Have you ever looked at a mosaic and wondered who created it? Where they get their inspiration from? Where did they learn their craft? And why use mosaics? Well, some of the answers are here. And if they’re not, hey, come along and enjoy the ride! These artists are interesting people and they take great joy in their work, but each story is different. See what you can learn from their experiences.
Hello and welcome. My name is Ian Laurie. I’m an academic researcher and amateur mosaic artist and it’s my love for mosaic art that has led me to conduct and publish this series of interviews with artists who specialise in mosaics. I’ve read plenty of (very good) books and articles detailing the history and techniques of mosaic art. So, I’ve been drawing on my research and interview skills to understand more about the work of mosaic artists, how they came to use and create mosaics and what their inspirations are. For me, learning about the artist is as informative as the instruction. So, please, read on, learn, and enjoy!
For this seventh and final interview of 2019, I talk with Kate Rattray. Kate manages to combine her unique style with imagination, humour and a shedload of both vocational and research skills to great effect. Based in Wells, Somerset, in the southwest of England, Kate Rattray has been making mosaics since 1994. She’s a member of the Somerset Guild of Craftsmen, and on top of teaching classes at her studio, Kate produces three dimensional mosaics which combine stunning mosaics, storytelling and attention to detail. In addition, Kate’s 2-D work is fabulous, too, and her pieces often come with a story. So, please; sit back, relax, read and enjoy.
All images are used courtesy of Kate Rattray and remain the copyright of Kate Rattray
Hello, thank you for inviting me to do this interview.
It’s a pleasure! You have a degree in Creative Arts and say that your first large-scale mosaic was for a primary school wall, assisted by the schoolchildren. How did you become involved in this project and what was its impact on you?
I moved into a schoolhouse in a village near Exeter, with my partner and our first two children. I was making collage and photo montages for exhibitions and I thought it would be nice to make some work with the children at the school. The head teacher took me to the outside wall of the school and asked if I could make a mosaic on it. Although I had never made a mosaic before, it seemed to be the next step up from making collage. So with help from Exeter library’s collection of old and antiquated mosaic books, I learnt how to mosaic. I was also very lucky to find ‘Rick and Rog’ who were master builders in the village. I sought their help and they kindly built a screed on the wall and taught me how to mix sand and cement mortar. The mosaic featured a frog, the school emblem, with smaller details that were made indirect onto paper then fixed to the wall, and the backgrounds made directly around them. Everything was recycled; the children collected broken china and pebbles from the river and I collected stained glass scraps from a glass artist, fished out from his bin buckets, which were also full of cigarette buts and ashes.
I found the whole process fascinating and a joy to make, and the kids were amazing and were totally engrossed in the activity. But it wasn’t really until I was up a ladder finishing the sky in stained glass that I realised why I loved making it. It was the physical process of mixing a wonderful messy gloop of cement mortar. I was one of those kids who loved making mud pies and mixed in water to make ‘coffee’; then later at college, I messed about a lot with clay, so this wasn’t so different, except I had to wear gloves! It was also the reflection of the glass as it shimmered in the sunlight after the satisfaction of cleaning away the grout.
After this mural mosaic, I made a garden for the school, with large mosaic structures and mosaic paving stones to hold herbs. Then I was asked to make another mural mosaic in another school and it snowballed from there.
Kate, other artists have noted in these interviews the difference between teaching children and adults. Do you see these differences?
I don’t think there are a lot of differences. Everyone, both adult and child, are so different, so there will be some that take to mosaic like a fish to water and others who struggle with it. I have taught 10 year olds who are so precise in their cutting and placement of tile and 40 year olds who never achieve the 3-5mm rule of grout lines. However, I do find that adults are generally slower than children; they consider composition and colour-matching for longer and can be slower at placing the tile. Adults tend to be more cautious, whereas children will just go for it; they don’t worry about it as much. And generally, adults can concentrate for longer and the conversation is different. You can really understand the nature of a person by watching how they make a mosaic and seeing the results.
You also say on your website that you’ve studied with mosaic masters. Can you give us some idea of who these were?
I did a short course in 2005 at the famous Orsoni company in Venice with Lucio Orsoni and Cav. Giovanni Cuco, Head of Restoration at St. Marks basilica, Venice, and the Albert Memorial in London, and Orsoni’s assistant at the time, Antonella Gallenda.
I’ve mentioned that you often weave into your mosaics a story or a bit of history, for which ‘The Missing Tusk’ image, above, is a good example. Can you say how you came to do this and why it’s importantto you?
As I child I loved writing stories, they were usually about ghosts and UFO’s and a bit strange. Unfortunately, my English teacher at secondary school didn’t seem to understand what imagination was. He would mark my stories with low marks and write on them things like “Would this really happen..?” and “This is a bit far-fetched”. Luckily my parents and my art teacher were always encouraging. My father was a drama teacher and director, and together both my mother and father were involved in the theatre, so I was brought up in a creative and imaginative environment. I remember when I was about 12, I did a project on superstitions. My dad drove me to a village in Devon called Shebbear to talk to the locals about a custom they participate in. Each year the villagers have to evade the devil by turning a large boulder called the ‘Devil’s Stone’.
I find an interesting story or concept is a good place to start to make a piece of work, it helps me to research something new, whilst presenting me with a challenge to discover different processes, structures and materials.
‘The Watcher’ by Kate Rattray
You often create your 3-dimensional pieces to emphasise your work, and ‘The Watcher’, ‘The Missing Tusk’ and the ‘Starlings’, all featured in this interview, are good examples. That sounds time-consuming and yet your finished pieces are unique. How do you go about beginning a piece? Where do the ideas come from?
I usually begin with a basic sketch, then with materials such as wire mesh, clay, polystyrene or cement board, I just build it. I rarely make maquettes [small-scale versions of the larger, finished piece] first; I just go for it. I don’t draw well in 3d, so my sketches will only show a basic shape, but I find I can make forms fairly easily from my chosen materials. I make mistakes along the way, which are normally to do with strength. For instance, once you add a mosaic skin to a bird’s wing, you might find it will crack under the weight, so that has to be resolved before adding the mosaic. I don’t worry about the mistakes as they are the best way to learn how a structure will work, but obviously I can’t sell it if it hasn’t worked.
You’ve created both public and private artwork. Is there one or the other you prefer?
I think I prefer private work; things I make for exhibitions and galleries or to sell on my online shop because I can choose what I want to make. Work for exhibitions might have a theme and that is often a good place to start on new pieces and will make me think in ways I haven’t before. For instance, the pieces I made for the Heritage Courtyard Studios’ exhibition ‘Re-formation’- offered me a chance to look at the history of the Bishop’s Palace and consider ‘Re-formation’ which I chose to do in the old religious sense of the word – ‘Reformation’. I love to have a chance to study something different and make work in response to it. Having said that, I have been very lucky to have some amazing commissions lately, both private and public, both of which considered the style of my work before I was approached and allowed me free reign in the interpretation of ideas.
Does it give you pride to pass items of public work that you’ve created or contributed to?
Yes, of course. Artists like me have too much ego!
Of course! Silly question – good response!Is there a community of mosaic artists around you?
There are quite a few in the South West, most of them in Devon but 3 or 4 in Somerset, some of whom I have taught and most of whom I have met in the past. I’m looking forward to exhibiting with them next year for a touring exhibition in Torquay and Bridport. Find us on instagram @southwestmosaicartists
What would you say is the most difficult thing about being a mosaic artist? Do you think that’s any different to working, say, in paint?
It can be laborious at times and larger pieces can be physically demanding. As I work long hours, at times I get what I presume is RSI in my hands, but I also have a permanently swollen finger that might be arthritis, which gets painful after a full day’s work. And then there’s the back! Back pain comes and goes depending on the project, sometimes you can’t get your position right and you have to lean over the work, especially if it’s a large piece. I don’t think painting would hurt so much and it might be quicker to finish a piece, although I know painters who take a long time to complete their work.
Selling the work is one of the hardest things, there is a lot of competition; everyone is an artist these days, and the problem is multiplied when there are so many ‘hobbyists’ and retired people out there, working in various mediums, not just mosaic, who price their work too cheap. This undercuts any serious artists and makes it very hard to make a living.
You write a blog in which you explain and show how you go about creating your artwork. They’re very informative pieces and I’m a signed-up reader and fan. What is your thinking behind the blog?
It’s a kind of diary for me, to remind me when and how I made something. It’s a place to write down my research on a certain myth or historical event. It’s also a way to share information as well as to promote my work, so we all win.
On your website, there’s a lovely set of animated mosaic videos, which are also on YouTube. What was the purpose of these short videos?
I made them for exploratory fun when I had more time and when there was a second income coming into the house. When I was at art college, I made music videos with my band and some surreal repetitive videos to accompany my photomontages, so I’ve always had an interest in what you can do with moving images.
And finally, for those questions I like to finish with: Is there a mosaic that gives you that “Wow!” moment and stops you in your tracks?
There are many. I was blown away and moved to tears when I first came across the Byzantine gold mosaic walls and ceilings in San Marco in Venice, so they would have to be the ones.
Good choice! I’ve gazed at those pieces and still think of them in awe. Is there a mosaic artist whose work you particularly like?
Presently I’m working on designs for a commission for the underside of an archway which will prove challenging to make. Afterwards I’m going to try and incorporate more plastics into my work as a way to reuse and recycle, so I hope to find some time for experiments.
Kate, thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s been a delight.
Kate’s explanations of the images:
*”‘Blodeuwedd’ is inspired by a Celtic story from ‘The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’ Blodeuwedd was the wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was magically made of flowers by magicians, since Lleu’s mother had cursed him and he was unable to have a human wife. However, she has an affair with Lord Penlynn and together they conspire to murder Lleu. Lord Penlynn strikes Lleu with a spear and the magicians turn Lleu into an eagle. When Blodeuwedd flees, the magicians turn her into an owl, as it is the most despised bird in the bird kingdom.”
**”‘All That We Did to them” is an apocalyptic vision as a result of manmade greed and the subsequent environmental problems leading to climate change.”
Hello again and welcome to another Face Behind the Mosaic. Claudia Bini is an Italian artist now living and working in Sweden. It was Claudia’s glass depictions of social settings which caught my eye. If you haven’t seen them, then do have a look as she uses coloured glass to great effect. Claudia is the BAMM coordinator for Scandinavia and, although she isn’t currently a full-time mosaicist, she has recently started studying Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University and for which mosaics are bound to be included. So, as always, please read on!
Claudia, welcome. You’re originally from Tuscany, Italy, and you studied at the Institute of Art in Monza and then a further year at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. That’s quite an arts education! How do you think your studies feed into your mosaic work?
They certainly gave me some background. I have a diploma in visual communication and worked in advertising and publishing. I have learnt how to handle a project from start to finish, plus I have some good notions of history of art and colour theory; all useful aspects that can be applied when working with mosaic as a media.
Did you see many mosaics when growing up? And did these influence your decision to become an artist?
More than mosaics, I would say art in general. Growing up in Italy, I had been surrounded by art and architecture. As a child, I used to visit museums and exhibitions together with my grandfather, who also loved art. I guess it runs in the family, because his daughter, my mother, is also very interested in arts and crafts. She has always encouraged me to try out all possible media, from drawing to painting, working with clay, making jewellery and so on. When I applied for art school, my dream was to become graphic designer and create images for record covers. Vinyl was still huge at the time!
You then moved into freelance graphic design for advertising and you’ve said that it was while working on a project that you gained experience in different modes of art and how you first experienced modern mosaic making. Can you tell me about that?
That was an interesting turn of events. I attended a course to learn the basics of ‘trompe-l’oeil’, which was held by Maria Rita Macchiavelli, a renowned Italian journalist and one of the first makers of DIY tutorials and handbook publications. She suggested I assist her while preparing two handbooks: one on paper mâché, and one on mosaic. We needed to make many pieces for the different stages of ‘work in progress’ photos, so she put a mosaic nipper in my hand and a bunch of glass stripes in the other and said, “Start cutting them into small tesserae”.And just like that I was hooked!
And how did you move from making mosaics as a hobby to becoming a professional mosaic artist?
It happened when I moved to Sweden. I had a studio, which sadly I no longer have, where I was giving courses and selling the tools and materials for mosaic making.
You’re based in Lund, Sweden. Are there many mosaicists working there?
There are few; some of them are former students of mine, but to my knowledge none is working full time with it.
Is there a big mosaic community in Sweden?
Nothing comparable to other countries, but we are slowly growing. As BAMM coordinator for Scandinavia, I welcome the newly joined members. At the moment Denmark has a larger group of mosaic artists.
Do any of your former students still mosaic, do you know?
I am still in contact with two of them. One in particular attended my course more than 10 years ago. She does mosaic as a hobby and now that she is retired has more time to work on her projects.
And could I ask what you enjoyed about teaching?
I like to give the students the chance to express themselves, so I encourage to come to class with some ideas of what they would like to do and see how to transform them into mosaic. In this way everyone can work on a more personal level, and at the same time they learn about mosaic techniques. What I enjoy the most is to see the variety and originality of artworks at the end of the class. The students seem to appreciate it as well; it’s more fun than making a clone of the same work for everybody
So, are you self-taught or have you studied with teachers?
After my first encounter with mosaic I decided to learn more, so I bought some books and went back studying ancient mosaics in churches. We are talking about 25 years ago; there were no YouTube tutorials or Google search to help me back then. Later, I took some courses and I intend to continue to do so in the future. It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone and learn new skills.
I’m particularly interested in your ‘People’ pieces depicting social settings. What inspired you to create these? And why did you stop? I love them! There’s so much expression in these pieces, I almost feel you could make these your signature pieces!
I am glad to hear you appreciate my “people” pieces, I have so much fun when I work this type of subject.
I like to go around and take my own pictures. In this way I will always render an original scene, most often almost impossible to recreate no matter how hard you would try; the flow of the city is constantly changing. Whenever I see something that has potential, I take a shot. The scene in ‘Another working day’ is an exception. There, I was aiming at taking a picture of The Shard in London. It turned out dull and grey when suddenly I realised that something much more interesting was going on along the street! That is the story of how that piece was born.
I have only made four pieces, so far. The original plan was to make many more and showcase them all together during an exhibition. Unfortunately, or should I say luckily, I sold them all very quickly!
The plan to make an entire series still stands, I just need to have the patience to collect them and not show them before they are all ready.
Do you draw your images before you begin the mosaic or do you lay the glass over the photo?
I usually draw my images. I trace the outline of a photo to keep the right proportions and adjust, smooth or remove some details before I start with the mosaic part.
You also make jewellery in which you incorporate mosaics. When did you start making jewellery?
It started long time ago, when I took a course in fused glass and lamp beads. Myself I am a big fan of eccentric, odd pieces. Something that makes a statement and can be worn easily without worries. When it comes to incorporate mosaic, I smooth the edges as much as I can to avoid accidental cuts on the skin or damages on fabrics. To enhance the artistic part of a jewel, it is crucial to pay attention to details; from the finishing of the findings to the length of a chain or cord. Some details are the same to give consistency to a collection, but each piece has a special detail that makes it unique.
Your mosaics are made of decorative glass and also smalti. Do you have a preference as to which material you use? And where did you learn to use a hammer and hardie?
It depends from the kind of project I have in mind. Decorative glass is the first love, the one I used the very first time. I can cut it very quickly and get any kind of shape I want; also the colour palette is very rich in gradient shades, so it allows me to give that illusion of a brush stroke I am looking for. I love the roughness of smalti; their thickness gives me the chance to work on three-dimensions. I am less familiar with natural stones and marbles; I have recently started to experiment with them, but so far, I really like them. They are the original material used since the appearance of the first mosaics in history.
I went to Orsoni in Venice and attended a workshop to learn how to work with a hammer and hardie. It was a wonderful experience to live and work in the same spot of the factory. I warmly recommend it!
I’ve seen you’ve contributed a piece to Carrie Reichardt’s famous mosaic house, which I’ve only seen online. How did you come to create a piece for the house?
I have been following Carrie’s work since many years, being both part of BAMM, so when she put out a ‘call for artists’ to help her finish the house, I was happy to join. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the possibility to go there and help in person, but I sent a couple of ‘alien eyes’. I worked on a mesh, using vitreous tiles and luminescent glass tiles. I called them ‘alien’ because they glow in the dark!I look forward to finally seeing The Mosaic House next time I am in London.
And now for those questions I ask of every artist! Is there a mosaic artist you really admire? Or more than one?
There are many contemporary mosaic artists I admire, and it wouldn’t be fair to name only one or two. There are those who treat their motives in a very interesting way, some who can combine different materials with astonishing results, other have a quirky sense of humour that I love. Our community is full of great, talented people!
And is there a mosaic that stopped you in your tracks and gave you that ‘Wow!’ moment?
I am currently preparing a presentation about the significance of mosaic in art, plus some workshops for the upcoming seasonal courses at ‘Folkuniversitet’ in Lund. There will also be a collective exhibition in April 2020 with the art group I am part of and for which I am the only mosaic artist. I need to prepare some new pieces.
And plans for the future?
I am in the beginning of my studies in Archaeology and Ancient History at Lund University; I will spend the next few months in the company of ancient Greeks and Romans… more classical art and more mosaics to study among other things!Besides continuing with more exhibitions, another plan for the future is to take a course at the Mosaic School in Spilimbergo. I want to learn more about materials and techniques.
Claudia, good luck with your studies and thank you for speaking with me.
Mimi Near is my next Face Behind the Mosaic and continues my series of interviews with mosaic artists whose work and passion for mosaics and for life are inescapably intertwined. Based in Portland, Oregon, USA, Mimi became enthralled with the idea of mosaics while still a child and learned from her father, ‘a master tile contractor and craftsman’. More than three decades later, mosaics are central to Mimi’s working life, calling them an art form she’s ‘truly in love with’. Her work embodies both architectural and fine art and encompasses residential, commercial and public work. In this latest interview, Mimi discusses her background as an apprentice tile contractor, her training and living life ‘in the moment’. It is my pleasure, therefore, to introduce Mimi Near.
Mimi, welcome to The Face Behind the Mosaic. I read that you were 13 when you saw your first mosaic ‘in the great cathedrals of Europe’ and you knew then that you would ‘pursue the art form with a passion throughout [your] life’. What was it about your initial encounter that inspired the 13-year-old you so much and what did you do in the coming years to achieve your vision? Where did you train and develop your skills?
Seeing those ancient mosaics for the first time created surprise and then delight with in me. Seeing mosaic from a distance enthralled me and aroused my curiosity. Getting up close totally surprised me, realising it was made from tiny pieces of glass or stone. It seemed like such a labour of love. I came home from Europe with new eyes, with a deeper understanding of the possibilities in life. I also was young and had many dreams, so it was a bit of a windy road.
I began learning the craft of Ceramic Tile Setting when I went to work for my father at 24 years old. I became a journeyman tile setter and later became a tile contractor. I honed this craft for 25 years while raising my son. I was always holding the vision of being a mosaic artist, just waiting for everything in my life to line up. In the meantime, I made more excursions to Europe, studying the cultures and the architecture and the art. On one of those adventures, I went to Ravenna, Italy, to take a workshop from Luciana Noturnii at the Mosaic Art School. It was there that I learned the technique, tools and the laws of mosaic.
I have always been self-employed and I knew with the skills I learned as a tile contractor, my independent study of art and architecture, and my love of mosaic, I could pursue my dream.
And so you have!In a video posted on your website, you talk about how light reflects off mosaics, and the way that, as the light changes, so the eye sees something different, which is a sentiment I completely I agree with. But what is it about mosaics, as opposed to other media, that does that trick with the light?
Once glass became available to mosaic artisans, everything changed. The reflective quality created by the undulating surface of the split glass was found to give an ethereal, illuminating quality to the art, making it something sought after by the church as a means to give an otherworldly impression. The traditional way of creating mosaic begins with a disc of poured glass called a “Pizza”. This is split and then turned on its edge to take advantage of the uneven surface similar to a faceted stone. The light bounces off these facets, which sets it apart from other modalities.
Your video is obviously a promotional device, but you speak with such passion. In fact, ‘Passion’ is one of your headings on your website, but I think this really comes through in your work. Is that what makes you ‘get out of bed’ every morning?
Absolutely! There is just nothing like having a vision of something and bringing it into the material world one tiny shard at a time. It is a slow process that unfolds often without truly knowing the outcome until it is finished. I am truly in love with this art form!
You describe mosaic as ‘a moving, living art’. It’s one of the truly fascinating elements of mosaics. Do your customers appreciate this aspect of it, do you think?
Once you live with a mosaic and feel the changes throughout the day and night it becomes a living art. This is also further enhanced by the energy imbued by the artist. Yes, my clients have expressed how the mosaic comes to life and is almost like a familiar part of the household.
Your work covers everything from picturesque to the fantastical. ‘Spring Migration’ is a delightful bit of humorous wordplay. How did you come to create this piece and others in this series?
I created a series of whimsical art and this is one I created after being so inspired by artist James Christensen. I just love his work! Each piece I created in this time period was “all about the journey”. I tend to be attracted to what draws me forward, the delight of the unknown or the “magic” of life.
I read that you are inspired by your travels. Do you go off to find mosaics in different countries?
I love to travel. I find it expands my life with each new experience. I am always interested in seeing mosaic, but also there is just so much that inspires one to create. It could be an encounter with an interesting person or an ancient piece of art in a museum or some stunning architecture; even stumbling upon an ancient church on a path in the forest. And, of course, nature is my biggest inspiration.
You teach as well as make mosaics. What is it about teaching that inspires you? Who do you teach?
What I love most about teaching is when students come in with the opinion that they are not creative and then I get to watch them walk away with a beautiful piece of art that they created. They are forever changed. I have taught children, but the nature of the glass cutting is really best for older kids and adults.
This medallion and stair treads work came out of the need by the homeowner to bring attention to the outdoor steps leading down to her pool. The existing Bluestone was so consistent in colour that people were stumbling. My intention was to compliment the stone while bringing in the colours and feel of the architecture, and at the same time accentuating the elevation changes.
As some of the images show, your work covers everything from individual pieces, table top inlays, door surrounds all the way through to outside groundworks and buildings – the list seems endless – but you say you are ‘most animated when collaborating with architects, homeowners, designers and other master craftsmen on custom residential and commercial projects’. Why is this?
‘Collaboration’ is my favourite word! There is just nothing like sharing a vision with others that are passionate about their craft. The energy created by people working together, each bringing their own love of the work and sharing a vision, working out the details and piece by piece creating a masterpiece! The possibilities are endless.
I noticed you use ‘we’ in describing your work. Do you have a team of artists working with you? Do they work for you or do they come in to work on specific projects?
I have a selected few artists that I call on for the larger projects. When I do architectural installations, I often enlist help from a friend and fellow artist and tile and stone contractor, Rachel Streeter.
Mimi, you state that you are a ‘ceramic, glass and stone tile contractor’. Do builders contact you? How does being a contractor work in terms of mosaic creation and installation?
I have been a Licensed, Bonded and Insured Contractor for over 30 years. This allows me to do my own installations of architectural art. I am able to work directly on the job site, making it easier for General Contractors to work with me. Because of my background in the construction industry, I can read and draw blueprints. I understand scale and I have a clear understanding of the building process. I work directly with architects and contractors. I also am able to discuss the specifics with the homeowner, helping them to have a clear understanding of the installation process.
You’re a member of the Preservation Artisans Guild, which, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of period buildings and artworks. How did you first become involved in restoration work and what does it involve?
The Preservation Artisans Guild is an organisation of artisans skilled in a variety of traditional decorative arts and building crafts. Each artist brings not only the skill, but also the passion and enthusiasm for the specialty of their craft and the part it plays in historical architecture.
My forte is the understanding of traditional mosaic; using tools and techniques that have been used for centuries. I find immense value in knowing that someone has taken the time and interest to create something beautiful and functional with their hands. I believe one can see and feel when someone’s work is imbued with their heart and soul.
Do you undertake many restorations?
Working in the historical context is just part of what I do. That said, my traditional training influences all my work whether it is a contemporary piece or an historic reproduction.
You’ve created a range of pieces you call ‘Shards’, which are fragments of complete pieces and resemble, in your words, ‘excavated ancient mosaics’. They’re fabulous! What gave you the idea of creating these mock-excavations?
Historic mosaic has had a huge influence on my work. Seeing the unearthed fragments of ancient mosaic in Pompeii for instance have been so inspiring.
Do you get involved in community projects?
I have worked with children in schools, as well as community beautification projects in my local communities. I have also done public art projects in the community where I grew up.
I was happily wandering through the images of your work on your website. I was stunned by the mosaic of the dogs in different positions on the ‘rug’. It’s clearly an outside piece. As a dog lover, I really do want to know more about it!
Well, the ‘Dog Rug’ is a great story. The man that commissioned me to do this piece for him was blind. He also loved dogs so passionately that his name is inscribed on the front of the Humane Society where he gave generously. He was not always blind and had travelled the world, immersing all his senses in the beauty and history. He fondly wanted to memorialise his dogs. Mosaic seemed to be the way to carry them into eternity. Four of the 5 dogs were deceased. I worked from photographs to capture their essence. His housemates and I would describe in detail the scene for him. He himself has passed now, but I recently revisited the residence and met the new owners. They are thrilled to have this fun memorial in their courtyard.
I’ll bet they are! It’s a lovely story and one that has resonance for me, as our beloved ‘Pippin’ died recently and we now have two young pups, as well as an elderly terrier. The dogs in your mosaic look wonderfully contented.
I’ve mentioned some of the varied mosaics you’ve created in different styles and using a variety of techniques. One recent piece is called ‘Roses’, and is made from black, gold and reds. It’s a relatively simple piece, although ‘simple’ belies just how striking the overall effect is. What is the story behind this piece?
Roses are some of my favourite flowers. I had been inspired by a tour I had recently taken of the historical influences in the architecture of Portland, Oregon. The Art Deco stuck with me. I hadn’t thought of it until now, but Portland is also the “City of Roses”.
A few questions that I ask all interviewees. Is there a mosaic you’ve worked on that you’re really proud of?
Recently I have been working to give my mosaics a more painterly feel. The “French Farmyard” backsplash installation is my first attempt and I am pretty happy with that.
It’s stunning and I’m not surprised you’re proud of it. But you’ve seen many mosaics in your lifetime. Is there a single mosaic you’ve seen and thought: ‘Wow!’?
There are so many stunning pieces of mosaic art! When it comes to ancient mosaic, I am in awe of the ‘Alexander Mosaic‘ now housed in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, and originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. This piece just exudes the fury and panic of the moment. You can feel the energy!
And is there a mosaic artist whose work you particularly admire?
Mosaic is taking on so many forms these days and there are some incredible artists. My heart still holds out for the traditional style and use of tools and materials. There is just something about that old-world style that feels authentic to me, even if creating a contemporary piece. So, there is not one in particular artist, and though I don’t want to narrow it down to someone or someplace specific, I have seen some incredible work from Russian artists.
What are you currently working on?
Currently I am just finishing a framed piece approximately 22” x 60” landscape for clients that want to bring the feel of looking up through the branches of the oak trees in their garden into their living room.
And finally, plans for the future?
My biggest desire is to create beauty. I immerse myself in the natural beauty of life and I am continually awe struck and inspired. I live in the moment as much as I can and I allow the future to unfold just as the rose unfurls its petals in the morning light.
Your work embodies your spirit, Mimi! Thank you very much.
And please, if you’ve enjoyed reading this interview with Mimi, don’t forget there are interviews with John Sollinger, Lynda Knott and Angela Williams of TomatoJack Arts, Elizabeth Raybee, and Gary Drostle on this site, so please, scroll through and have a read. Each artist talks about their particular approach to their art, so there’s always something to learn. And if you think you know someone you’d like to see interviewed, then get in contact and I’ll do the research!
All images used in this post belong to Gary Drostle. For more of Gary’s work, you can visit his website: https://www.drostle.com/
My latest Face Behind the Mosaic is Gary Drostle, an artist who has received multiple awards over the years. Gary has installed mosaics across the UK and also in the USA. As a recipient of prestigious Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) funding, Gary was able to undertake an intensive period of study at Venice and Fruili, Italy, and has gone from success to success. In 2017, he was invited by garden designer Sarah Eberle to collaborate on a Gaudi-inspired garden for the UK’s Chelsea Flower Show, the result of which won a Gold Medal. In addition to producing amazing mosaics, Gary is on the Editorial Board of ‘Andamento’, the Journal of the British Association for Modern Mosaics (BAMM), was President of BAMM from 2014 to 2017, and has travelled the world, making, installing, teaching and giving talks about mosaics. Here, Gary talks about his work, challenges, experiences and those all-important turning points in his career as a professional artist based in London, as well as his unofficial role as tour guide for Woolwich…
to The Face Behind the Mosaic. You studied fine art at art colleges in London. Why did you decide to study fine art? What
appealed to the young Gary Drostle about studying fine art?
Well, I think it’s a funny thing about art, as opposed to other careers, that we nearly all begin as artists when we are children and it then becomes about who drops out. I didn’t drop out of art because it was the only subject at school that I gained any praise for, so I stuck with it. Ordinarily I might have followed my Dad into working in the London Docks, but I was lucky enough to go to a Modern Comprehensive School 1970’s, when London had a well-funded and progressive education system. They took school pupils who showed talent in art from across London and sent us to Art College for a week and then away to a retreat in Wales to just paint, it was one of those turning points. Suddenly I wasn’t the odd one in the class; instead I was surrounded by odd ones just the same as me. That was a real turning point.
You began work as a mural artist and you were even commissioned for a mural at Alexandra Palace. Not long after that you worked on your first mosaic: ‘Sunburst’ [above]. What are the skills that link the two art forms?
Mural painting and architectural mosaic art are both about
architecture. The essence of both is in the sense of scale, the fact that,
unlike gallery art, the spectator moves through the space, changing
perspectives and the relationship with the surrounding environment. These are
key to success in both; it’s in the design.
As for technical skills, there is a nice link between the two. My other favourite interest, both in school and now, is ancient history. When I started getting into mural painting, I did a course in Buon Fresco painting because I wanted to understand how this ancient method worked. In doing that course, I discovered a love for cements and the process that I felt linked me to physical work. I had become a little disillusioned in art college and was feeling I needed to reconnect with my roots. Using cement and working in a more ‘construction-like’ manner gave me that feeling. Then, when I discovered mosaic it just seemed to naturally connect. In fact, the process of laying a fresco is exactly the same as a mosaic: the differing layers of cements; the cartoon; the final trowel-on in day work sections. The only difference being the placement of tesserae is replaced by laying down a pigment.
Do you now
think of yourself as a mosaic artist or an artist whose medium is mosaic? Or a
mosaicist? Does it matter?
Actually, I think of myself as an architectural artist: which medium I choose depends on the site itself and the budget of the client. The main identity is around the design and its relationship with the building or landscape. Beyond that the process of painting or mosaic, both have their own creative part, which I enjoy very much. I mean, that part of translating the design where the physical act of painting or the act of placing a tessera has its own creative dimension.
Having said I am an architectural artist, I do have a longing to be more of a street artist, the work of contemporary graffiti artists is the most inspiring thing I know.
In 2017, you collaborated with garden designer Sarah Eberlefor a Gaudi-esque design titled ‘Inspired by Barcelona’. I read on your website that when approached you with an idea for creating a Gaudi-inspired mosaic for her garden, you felt ‘slightly intimidated’ by the idea. It’s hard to imagine, but what went through your mind and how long did it take for you to come up with what became the concept and final design?
I should point out that it was Sarah’s Garden that won the Gold Medal, she was kind enough to invite me in and to really give me a free reign on the theme. My initial intimidation was two-fold. Firstly how could I begin with such an iconic thing as Gaudi’s Barcelona mosaics. And secondly how could my type of mosaic relate to that very distinctive broken tile style of mosaic. It felt like a wall, ha ha!
The breakthrough came when I decided to look one step back from Guadi’s work and study the beautiful Spanish tiles themselves. Looking at the tiles and again at Gaudi’s work, particularly the Parc Güell benches, what fascinated me was how the pieces seemed to reassemble into new patterns. So I decided to print out copies of my favourite tiles and literally cut them up and re-arrange them. This then became the design for the mosaic, which I could make using Smalti Piastrina in a modern mosaic style [smalti piastrina is a thinner, flatplate glass enamel, which is used face up, as opposed to the traditional thicker smalti which uses the opened interior of the glass slab].
And on the
theme of working to the customer’s needs, what lies at the core of your work?
So, someone approaches you wanting you to make a mosaic – how do you go about turning their
initial idea into a reality?
I begin most jobs trying to simply be a sponge and soak up both the
customers ideas and also any information I can get about the site. What I
really like to do is look further into the history of the site, everything from
its geology, its history and its present situation, local community and
culture. I believe that the more I can do this the better the final design will
be. For some clients that will be about spending a day talking and looking
around, for others it can mean extensive community consultation, historical research
and local investigation that can take weeks.
Once I have completed the research phase then it’s time to sit down in
the studio and just start drawing and see what comes out.
What drives you on, Gary? What is it that makes Gary
Drostle get out of bed each day? And what makes each mosaic different from the
Hmmm… Apart from the ever-looming bank and having to pay the rent? I do just love what I do, although sometimes I curse it too… The great thing is that every job is different; I feel like I am always learning new things, both from a technical point of view, how to make my work better, but also from a general knowledge point of view. Lately, I have been studying the flora and fauna of Arizona’s Colorado River. Last year I was studying the Cornish Rebellion against the English in 1497; before that Embera-Wounaan Indigenous basket weaving of Colombia. Every project takes me to a new place and new discoveries.
The other thing that pushes
me on is that feeling that the last job wasn’t good enough, as mentioned
already, my dissatisfaction with the last job pushes me on to try again on the
You run ‘Drostle
Public Arts Ltd’ from
your workshop in Erith, east London. Do you employ regular staff to work with
you? Or do you work with a group of trusted people on a case-by-case basis? Or
do you work alone?
I wish I could manage to keep a regular staff, but I never quite seem to have enough work for that. Claire Notely has worked for me pretty consistently for over fifteen years and is the first person I call on. She works most of the time and her mosaic work is identical to my own. She also has the ability to read my mind. I think of her as my studio manager, she is the core of the mosaic making, although she doesn’t really get paid enough.
In addition to Claire, I am lucky enough to have some great mosaic makers around me who I can call on when work gets more busy. In particular, Giulia Vogrig [from the London School of Mosaic] has worked in the studio for the last eight years and has had a huge impact on my work. She is a graduate of the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli and brought with her what was for me new knowledge and a greater understanding of the discipline of both mosaic construction and installation. After Claire and Giulia, then there have been a succession of great mosaic makers who have helped out, many of them are successful mosaic makers in their own right and it is always fun to have a studio buzzing with people and work.
scanning ‘Pinterest’ for mosaics will sooner or later come across one of your ‘fishpond’ mosaics! For anyone new to your
work, this series of mosaics makes the viewer think they’re gazing down into a
garden pond on a sunny day, complete with fish, shadows and often completed by
a Roman-style border. What inspired this series of mosaics? Do you get a lot of
feedback from them?
Ah yes, the Fishpond… The funny thing about the first fishpond is, as I
tell all clients who ask for ‘a fishpond’, that is about the only job where the
customer said ‘Do what you like’, to which their normal response is ‘Yes
interesting, but we want a fishpond’.
Having said that I do love making them if they at least give me room
for development, I really don’t want to make replicas. But there is something
really magical about making a body of water on the ground. firstly there is the
infinite play of movement in the surface, then all the reflections and light,
and then on top of that the view through the surface to what is underneath.
This complex interplay is really fantastic to work on and an endless source of
inspiration and challenge. It’s about the struggle to represent that in
something as fixed and hard as mosaic, but of course the challenge disappears
if the client just asks for one the same as the first one.
courses as well as designing, making and installing mosaics. What’s the appeal
of teaching? And who do you teach? Beginners or experienced artists? Children?
Teaching at a beginners level has always been an element of working on
public mosaics as mosaic workshops are often incorporated into commissions as a
great way of reaching out to the local community, getting them involved in the
project and promoting some understanding of the work and of the mosaic medium.
More recently, I have become more involved in teaching more advanced
mosaic makers. I feel that this is an important element. I remember starting
out myself and the struggle to find out any information about making a mosaic.
I also firmly believe that there is nothing that damages us as mosaic artists,
as much as a badly made mosaic. Improving the build quality of all mosaic
makers is in our own best interest, good mosaics promote more mosaic
commissions, bad mosaics put people of commissioning at all. Luckily I find
mosaic makers to be generally very open and generous with their knowledge, I
think because (at least on a large scale mosaic) we cannot make such works
I was approached to create something for the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital after I won the National Tile Contractors Association NTCA Award for Mosaic Installation in 2011 for the ‘River of Life Mosaic’ at The University of Iowa in Iowa City. The River of Life mosaic [below] was one of those turning point projects where I felt the whole job came together very successfully.
interested by your description of how, when initially planning the design for
the Stanford Hospital, you said at one stage you were struggling with how to
represent the huge redwood trees beyond the hospital walls and your solution
was that when faced with such problems ‘it is usually best to step back to the source’. I think this is an interesting
process for any artist engaged in a commission. Could you elaborate?
Yes of course, it’s the same process I mentioned already in tackling the ‘Inspired by Barcelona’ mosaic. In the case of the Redwood project, my sticking point was the theme itself – The Redwood Forest. Naturally, all I could imagine where those enormous trees! It was all about the vertical, yet I was being asked to work on the floor horizontally. It didn’t feel like it fitted. The step back was firstly to kind of forget about the theme and just go and spend some time in the forest. To stay there, walk through the forest, study and just draw.
By forgetting the trees and just taking in as much information as I could about the forest, I found a new inspiration. Once I had seen the richness of the forest floor, it all fell into place. The flora and fauna of the forest floor, the meandering path, the way we travel through a forest, and the idea of moving through the corridor along a path, discovering new things along the way.
Like Elizabeth Raybee featured in my previous post, you’ve been making mosaics at the top level for many decades now. What are the main changes you’ve seen in that time? And what challenges still remain?
There have been so many changes. The whole mosaic community has
exploded since I started and the variety and quality of works just gets better
and better. It’s fantastic to see so much amazing work.
The challenges have changed and also remain the same. Large scale mosaic is full of challenges, anyway; every job seems to have a new problem to solve. I keep thinking that by now I should know what to do, but each job has a new problem.
There is also the constant challenge of trying to make a living as a self-employed
artist in London, the precarious nature of winning commissions and the constant
pressure of landlords and studio space.
a long time making mosaics, but is there a particular mosaic you’ve made which
you’re really proud of?
I have a funny relationship with the works I have completed. Generally, as soon as I have finished them, I don’t like them! All I can see is mistakes or things that I should have done differently. I don’t mind this feeling, because I think it’s a sign that I am still moving forward. Perhaps if I ever feel like a completed job was perfect then I would have come to a halt.
Looking back there are certain works that stick out, turning points in
my understanding of mosaic or my understanding of what I am trying to do. The
Iowa University ‘River of Life’ mosaic was one of those jobs. I felt that it
opened up a new way of interpreting a brief and working in mosaic. I like the
way the design was able to combine the disparate themes of the Iowa River and
topography, health and wellbeing, the Iowa Floods, local cultures and history
and bring in a new story of the paths of all our lives.
A few questions I like to ask everyone. Firstly, is there a mosaic you’ve seen that’s given you a ‘Wow!’ moment?
Marco Bravura’s ‘Ardea Purpurea’ was a revelation to me. The form of the sculpture and the meaning and use of pattern in the mosaic, and the way the mosaic was put together seemingly loose and tight at the same time, like listening to Miles Davis.
But another turning point was the ‘Entwined Histories’ sculptural mosaic. Completed in 2012, I think this work shows the influence of Bravura on me. This mosaic sculpture project had the challenging brief of trying to connect the site of the former Rope Making factory which once served the London Docks with the diverse communities and history of the local area.
solution was to make this giant rope in which each strand of the rope
represented a different migrant community to the area stretching back over four
hundred years. Many of the migrants arrived in this part of London because of
the docks, the related cheap housing and work. Whilst many of the men would go
to work in the docks, often the women would work in local textile factories. I
decided to represent each community through its own distinctive textile
patterns, from Irish Weavers cloths, to Huguenot Lace, Ashkenazi shawl patterns
to African Kente cloth.
symbolism is that all the communities keep their identity but at the same time
unite to form a stronger whole. The sculpture ends with the strands of the rope
turning out, to the rest of the world, to reveal a golden core.
Such a good lesson for us all! Is there anyone whose work you particularly admire?
I came across Dugald’s work when I joined BAMM. His work is consistently perfect. I love the monumental and solid feeling it has and how he seems to combine that solidity and stillness with a kind of tittering on the edge balance. Dugald really has an understanding and connection with his material. If I ever get enough money together, I would certainly buy one of his works. I could live with that!
Karen on the other hand is simply inspiring. Just when I think her work
can’t get any better it jumps up another notch. To me she is a true artist, the
person I would like most to emulate. In her work, and especially in the
development of her work, I see the truth. She expresses who she is in a way
that is so honest and raw, directly in front of you, but at the same time is
unknowable. I think in her truth I can see my own, which must be the ultimate
achievement of any artist.
What are you
currently working on? Anything for Chelsea Flower Show 2019?
No flower shows this year. Currently I am just finishing a fishpond, ha
ha ha… It does have a nice challenge within it, a waterfall splashing into the
pond, so I am happy making that.
I’ve also just finished designing an exciting mosaic based on the flora
and fauna of the Arizona area of the Colorado River.
Plans for the future? Are you going to become ‘a tourist
guide for Woolwich’?
The future is always
somewhat dodgy looking. As usual, my main aim for the year is to keep going
until next year. At the moment I am under threat of eviction from my studio. Not
for the first time, the redevelopment pressure on artists’ studios in London is
crazy. Who knows where that might lead…
Certainly I am the
unofficial tourist guide for Woolwich and I welcome visitors to come and see
this special and unique part of London!
Gary, I’m looking forward to a tour of Woolwich already! Thank you for being my Face Behind the Mosaic. It’s been fascinating…
I promised you some more ocean hopping for my next interview and so it’s back across the Atlantic to the USA and a conversation with Elizabeth Raybee. Elizabeth has been making mosaics since 1978 and her enthusiasm is undiminished. Like Lynda and Angela of TomatoJack Arts interviewed previously, Elizabeth Raybee has taught in schools and colleges and runs classes in her own workshop, as well as creating ‘GroutCamp’, an annual live-in mosaic-fest. Based in Mendocino County, California, USA, Elizabeth Raybee’s art has been featured in exhibitions and books, and has graced both public and private spaces. She is a mosaic artist of international standing and in 2018 completed work on a public mosaic created with survivors of a devastating fire in her home county.
Elizabeth, welcome to The Face Behind the Mosaic. You graduated with a degree in painting and printmaking, but you took an interesting journey into mosaics, which included ‘dancing chickens’ and a bathroom. Tell me more!
Elizabeth: I moved to San Francisco after getting my BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute and I helped set up the Scroungers Center for Re-Usable Art Parts (SCRAP). Along with plenty of fabric, frames and rolls of paper, there were tons of tiles donated. Since I lived in a flat with the world’s ugliest bathroom, I decided to cover it all up with a mosaic, with which I had no experience since eggshells and beans in grade school!
I spent a year crawling behind the toilet, under the sink and on step-stools in the bathtub, depicting sunrise, chickens and rooster, my nude husband holding an umbrella under the shower – and yep, a banana tile was involved! – and lots of colour. Good thing I was only 23 for all that floor and ladder work; I knew nothing of mesh and cement boards hadn’t been invented yet!
Learning the hard way! And how did that lead to you becoming a full-time mosaicist?
Elizabeth: I had a big Halloween party unveiling, with the bathtub full of beer on ice, so there were plenty of private viewings! Within the next year, two friends commissioned me to do their bathrooms, then, before long, a living room and hot-tub surround.
When I moved into a live/work warehouse, the counters, walls and deep bath-tub I had built all screamed ‘tile me!’ [and so, dear reader, she did!] and commissions kept coming. So, by the late 80’s, the paints and pencils were retired, other than sketches for clients and proposals, and I switched my narrative wall work to mosaics.
I mentioned ‘GroutCamp’ in the introduction. Can you tell me more about this?
Elizabeth: I taught my first mosaic classes at Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, and then in my San Francisco studio. When, in 1995, I moved a hundred miles north to a farm in the hills, half hour out of the nearest town with motels and more than one cafe, I knew that a once-a-week model wouldn’t work, so GroutCamps were created! People came from the city and beyond, could pitch a tent, spend long days and nights in my studio, have a picnic lunch at the nearby river and go home with their new mosaic!
It sounds perfect. And you’ve been working with mosaics for four decades now. Have you noticed many changes in that time?
Elizabeth: A woman called me in the mid-1980s saying she and her husband just opened a gallery and she wanted to show my work. Great! She came over and chose a few small wall mosaics, but called back, really embarrassed, saying I had to come pick up my work. When I got there, I had to do a bit of arm-twisting to get her to tell me why. Her husband had said the only way he’d show the mosaics were if I laid them flat as coasters and dropped the price to $40! Ironically, a couple of my students had framed watercolours there selling for hundreds!
It took me a decade to meet a couple other women in the San Francisco area who’d been doing mosaics almost as long as me. But now, of course, there are fine art mosaics on public walls and galleries everywhere and mosaic schools and conferences all over the country and the world. Go Team GO!
Your work has included multiple community projects. What do you notice about projects involving the community? For example, among many others, you worked on a project called ‘Mendocino County – The Good Life‘.
Elizabeth: Community projects involve lots of planning, often grant-writing and pre-approval by City, County or State entities. So, having the skills and patience to play well with others helps! Including paid assistants in the budget is very important, as is having some training and planning time up-front before the masses descend. This mural was started in my studio, where I worked with four assistants, three times a week for a month. They each got to add their own ideas and details to a pre-approved theme in a couple of the squares that make up the frame, as well as lead the rest of us in filling them in properly. They also helped in enlarging my design to wall-size and gluing down enough sample tiles in various sections so that when we moved the project to Art Center Ukiah, where any and all interested parties could come fill in the blanks, we were all prepared!
The mural depicts the highlights of our region: Pomo Indian basketry, farming, alternative energy, swimming and picnics at the river, concerts in the park, mushrooms, artists and the Pacific sea life. About 450 community members, from the Girl Scout Troop to students from the Buddhist school, local artists to people who just happened to be walking by, had a hand in completing ‘The Good Life’.
How does working on a community project change the dynamic of your work?
Elizabeth: Having to consider public location, theme and restrictions thereof makes the imagery come from a different place than the narrative of my personal work. The scheduling is very different as well – it’s not unusual for me to work in my studio ‘til 2am. Not your typical ‘public work’ hours!
Staying on the theme of community projects, you worked alongside many other mosaic artists in Chile a few years ago. What was that like? It sounds special.
Elizabeth: The First Urban Mosaic Intervention project was an adventure! Isadora Paz Lopez got funding to invite 60 artists from 22 countries to work on a Magic Garden mosaic together along with a team of young Chilean artists she’d trained. A dozen of us from five countries shared a house and a bus ride to and from our worksite. I brought fused glass pieces I’d made to use on the bees and lavender featured in my section. Each artist had to work out the transitions with those on either side of us. We managed to cover the front of the very large city hall of Puente Alto. It was a lot of work, a lot of fun and a true learning experience.
In this second interview, I cross back over the Atlantic to my home country of England in the UK to meet two mosaic artists who, like John, take their artistic inspiration from their previous education and work. But Lynda Knott and Angela Williams work tirelessly as a team and have made mosaics their full-time business. Between them, they run a mosaic art business based in the Gloucestershire town of Berkeley. Their business is called, well, I’ll let them say it in their own words…
All images used in this interview are the copyright of TomatoJack Arts and used with Lynda and Angela’s permission.
According to your website, you’ve been making mosaics since 2011. Is that both of you or did one of you start? And did you know each other at the time?
Both: We knew each other through our sons who were in the same year at primary school. We started our mosaic adventure when a mosaic artist visited the school and Angela assisted as the ‘arty Teaching Assistant,’ and Lynda came in as a parent helper. We were then bitten by the mosaic bug and TomatoJack Arts was born six months later!
What was it that inspired you to work together? Did you begin a joint project before you thought this might succeed as a business?
Both: We share a love of creating things and we get on well together – we’re both ‘Northern Girls’ (although from opposite sides of the Pennines!) with similar interests. Lynda had recently stopped work as a research scientist and was thinking about teaching, and Angela was looking to explore her creative side again, so when the local school wanted more mosaics we jumped at the chance. This was shortly followed by a ‘word of mouth’ request for a mosaic project at another school and that’s when we thought we could actually make a proper business from our growing love of mosaic.
How lovely that word spread so quickly! You also have a nice story behind your business name. Can you explain it for anyone who doesn’t yet know you?
Both: We wanted a business name that was memorable, so after a brainstorming session over a glass or two of wine we decided to combine the names of our children – Angela’s are called Tom and Matt, giving you ‘Tomato,’ and Lynda’s boys are Jake and Zach, resulting in ‘Jack’! And there you have it: TomatoJack!
It strikes me as a pretty bold move for two people to set up an art business, yet you must have been confident in your work and seen the opportunities – your studio is not small and covers two levels. What was it that made you think “We can do this.”?
Both: Initially we weren’t at all confident, but when we saw the studio space, we fell in love with it. We thought we’ve got to give it a go or else we’d regret not taking the opportunity. We started running workshops to help pay the rent and fortunately they became really popular and now we find that all of our courses get booked up really quickly. Most of our commissions and school projects come by recommendation, so we must be doing something right!
I wrote in the introduction that there is a link between your background and that of my previous interviewee, John Sollinger. Angela, you have a degree in fine arts, but you say you take your “…inspiration from nature…”, something that John also does. And Lynda, you have a scientific research background and use this to inform elements of your art. Can you say a little more about how you use your backgrounds in this way?
Angela: I have a graphic design background and so I like to explore the linear and architectural qualities of the shapes and patterns found in landscapes, trees and plants. Also my husband’s obsession with cycling (and hence a garage full of ‘bits’) has influenced a series of works featuring cyclists and has inspired me to find ways of using recycled bike parts in my artwork.
Lynda: From a young age I have always enjoyed experimenting and exploring the natural world and I have been fortunate that I have managed two careers doing just that in completely different ways! As a scientist, I had to work out ways to solve a problem or answer a question, and it was very much hands on bench work. As an artist my methods of working are very much the same – try something and see if it works, if it doesn’t, tweak something and try again! I love experimenting and exploring unusual and recycled elements in my artwork and have a particular affinity for natural materials such as slate and copper, and rusty bits of metal!
In most partnerships the individuals bring different elements to the work. What would you say are your specific individual strengths? And how do you make use of these strengths as a team?
Both: We love working together and find that as a partnership we can offer each other advice, encouragement and also criticism. Although our individual styles are very different, we think that they complement each other well. Also, as a partnership we can share the burden of the admin involved with running a small business, ie. accounts, website, social media and general emails, etc. Angela is the organiser and Lynda is the numbers girl. And finally there are the laughs – if we didn’t have fun and have a giggle it wouldn’t be worth it!
Looking at your CV, it’s really impressive. You teach mosaic courses, you make artworks which have featured in schools and public spaces in your local area, and you make private commissions and sell work through your studio. Yet you haven’t stopped developing your skills. You’ve continually studied and trained in mosaic techniques, not only in this country, but in Italy and the US. What is it that makes you keep reaching out like that?
Both: You can never stop learning and we find that we take something from every course that we’ve ever been on which has then fed back into our own practice. We love learning new techniques and ways of working, it keeps our work fresh and helps inspire and challenge us.
Staying on the topic of continuing skill development, what is it about a course or training event that makes you decide it’s worth the expenditure?
Both: We have attended courses run by some fantastic mosaic artists including; Gary Drostle, Liz Tiranti, Luciana Notturni, Dugald Macinnes, Joanna Kessel, Helen Nock to name a few! Usually there is some aspect of the course that fills a gap in our knowledge, but also we see it as our treat for working so hard.
You do a lot of work in schools. What do the children find so interesting about mosaics?
Both: Schools love commissioning mosaics because they are so inclusive – every child can take part and the school gets a lasting piece of artwork to keep. The children enjoy learning new skills, especially the cutting and love seeing the design evolve from a line drawing to a complete mosaic in bright vibrant colours.
And do you teach different age groups?
Both: We teach adults during the week – with 48 attending our 6 regular workshops each week. Our school work is mainly with primary schools, but we have worked with children as young as 3 years old right the way up to adults in their 90s!
How do you keep going? Getting new ideas and finding new possibilities for future projects?
Both: Getting new ideas is not a problem, not having enough time to try them and make our own mosaics is the reality! The balance between running workshops and taking commissions to pay the rent and also finding the time to explore our own creative path is very tricky and one we struggle with.
Is there any advice you would give for mosaic artists who are thinking of making mosaics their business?
Both: Go for it! But be prepared to let things evolve, and take the time to evaluate what works and what doesn’t and change things accordingly. Ideally find a likeminded friend to join you; if not in full partnership, then as a mentor.
Do you have a favourite piece of work that you have worked on jointly? And actually, while I think of it, do you have a favourite piece that the other has done?
Both: Last year we completed our first piece of public artwork at Gloucestershire Archives. It was nearly 18 months in the making and involved lots of consultation and workshops as well as a real challenge both technically and artistically. We are very proud of the result and we’ve had amazing feedback. More details can be seen on our website.
Is there a mosaic artist or artwork that you particularly admire?
Angela: I really admire the work of Gary Drostle and in particular his work ‘Shrapnel – 1918’, it’s absolutely stunning close up and gave me goose bumps when I first saw it. He’s such a talented draughtsman and designer and has such a varied portfolio, which is something I aspire to.
Lynda: When I saw Rachel Sager’s ‘Printlandia’, I thought it was such a clever concept to make a mosaic consisting entirely of tesserae made from a broken printer. I’ve always loved making things from found and recycled materials, but ‘Printandia’ takes it to another level, as it’s not until you look closely that you can see its origins. I also particularly admire Dugald Macinnes – his gorgeous artworks in slate have always stopped me in my tracks. I have been lucky enough to attend a workshop by him and his obvious love of his material and geology in general is very inspiring. Dugie’s no-nonsense approach is also very refreshing!
Have you got current projects?
Both: We are both working on large 3D garden sculptures which we hope to exhibit later this year. We made the forms with Liz Tiranti in 2017 and are finally getting round to completing the mosaics – follow us on Facebook or Instagram to follow our progress!
And plans for the future?
Both: Simply finding time to explore our own mosaic paths! But if we get the chance it would be great to do another public art commission. We also have plans to visit the Ravenna Biennale later this year and possibly attend another mosaic course there. We very much enjoyed our visit 4 years ago, especially as it coincided with the local wine festival!
Lynda and Angela, thank you for sharing your experiences with me and good luck with your future work.
Inspiration and his ‘fluid double reverse’ mosaic technique
John ‘Solly’ Sollinger is an academic who has become a mosaic artist of international standing. In recent years, he’s travelled the world teaching his unique ‘fluid double reverse technique’. And he’s won numerous awards for his distinctive artwork. Indeed, John’s finished mosaics offer the most amazing array of colours and details which emulate the most intricate of painted brushstrokes. In this first interview with mosaic artists, John Sollinger explained a little about his background, his technique and how he came to create it, along with his beginnings in art as a side project to academia.
John’s technique is a form of the ‘Ravenna’ or
‘double reverse’ method. If you’re unfamiliar with this technique, then a good
explanation can be found on the ‘di Mosaico’ website http://www.dimosaico.com/methods/
John, for anyone who is unfamiliar with your technique, could you describe it and perhaps take us through the process you use?
I lay pieces of glass over a poster [and gradually lay the glass pieces] until the mosaic is nearly complete. Then, I flip the mosaic over, exposing its backside. A substrate, such as sheet glass or Skeewbacker board, is buttered with adhesive and then laid onto the overturned mosaic. The “sandwich” is then flipped right-side up. I call it “fluid double reverse” because no adhesive is used until the final hour. Other double reverse methods were employed by Roman mosaicists and their followers, and contemporary mosaicists still employ the ‘Ravenna’ double reverse method [see intro].
You gained a Batchelor’s degree in Forestry in 1977, and then you were awarded your PhD in Genetics in 1995. Were you naturally inclined towards academia?
I was always a serious student. For as far back as I can remember, I wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree in one discipline or another. I had a passion for teaching, and it was this, rather than research, which drove me to pursue a Ph.D., so the transition to teaching my mosaic techniques was seamless.
Do you have any artistic background?
I had no formal artistic training other than beginning a painting class while I was studying fire ecology in graduate school. Due to my stubbornness, I learned nothing from the painting instructor, who announced to the class that I was a mad man! I thought that was a good sign, if not accurate, because, like van Gogh, I was also very poor. I have long favoured the Impressionists and post-Impressionists. Perhaps, that is why I focus on light and employ divisionism to produce desired effects. I took one workshop for constructing leaded stained glass windows, as well as two tile-making workshops. Scrap glass and frustration with glazing conditioned me to be receptive to making glass mosaics.
You took an initial mosaic course. What was the appeal?
Mary, thought that it would be a good way to distract me from missing my
granddaughter, Jayd, who had recently moved far away. Previously, together we
had taken a tile-making class, which I enjoyed, so she viewed it as a
distraction. And It was.
What did you create? And did you learn more ‘traditional’ mosaic techniques?
taught to mosaic directly onto plywood, using a water-soluble adhesive. This
technique is not uncommon for hobby workshops in the U.S.A., where mosaic
tradition receives little or no consideration. My first mosaic was of a maple
leaf on a chaotic background with glass pieces of various shapes and sizes,
which remains a mark of my practice today.
What was it that led you to develop your own method
As a general practice, I avoid reading directions and ‘how-to’ books, which sometimes works in my favour. I learned from my wife, Mary, who took a second workshop for mosaicking stepping stones, and I saw that she used sticky paper in an indirect method, which requires one flip. It seemed like an excellent idea for restricting tesserae movement yet allowing easy changes. So, I adopted that technique in the making of the next several mosaics, including an inverted copy of van Gogh’s ‘Irises’. That mosaic sat on my bench for over a year in the making, so a layer of dust separated the glass pieces from the adhesive on the paper. I continued until finished, made the flip and was happy with the result. Realising that I could work without the initial adhesive, I never again used sticky paper. For the final major procedural change, I switched from the indirect/reverse to the double reverse method. When working with glass that has different colours and patterns on its surfaces, it is easier to lay the glass pieces with the desired side up. It was maddening to sometimes forget to turn under the preferred side, although some mistakes make better choices.
So your technique developed by trial and error and perseverance. How long did that process take?
employed my fluid double reverse technique in 2010 on my 14th mosaic, and it’s largely
unchanged ever since. However, I continue to make mistakes and adjustments, and
I learn from my students, especially when they want try something new, such as
thicker tesserae and different substrate sizes and shapes.
You still teach undergraduates. Could you say
more about any link between your academic work and your mosaics?
I am still fully employed as a professor. My responsibilities include scholarship. To my good fortune, I have been able to switch my scholarship from scientific research – the pursuit of better understanding flower evolution from a developmental genetics approach – to artistic output, dissemination and impact in my academic area. It is during my semester breaks that I am able to offer workshops and undertake 3 very different residencies – one at Crater Lake National Park, Uroboros Glass and Olive Stack’s art gallery. At the University I teach transferable skills, and I am grateful to model it.
the door to art in my academic life has transformed my daily activities and vision
for my future. I have begun to travel much more, meeting various and
interesting people whose ways and perspectives challenge mine. New purpose and meaning
invigorates even old men!
A theme inherent in your work is that of an
interplay between the rural landscape, nature and myth. Is that a continuation
of your academic interest?
The forest is my home, refuge and muse, as well as my field of academic interest. I once studied Latin, where the readings were typically about Roman mythology, whose depiction in mosaics and subsequent paintings informed my view of ideal body forms. In graduate school I studied forest fire ecology. Elements of these academic interests certainly do appear in my works. When I decided to portray forest fire and nude together [‘Firefight’, below], it was to push an environmental narrative that underscores my work collectively. Aside from a hint from the title of the mosaic, I felt that a myth would explain my intent to portray fire’s natural role in the shaping native landscapes.
You were recently invited to attend and present your work to the British Association for Modern Mosaics annual conference  here in the UK. The following day, you gave a class which I was fortunate enough to attend. In the class, we created simple small mosaics and got to try out your ‘fluid double flip’ technique. How long does a bigger, more complex piece usually take to complete?
I make my
works in no less than 200 hours. There is no pressure to finish other than my
wanting to move on to something else. I don’t work on mosaics if I’m too busy
with University work, which is most of the time, so I produce only 1-3 wall
hangings of approximately 60cm2 each per year.
Workshops are entirely different environments, peopled by individuals who think and operate much differently than I. Some students finish small works within a few hours, while others make little progress in a few days. There are many variables at play, including artist disposition, fine motor skills, and tolerance for imperfection. Many students, who can tolerate the movement of pieces, work more quickly using my technique than they do with their usual methods of adhering as they go, and then ripping out what they do not like and “fixing” it.
Do you have a favourite piece you’ve created?
My favourite mosaic is “Snowfell”, a blue monotone rendition of a forested view from my window in the light of early morning, after a heavy snowfall. I know those trees.
And is there a mosaic you’ve seen that REALLY
made you go “Wow! I wish I’d made that!”?
admire the works of Atsuko
Laskaris, because she is a fantastic colourist who creates snapshots
of intimate and sometimes humorous moments. I envy the talent of many others,
yet I have never wished that I had made their works.
What are you currently working on?
several mosaics in mind, but nothing on the table. I plan to continue rendering
illusions of water and to combine them with female nudes. Before that comes to
fruition, I intend to mosaic an image of my children, long grown and gone, and,
of course, more flowers and forested landscapes.
And plans for the future?
In three years, I will retire from University and dedicate more of my time to making mosaics and teaching classes.
John, thank you for your time and for enlightening us about your work and your methods.