Artist Spotlight: Jill Magruder Gatwood

Jill Gatwood has lived in New Mexico for 47 years.  After working for many years as an epidemiologist and clinical researcher in New Mexico and the Caribbean, Jill now spends most of her time hiking, tending chickens, making soap and creating mosaic art.  She likes art that is not just viewed, but is participatory: that can be experienced, touched and felt, and changes with the light and angle.

Jill’s focus has been in transforming common household items into works of mosaic art that highlight the innate, iconic beauty of their shape and purpose.  Some favorites are mailboxes, tables, toasters and other kitchen appliances, rotary phones and skulls.   She wishes she had a lowrider. Jill also teaches mosaic art classes and workshops in venues around Albuquerque and in her home studio. It is fun to watch self-proclaimed “non-artists” redefine themselves when they start to work with mosaic tiles. Many of her previous students have gone on to develop their own creative, unique mosaic styles and have redefined themselves as artists.

Her husband, Byron, retired as a middle school teacher for Albuquerque Public Schools and now mostly just rides his bicycle and tinkers in the garage.  Son Nigel is a DJ and daughter Olivia is a writer and poet.

Have you always made art? 

I was an avid artist as a child, up through my teen years.  I drew a lot, etc., but wasn’t a crafter.  My art went mostly dormant as an adult, when I spent much of my energy being a scientist.

How did you start making mosaics, soaps and candles?

I always loved mosaic art.  I love how it is textural and changing with the light.  After going to a local art show by mosaic artists, I was inspired to start doing it on my own… the first thing I tiled was my mailbox.  Since then, I’ve become friends and colleagues with many of the local mosaic artists, and continue to learn from them.  

I started making soap after I walked the Camino across Spain, and used one bar of soap for my body and clothes along the way.  I kinda missed working in a lab, so when I got home, I decided to work on formulating a soap, and a bar shampoo and conditioner, that would have the best features for travel and versatility.  Soap making is completely addictive.  Most candles are made with paraffin, a product from fossil fuels, or soybean oil.  The soy business is responsible for clearing wide swaths of the rain forest for industrial mega-farms.  I found out that the best candles are made with coconut oil which is sustainable, AND the scent throw is better, the candles stay nice looking longer.  The pinon scented soaps were very popular, so I started making pinon, coconut wax candles too.

Are you self-taught?

 Yes, I am self-taught. As I face obstacles – like failing adhesives, etc. I have always consulted with others who are more experienced

Where do you find inspiration?

 I find inspiration from surfaces and shapes that are asking to be tiled (like old rotary phones and other iconic appliances, walls and posts, etc).  I’m also inspired by nature; many of my pieces depict local wildlife.  Mosaic also lends itself to internal inspiration… just starting and seeing where the design goes.  When I started doing mosaic mailboxes, I set up an Etsy shop and responded to commission requests for specific themes.  That was inspiring to me, because I enjoyed the challenge of making something beautiful from somebody else’s idea or dream.

Is this a full-time business for you?

No, and I would not want it to be.  That would ruin much of what i enjoy about it.  I like having my products out where people can enjoy them, but I wouldn’t want it to be a business.  I get a lot out of teaching others and that’s actually more profitable, too.

How hard was it to get started and were there hurdles you had to overcome?

It wasn’t hard and any hurdles made it more challenging and fun for me.

What part of making and selling your work has been easy?

The only reason I sell my art is to make enough money to buy supplies and make more.  Others have approached me, asking to sell my stuff, but it hasn’t been a big effort of mine.  

What made you decide to start teaching mosaics? 

When I started teaching myself, no one in town was teaching basic mosaic art.  (There were specific stained glass, found objects, etc. type classes).  I had to go to books and online and some of it is hard to do on your own without hands-on help the first time (such as grouting). Most mosaic artists are introverts and not interested in teaching, so I started teaching basic classes and they have become very popular.  I get a lot of pleasure out of watching self-proclaimed non-artists change their self-image when they get excited about doing mosaic art… some have progressed far beyond me in what they do now.

Do you do any shows/events?

 The local association, Mosaic New Mexico has gallery shows once or twice a year.  I have showed with them in the past.  I’m not that excited about doing shows.  I’d like to sell soap at the Farmer’s Market, because it would be fun to talk to customers about how soap is made, what they are looking for, etc.  But soap is kind of a saturated market.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?  

Don’t throw a lot of money into it until you learn the basics and know what you are more interested in specializing in.

What has been your biggest achievement?

 I’ve made over 100 custom mosaic mailboxes that have gone all over the country (and to Germany, Costa Rica and Australia).  Several of them in Florida were pounded by hurricanes and thrown across the yard, but were still fine!  Another achievement I am very proud of is how many past students of mine have gotten gutsy (some for the first time in their lives) and become quite accomplished artists.  I love to see their excitement.

Do you have any great marketing suggestions?

What worked better than I would have expected for me was to set up an Etsy shop with pictures and descriptions of pieces I’ve made in the past.  People would use those designs to come up with their own and I made custom commissions.  Every time I made another mailbox for somebody, I posted it on my site.  The mailboxes were so popular, I have temporarily shut down my shop because I couldn’t keep up with the demand.  I have found that if marketing is important to you, you need to enjoy making things that other people like, not just you.  

Where do you sell your art? (shops, events, website)

I have soaps and candles in several museum gift shops (Trinidad, Colorado and El Rancho de Las Golondrinas) and No Bull Prime Meats. I have mosaic toasters and phones at the Range Cafe restaurant in Bernalillo.

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