Stroll into the sunny Seattle Mosaic Arts storefront in the quiet Wallingford neighborhood and your eyes may quickly turn to a wall of glittering colors.
Jars filled with glinting pieces of glass in multiple hues of blue, green, red, and yellow are lined up across long shelves. But that’s not the only eye-catching sight in this welcoming outpost. Every wall is covered with an impressive array of mosaic mandalas, butterflies, pictures, and framed mirrors. Step outside into the backyard to find colorful tables with brightly patterned mosaic tops.
It is all the handiwork of those who frequent this attractive and unique studio. You will often find on hand one of the studio’s most prolific artists, Claire Barnett—a woman with long, silver hair and a warm smile—who is the proprietor of Seattle Mosaic Arts. Barnett is a retired physician who became a mosaic artist as a creative and therapeutic way of dealing with an immense personal tragedy. She founded the studio so others could learn the craft, too, and if needed, find an expressive outlet and solace while coping with their own challenges.
Barnett doesn’t like to dwell on it, but she will not hesitate to share her personal story with others when asked. In 2000, her two young daughters, 8-year-old Coriander and 6-year-old Blake, and their father David Clementson (Claire’s ex-husband), perished in an Alaska Airlines plane crash that killed all 88 people on board. As a way of dealing with their shock and grief, Barnett and her family and friends began a tradition of coming to together annually to celebrate their lost loved ones’ birthdays by jointly making mosaic tributes—six-pointed stars for Blakes, 8-pointed stars for Coriander—in the form of garden stones. They are as beautiful as they are meaningful.
“Medicine had very little to offer me in my grief,” Barnett recalls. “There’s no pill, no therapy that worked for it. If you are grieving, every sunny day is not a happy day. My goals of helping people cope with grief and loss has a very small ‘h.’ It means accompanying, doing things together, so they are not so alone.”
Barnett especially found that the physical act of piecing together mosaic art provided some release from being “locked in” to post-traumatic stress and overpowering loss.
She grew intrigued with the artform and went abroad to study mosaics in Italy. She devised her own techniques for working with the medium—techniques that could be easily passed on to others. Then in 2009, while walking her dog near her Wallingford home, she spotted an empty storefront and decided to make a place for others to join in this art form.
Today, Seattle Mosaic Arts offers an array of supplies, classes for beginners and more experienced artists, templates for designs, and do-it-yourself mosaic kits that can be picked up or ordered by mail.
For Barnett, another important aspect of the business is the connection with others it provides to the roughly 130 members (many of whom are over age 60) who pay monthly fees to drop into the studio and work on their own projects whenever the spirit moves them. “One of the unexpected things about this is community,” Barnett says. “We can come together, and just having a place to go to do something creative, where people know you and care, is wonderful.”
She even kept things going during the height of the pandemic, by assembling and sending off packages with everything someone needed to make a piece, including glass, glue, a paper template, and instructions.
But community is a much broader concept for Barnett than just the people served by the Wallingford studio. In addition to lecturing and teaching beyond Seattle, she joined forces with the international aid group Partners in Health to help underwrite a project that resulted in beautiful mosaic murals for a hospital in Haiti, which is the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. “It was a big fundraising effort. We raised donations by making more than 50 mosaic plaques, which were later installed there,” Barnett says.
Currently, she is spearheading a newer project called The Abortion Quilt. It was inspired by the famous AIDS Memorial Quilt and by Barnett’s decades of work as a doctor specializing in women’s health, including work at Planned Parenthood and internationally in Kenya.
Barnett believes that reproductive rights are essential, and she invites people to make 4-inch mosaic triangles, representing the impact abortion has had in their lives, for the quilt. Pieced together into vibrant, five-foot diamonds, the glass quilt pieces sport specific colors that indicate whether the artist has had an abortion, or has a partner, a family member or a friend who ended a pregnancy.
Though it has been challenging to shift gears from providing direct medical care to offering care through the creative arts, Barnett has found the change to be very, very gratifying. “I loved being a doctor,” she says, “but I’m really proud of the studio and the community we’ve made.”
Seattle Mosaic Arts is located at 5417 Meridian Ave N. in Seattle. For information about products, memberships, and classes, visit seattlemosaicarts.com or call 206-402-6642. The studio is open noon-6 p.m. daily.
Misha Berson writes about the arts for crosscut.com and many other media outlets, teaches for the UW Osher program, and is the author of four books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard).