Mariel Clarmont's Miniature Cosmos

Mariel Clarmont

On a particularly bleak winter day, I met Mariel Clarmont at her home on the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris. Clarmont does not speak English, or I French. But I worried about an even greater barrier to our communication. Clarmont not only communicates in another language, but she also lives in a world of silence. It is often said that the loss of one sense can lead to a heightened awareness of other senses. This fact may explain, in part, the tremendous focus and meditative quality one feels in the presence of her diminutive embroideries.

I need not have worried about our interview, which resulted in a wonderful conversation. I left concluding that, in many ways, Clarmont’s work requires little explanation. Translating through English, French, signs and gestures, I learned that in the 1980s Clarmont created large textile wall hangings to considerable acclaim. She has, to date, participated in seven individual and over seventy group exhibitions in France and overseas. The Quilt Study Centre at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln has an example of her work in their permanent collection, as do museums and private collectors in China, Hungary, Poland and her native France. In the late 1980s Clarmont underwent an eye operation, which resulted in her vision at close distance becoming stronger than her long distance vision. This change caused a dramatic shift in the scale of her work to that of her current miniature embroideries, which are often no larger than the size of a hand. When viewed in person they are remarkably intense surfaces, often stitched in a rich palette of diamond shaped sections. Some are embellished with tiny beads; others shaped like a disc without a centre.

Clarmont’s chosen shape, the circle, is easily the most difficult form to ask of fabric, the antithesis of grids used in weaving or needlepoint. I inquire about this and the possible inspiration behind her work. Although her works are small, they remind me of huge things – the stars, sky, sun. This brings a smile as she agrees that they are not about anything small, but in fact about great expanses. “I am inspired by the evolution of the Cosmos,” she responds, “from the infinitely small to the infinitely large.” Elaborating, she points out that “the circle is the perfect original shape; as the sun, the moon and the earth.” Through the translator and a dictionary, other circles also begin to make themselves known in our conversation: compasses, the sky, globes … Clarmont’s stitched circles may be small, but they reference some of the largest spheres that define our natural world.

If the giant subject matter of these embroideries is the antithesis of their diminutive scale, so too is the technique in which they are sewn. I imagined that a considerable part of the embroidery would be stitched in the metallic thread that glimmers in almost every work. Quite the opposite is in fact the case. Clarmont begins with a piece of metallic fabric and, using an embroidery hoop, stitches over almost the entire surface to leave only the slight trace of diamond pattern behind that shows the original base cloth. The labor, if nothing else, is hard to imagine when compared to our rushed textile production today. Clarmont calculates that each piece takes over one hundred hours to stitch. They are, among other things, a feat of astounding concentration and dedication. Noting my amazement, she responds sagely, “we can only work if we feel peace inside.”

As well as feeling utterly contemporary, Clarmont’s embroideries also look like the intricate surfaces of textiles from centuries past. Timeless, perhaps, is the clearest description for them. Considering the specific, often luminous, use of color in this work I wonder about the seasons and the rather dim winter light outside. I ask if this is work Clarmont enjoys year round, or work that takes up more time in one season, the winter for instance? “I work throughout all seasons; as we say in French “au fil du temps”, as time goes by,” she responds. Somehow, the amount of time it takes stitch this miniature works seems in keeping with the timeless topics they represent.

Clarmont is not interested in art historical references or clever post-modern replications of things we have seen and heard too many times before. Her embroidery is, to rely on a thoroughly overused term, unique. While I pour over example after example of jeweled colors, I begin to see each as a work in its own right, but also part of an ongoing series. Like the stars they so eloquently suggest, each piece is conceived to stand-alone, although most are also part of a larger series. On leaving, I ask if there are other textile artists or embroiderers whose work inspires Clarmont. Perhaps unsurprisingly her response is clear: “no”.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2007: 38-41)