Big inspiration comes in little pieces for Carmel Valley mosaic artist

Helen Segal can take bits of broken pieces and turn them into something they never dreamed of being. Her goal as an artist who specializes in mosaics is to find the interesting and unique in the mundane, and to repurpose the discarded and unwanted into something beautiful.

In her 19 years in Carmel Valley, neighbors have learned she’s the “mosaic lady,” and offerings of tiles and scraps will appear anonymously at her doorstep.

“What other people think is junk is truly my magic,” Segal said.

Last year in one of her biggest artistic endeavors, Segal built sculptures for the San Diego Jewish Academy campus. A group of life-size ladies was named “The Matriarchs,” representing the four matriarchs of the Jewish faith (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel), as well as the four seasons. The mosaic art on each matriarch was completed by Segal and three other local artists: Carmel Valley’s Barbi Dorfan, Sigal Sherman and Cheryl Rattner Price, head of SDJA’s Butterfly Project, on a mission to create 1.5 million ceramic butterflies around the world as symbols of hope to memorialize the children who perished during the Holocaust.

“The Matriarchs” is also a working fountain — Summer calls to the people, warm and embracing, and Fall bearing a pot on her head goes toward Winter, who pours water into Spring.

The unveiling ceremony was held on the SDJA campus on Aug. 23, 2014 in Levana’s Garden, an on-campus learning garden dedicated to the memory of longtime teacher Levana Estline, who passed away in 2003.

A native of South Africa, Segal started studying fine arts at Wits University in Johannesburg. While in college, she met her now-ex-husband. They moved to the United States and she finished her degree in North Carolina.

While still college students, the pair opened their own art gallery. Segal specialized in selling African art, but always wanted to create her own.

The couple moved to San Diego and started a family — an unexpectedly difficult time, as both their children were born with severe health challenges. Her son, Jason, was born with a heart defect and underwent nine angioplasties and two open-heart surgeries. Her daughter, Jenna, was born with special needs and Segal was told that the girl would never crawl, walk or talk.

“A mom’s not going to give up,” Segal said. “I had to think outside the box and be creative and use the creative talent in me to pull what I needed out of her.”

Segal taught Jenna to talk using music, poems and stories, writing “silly ditties” to help her find words. She painted a story on a tapestry, now hanging in her living room, that she used to help Jenna sleep through the night.

By age 4, Jenna was able to talk and make sounds, and by age 7 she was able to talk with enough clarity for people to understand her. Now Segal jokes that she can’t get her to stop talking.

“It’s remarkable what Helen was able to do,” said good friend Robyn Rappaport, who admires not only Segal’s artistic abilities but also her strength.

Jason, now a film student at Chapman University, made a touching and award-winning documentary about Jenna while he was a student at Canyon Crest Academy. The experience not only opened Jason’s eyes to the power of filmmaking, but it changed Segal’s life as well. As the mother of a special-needs child, she expressed how she sometimes felt hopeless.

“The film changed my life because it allowed me to find support for my daughter so that I could actually breathe,” she said.

Segal’s focus for many years had been on her children’s health. By the time Jason was 10, her marriage was beginning to fall apart. She had to figure out a way to support herself as a single mother with a special needs child who required 24-hour care.

She ended up becoming certified to teach Pilates, and out of a studio in her home, her business slowly but surely started to grow. She has now taught about 10,000 hours of classes, which has allowed her to pursue her art.

At one stage, she was spending eight to 10 hours a day teaching five days a week, which she admits was exhausting. She has been able to cut back because she is getting more art commissions.

“My goal is to teach a lot less and do more artwork,” Segal said.

Segal is extremely proud of the “Matriarchs.” The entire process, from those initial scribbles of design to finishing all four forms, took about a year — before a single piece of mosaic tile was placed.

Segal was approached in February 2013 about a space in Levana’s Garden that had been earmarked for a fountain. The school wanted a concept that featured pots and pouring water.

She spent hours sketching pots, but none of them really interested her. Inspired by African sculptures, she did a sketch of the four figures, pouring water from one jug to another, and slipped it into the batch of sketches. The school liked it and she did a small prototype called a maquette for them to begin the process of fundraising.

A donor, Gregorio Galicot, stepped up right away and funded the entire project.

In her garage, Segal made the four figures out of a polyurethane foam, similar to what is used to build surfboards. She didn’t use a model, but simply drew on her knowledge of the human body from her years of Pilates instruction.

The individual matriarchs ranged in size from 4 feet, 10 inches to 5 feet, 6 inches. The work was very physical and intense, as Segal had to sand down each layer, but she said it was “huge amounts of fun.”

The arms for the four forms she made of copper, annealing the metal over a flame to burn it to the color she wanted. She got help in working with the new and different materials from her significant other, Bill Maxfield.

“I loved every step of it. I was just in heaven,” she said.

The finished forms were then delivered to each artist’s home for the mosaic work.

Each artist gave each woman their own seasonal spin — Segal’s warm floral summer, Dorfan’s winter with floating snowflakes, Sherman’s spring with a crown of flowers on her head and Rattner Price’s fall, with distinctly autumn leaves.

Segal has collaborated with Price on several projects, including new benches of mosaic butterflies at Levana’s Garden near “The Matriarchs.” Rattner Price’s fall figure includes a butterfly delicately placed over the heart.

Segal and Rattner Price have been tapped to do a mosaic revamp of the fountain at the Torrey Hills Shopping Center. Segal is very excited about the project and hopes to bring Dorfan on as a collaborator.

Around Segal’s art-filled house are examples of her work: She redid her fireplace in mosaic as well as her entire kitchen. More examples of her innovative art hang from the kitchen ceiling in light fixtures made of repurposed deep-dish pizza pans, mosaic glass pieces and spoons.

In her backyard, she did all of the decorative mosaic tile walls, the pool and the spa, and laid every single pebble one by one on the deck. Mosaic minstrels dance on the walls of her home.

“Bill always says if you stand still long enough, I will mosaic you,” Segal joked.

Last year, she was commissioned to mosaic a 12-foot ocean-themed outdoor shower at a La Jolla home, creating an impressive wave out of bits of beachy pieces. The owners loved it so much they had her carry the mosaic work up the stairs, where she made a 5-foot-tall stingray. Then they asked to have a seagull. Feeling that the seagull was “lonely,” Segal is now working on two additional birds for the home.

Completing “The Matriarchs” has stoked a new creative fire for Segal. Now all she wants to do is big and bigger projects.

“I don’t want there to be a limit,” she said. “Art makes you internally soar, that’s why it’s so important to do art. It makes you reach levels in your heart and soul that you didn’t know existed. That’s why I have to do it.”

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