Photo by Russell Styles

You had a career in biochemistry previously – have you found any influences coming through from that work to your art? Or any transferable skills?

In a lab, you have to be organised and that’s something I’ve taken with me into mosaics. I like to design and plan my pieces thoroughly on paper before I start to mosaic and I like my studio to be tidy and organised. Mother nature is indeed the greatest designer and I often get inspiration from microscopic patterns visible in nature – there are some great abstract designs to be found. I often find that people working in medicine are very creative. It’s a job where you have to think technically and creatively at the same time, to solve problems. 

How have you developed your mosaic art skills – both technical and creative?

When I started making mosaics, social media was not the same as it is now. I spent a lot of time visiting other mosaicists’ websites, studying everything from their colour choices to tone graduations and spacing. Then I got the chance to take a class with Matteo Randi at a SAMA conference. It was the one of best classes I’ve ever taken. We didn’t make mosaics at all – it was purely theoretical and we learned about andamentoand how Roman mosaics are constructed. That was helpful to me. In 2002, the Italian Mosaic School of Friuli held an exhibition and gave demonstrations at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I visited the exhibition and saw students working on a mosaic they were making for the museum. It was my first opportunity to see Italian mosaics in the flesh and it was fabulous.

Over the Edge

What inspires or influences your art?

I am a great believer in looking at other art forms for inspiration and thinking about how you can express the idea or feeling in mosaics. My mosaic Elemental Connections is based on a dance I saw by a choreographer whom I admire. I like thinking about which materials best express an idea or which type of andamento expresses a feeling. The idea is not to recreate the art in mosaics but to be inspired to create a work of art that is different from the original. 

What materials and techniques do you like to use most?

I enjoy using traditional materials and techniques to create contemporary mosaic art. I use a hammer and hardie, and one of my favourite materials to work with is marble. I use small amounts of smalti as highlights, which contrast nicely with marble. Another material I love to work with is shale, cut small into needles – the only downside is that it’s very brittle so it’s hard to transport. But I love the textural qualities of shale needles. 

Transformation from Within. A Self Portrait. Photo by Katelyn Franssen.

Where have you exhibited your work and what tips would you give other artists considering doing the same?

I’ve exhibited my work in Canada, France, Italy, Australia, the UK and the USA. One tip is – just go for it! You won’t get in if you don’t apply. You might not get in every time – if you aim for 50% of the time, and you achieve that, you’re doing well. And make sure you have good photographs of your work. Jurors will zoom in to see your cuts. If they can’t see them clearly (and the quality of your cuts will also be a factor in whether a piece gets accepted or not), they’ll reject your entry.

What’s keeping you busy at the moment? And what are your plans for the short/medium term?

The Mosaic Artists of Canada has an exhibition coming up, so I’ve started working on a piece for it. Longer term, I’d love to do a solo show.  

Elemental Connections. Photo by Russell Styles

Technical Tip

“I work primarily in marble and like to graduate with colour and tone in marble. One tip I have for a smooth transition from one tone to another is when you are working in a small area, use tones that are very close to each other. The larger the area you are working in, the greater the difference in tone you can use to have a smooth transition. For example, when you look at a large mural, it can blend black and white together to look grey to the eye. But if you try to use black and white on a small mosaic, it will look spotty so you will need to use a light grey beside a light-medium grey to create the same smooth transition.”

About Valerie McGarry
Valerie has been creating mosaics for over 25 years. She uses traditional techniques to create contemporary fine art mosaics. She works primarily with stone and smalti, but also loves to add unexpected materials now and again to give a contemporary feel to her work. Valerie works primarily in abstraction. 

Instagram: @valmcgarry