Margi Lake specializes in Islamic geometric designs and patterns. She constructs each piece by hand using a compass and straight-edge. Her work is a fusion of contemporary palettes and time-honoured patterns from traditional Islamic art.
For Margi, the beauty, mystery and genius of Islamic patterns is timeless and universal. They express the principles and realities that govern the cosmos, the natural world and human nature. For her, art is a synthesis of work and play, a coming together of discipline and freedom, mind and heart, skill and creative imagination in an alchemical marriage that unites self and soul in the present moment. It is a pathway to self-knowledge.
We talk to Margi all things geometry, spirituality and preserving traditional skills.
What made you interested in Islamic geometric patterns?
I first set eyes on Islamic art some thirty years ago. My brother knew and worked with Martin Lings, Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at The British Library, and with Titus Burckhardt, author of ‘Art of Islam’ (1976). In the late 1980s I visited the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra in Granada for the first time. It’s probably true to say that I sensed a soul connection with Islamic geometric patterns from the first moment I set eyes on them. My first experience constructing IGPs took place many years later. In 2014 I enrolled in a one-day ‘Introduction to Islamic art’ course at the School of Traditional Arts (PFSTA) in London. This was the start of an intense five years of study – travelling regularly from The Netherlands to London to study Islamic geometry, arabesque and miniature painting. In 2015 I joined the ‘Turquoise Tour’, a study trip to Iran (Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan) led by tutors of PFSTA. I also took part in many of the study trips abroad offered by ‘Art of Islamic Pattern’, visiting Fes (twice), Marrakesh, Cairo, Istanbul, Granada, Cordoba, and Isfahan. In 2017, I visited Uzbekistan and took many photographs of Timurid architecture and patterns. I’ve also had the good fortune to study (in person and online) a wide variety of drawing methods and approaches. My archive of layouts and digital images, and library of Islamic geometry publications continues to grow, as does my passion for this art form.
Your patterns are constructed using traditional tools and drafting methods – starting with a point within a circle. Can you tell us more about your process?
As you say, every pattern starts with a point, a circle, and the division of the circle into segments. The number of segments depends on the symmetry of the pattern under construction (6/12, 8/16, 9/18, 10/20, 11/22, etc.). The first step is always to construct a repeat tile unit (square, hexagon, rectangle, etc.), then to design a composition comprising multiple repeat units. I like to trace the ‘provenance’ of the historical patterns I construct. Research informs the creative process. I like to compare images of patterns in brick, stone, or wood with similar symmetries from different locations, countries, and periods in history. In many cases, the original location is an ancient mosque or shrine, a place recognized as sacred owing to the essence presence of a particular Sufi saint or mystic.
Bringing an ancient pattern to life in paint is an awesome experience. Part of the art is to resonate with the inner essence inherent in the pattern’s outer form and symmetry. Head, hand and the five senses are needed to do the outer work, but it is the inner, intuitive faculty, the sixth sense, that perceives the real nature of things. According to the philosopher Ismail Al-Faruqi: “Art is the reading in nature of an essence that is non-nature and giving to that essence the visible form that is proper to it."
Your work is incredibly detailed, how long does it take you to create a painting?
It depends on the size and complexity of the design. Dual level designs can take as long as three weeks – working 8 hours 6 days/week - from first compass dot to final brushstroke. Complex weaves, border designs, circular designs, and composition elements such as arches and spandrels take time to construct and paint. Decorative elements, for example, arabesques (floral and vegetal motifs), fractal patterns found in nature or miniscule star patterns takes time, and certain brushwork techniques such as shadow (ton-sur-ton) painting in polygons take time. Even little palette trials can take a couple of days, but they also save time as wild ideas can be explored without ruining many hours of work on a large-scale piece. I like to plan my work then work my plan so that every stage of the process is dynamic.
How do you come up with your colour compositions?
Much has been written on the phenomenology, aesthetics, and symbolism of colour in Islam. The nature of colour is mentioned in the works of some mystics, and this can add a mystical dimension to the process. In Persian literature, colors are defined as “the attempt of light to become visible”. Translucency, transparency, luminosity, lumin vitae (light of life) were, and still are important elements in medieval manuscript painting. Painters sought paints and vellum that allowed light to pass through as a way to express aesthetic and philosophical ideas. The way light creates 3D protrusions and recesses in the decorative carved brickwork on the walls and portals of early medieval mosques and madrassas shows that those who built them knew how to create ‘luministic’ effects. As a contemporary watercolorist, establishing the light source beforehand is part of the process. Palette ideas begin to materialize during the construction process. Inspiration for colour and texture comes from many sources – the ‘in situ’ original pattern, the natural world, in particular the delicate, muted tones of gemstones and minerals, the ‘wabi-sabi’ quality of ancient ceramic glazes, images on internet, objects of beauty found in museums, etc. It is the imaginative faculty that projects images on the ceiling of the mind. Contrast and harmonic tonality are important considerations when it comes to creating colour palettes. The aim is twofold; firstly, to reveal something of the pattern’s essence quality through colour, and secondly to bring together the many elements of form and colour into a pleasing and harmonious whole.
What has been the most challenging work you have made?
Constructing the geometry can be challenging, as can designing decorative motifs, and creating compositions. It’s hard to define which has been ‘most challenging’. In terms of compass and straight-edge drafting, both complex dual level Persian designs, and nondecagonal patterns with one layout radius and all angles determined by the interaction of the pentagram with the radial divisions are challenging constructions. Designing motifs can be challenging if a piece has many different shaped polygons. Compositions comprising two or more patterns, arches, complex borders, and weaves are challenging. Fortunately, when the mind is perplexed, it is the signal for other faculties to take over.
What do you hope audiences feel or think when they encounter your work?
To quote the artist Ai Weiwei: “Art is not an end but a beginning.” There is a sense in which artworks are ‘children of the heart’. You conceive them, nurture them, embrace them, listen to them, play with them, encourage them to ripen and unfold in accord with their own essential nature. Then you let them go. Your work is done. It’s time to move on. Everyone perceives art in a different way. Ideas of aesthetic beauty differ from person to person. Meaning depends on cultural, religious, and historical concepts. Islamic geometric patterns express unity in multiplicity, infinity, the beauty and complexity of symmetry, proportion, and balance. They are metaphors for the many layers and levels of cosmic reality. At a deeper level still, patterns can function as portals to the inner self, the microcosm, and the universe, the macrocosm. I don’t have expectations in terms of how audiences respond to my work, but I do hope to communicate something of the sense of wonder and mystery that these patterns evoke in me.
Your work expresses the joy and spirit of the rich heritage of Islamic art and culture. What has the response of audiences been?
The response since I started to post my work on social media has been heartwarming. Many contact me to ask whether I give online courses, and if not, how, and where they can find tutors to teach them or books on how to construct IGPs. I’ve compiled an extensive list of recommendations and resources for such occasions. Last year, the ‘Ars et Mathesis’ foundation and the curators of the VR Museum Tesseract opened an online exhibition dedicated to artists whose work is related to mathematics. The ‘Margi Lake’ gallery contains a selection of 24 artworks, and we produced a 56-page full colour digital catalogue (in English) providing a ‘behind the scenes’ exposition of the processes involved in transforming an Islamic geometric pattern into a contemporary artwork. The printed version of the catalogue has sold well so far. I occasionally sell artworks and fine art (giclée) prints of my work, but time is precious and spending it on creating new works takes precedent over promoting finished works.
Is there a spiritual element to your work?
Yes, the spiritual element is present in every aspect of my life and work.
What are your aspirations as an artist?
To continue to develop and refine every aspect of drawing and painting Islamic geometric patterns. For me, that means constructing ever-crisper, cleaner and more accurate drawings, honing pencil and brushwork skills, increasing technical expertise, and deepening knowledge and understanding through research and learning. I hope one day to exhibit original artworks in a gallery so that audiences get to see and experience ‘the real thing’ as opposed to just seeing photographic representations.
What does the future of Islamic art look like to you?
Interest in all forms of Islamic art – geometry, calligraphy, and arabesque – seems to me to be on the increase. There is a vast, ever-expanding global community of master geometers, geometry tutors, digital artists, professional designers, mathematicians, skilled traditional artist-geometers, artisans and craftspeople practicing Islamic geometry, showcasing their work and discussing construction methods on social media forums. It is a unique community - multi-generational and multi-cultural – comprised of individuals who are passionate about what they do and willing to share their knowledge, skills, experience, layouts, and photographs of historical patterns. For practitioners interested in the history and provenance of patterns, there are also excellent digital archive resources available, not to mention the many museums worldwide dedicated to Islamic art and architecture. Islamic art expresses the unity at the heart of diversity. It promotes harmony, equilibrium, and many of the qualitative values that our world seems to have lost sight of.
For more information check out www.margilake.com
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