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 in doing so, 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.
‘Of Eden’ featured on the front page of the new look, 20th anniversary edition of ‘Grout’ (Issue 57, Spring 2019), a magazine published by the British Association of Modern Mosaic in the UK, and this interview was printed in full in the pages of that edition.
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/
You can see more of John’s work on his website https://www.johnsollinger.com/
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 mosaic 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 PhD, 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?
My wife, 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?
I was 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 of working?
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?
I first 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.
Opening 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!”?
I greatly 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?
I have 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.