You may not know Aly Winningham, but you’ve probably seen her mosaics and mobiles across Austin in venues ranging from the downtown Whole Foods (she did the wrap-around mosaic on the chocolate counter) to revitalization installations on East 7th Street to public areas of the Domain.
Some designs are abstract, while others are inspired by the natural world and Texas culture. They feature mostly natural materials such as semi-precious stones, glass, and found objects ranging from keys to arrowheads to antique bottles of mercurium. But her concepts are far from sterile: one of her most successful designs features a miniature Derringer handgun shooting out flowers made of bullets. “The gun people like it and so do the anti-gun people,” mused Winningham, a longtime Austin resident.
Winningham’s path to success seems to have been paved by her business-savvy outlook, her eye for outstanding materials, her mastery of technique, and by that old standby of artistic muses, Lady Luck. I drove out to her studio 24 miles southeast of Austin one cold November morning to speak about her work in advance of the city’s legendary holiday fair, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Along with over 160 other local artisans, she’ll be selling her iconic mosaics and mobiles as well as other welded art at the event that combines live music, holiday shopping, and adult beverages.
Thanks for having me out here. It’s real country out here!
Yeah, my wife likes to garden. She had turned my whole place in East Austin into a garden in six months. We needed more space. When she said, “Imagine the huge studio you can have out there,” I was sold.
We have lots of deer here–and snakes. I’m from the city… I’m not used to snakes. The other morning I came in and there was a rattler, right there [points to the floor next to our sitting area]. Now I hide snakes a lot in my mosaics. Sometimes people never know they’re there.
It sounds like you draw your inspiration from your surroundings, at least partially.
Yes, since we’ve moved to the country I definitely explore themes around nature more. I enjoy the challenge of abstract competition. But once I moved out here, nature started playing a larger role. And from a business perspective, everyone loves nature.
You seem to be very aware of customer interests.
A lot of artists are right brain only. I have that right-brain, left-brain balance, which I think has helped me succeed. It comes from my corporate background. Plus I went to art school in college, but then professionally was in tech, so continued having that balance.
What was your corporate past? And how did you get into mosaic work, or mixed media, as it’s called?
A friend of mine needed help welding a big project for a restaurant. I said I didn’t know how to weld, but that I’d love to help. He took me on. I didn’t realize what a big undertaking it was for him to take on someone with no skills.
While I was welding with him, his wife, a stained glass artist, walked past with this box of colorful glass. I said, “Whoa, whoa, where are you going with that?” I couldn’t let her throw it out. For a while I just collected pieces. But then I started making things with them, and thought, “I guess these are called mosaics.” I started making art and selling it to friends.
I worked at Whole Foods, way back in the original store. I started out at the register and moved my way up to become the systems coordinator. I was there thirteen years, from ’93 to ’05. In the old store there was a massage nook where they had my mosaics all hung up. When we were moving into the current store, an art director from northern California who was helping Whole Foods design the new store came into the old place for a massage. She asked about the mosaics. I met with her. My heart was in my throat. She said, “This is my vision, can you do it, and go away and come back with an idea?” I’m like, “Yes, yes.” And I had no idea how to do it. But I did it.
Within three months of finishing that chocolate counter I was able to quit my job. It was later when I signed another contract that was for over $100K that I told myself, “This is a sign from the universe. If depositing this up-front payment doesn’t give me the confidence to leave my cushy corporate job and its benefits, nothing will.” My soul wasn’t happy in the corporate job, but I’d become conditioned by the security of it.
What’s the most surprising thing about your work?
I hear a lot from people that they’ve never seen art like my art. Many mosaic artists just break up plates and glue them down again. That’s why I say I’m a mixed media artist, unless I’m in an artistic setting. I’m different.
It’s hard work, especially the welding [for the mosaics]. I’ve set my leg on fire, and I butterflied both of my thumbs on the saw… I’m surprised they’ve healed so nicely. I used to work faster but now I take my time. Sometimes I work on my own and listen to the radio and podcasts. My sister helps me grout.
Where do you get your other materials from?
Material sourcing is over half the work. When I was still at Whole Foods I worked on Saturdays in a stained glass store in North Austin. I was shopping there so much that finally the owner said, “Hey… do you want a part-time job?” I got involved and more informed about some of the products in the stained glass industry. Now I fly to Denver twice a year for an event for wholesalers. My inspiration comes from finding pieces of glass there… Literally, I’ll see a piece and my saliva glands will start going, “Oh yes. Must have.”
I have people everywhere looking out for me for found objects. Everyone is trained. I don’t get normal Christmas presents. I get boxes of rocks. There’s a story behind every found item in my work.
What have you learned that you want to share with other artists and people about making a living applying their creative passions?
I’ve learned two things over the years. You get out what you put in. And, the only thing holding you back is not knowing what you want. Once you know what you want, you can do anything.
I’ve not yet been to the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, but I’ve heard it’s quite distinctive. What is it like from your perspective, as an artist?
The Armadillo Christmas Bazaar is by far the most soulful and fun show out there. I’d been trying to get into it for a decade. This will be my fourth or fifth year. The lights are out, so the lights are in the booths and in stage. Even if it’s light outside, it’s dark inside the ‘Dillo! It’s still primarily a music show and there’s live music going the entire time. And once people start enjoying that bar later in the day… they really start shopping.
Interview by Katie Matlack
Check out art from Aly Winningham and more while shopping with your L Style G Style friends for free on Tuesday, December 16th only! Admission is for 7p to 10p and limited to the first 250 RSVP’s. Grab your spot as they are sure to go fast…and tell your friends! RSVP here