Welcome back to The Face Behind the Mosaic!
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.
‘Raybee – Puente Alto, Chile, 2014‘ by Elizabeth Raybee
In the five years since then, I’ve mailed off five small mosaic pieces on mesh that have been incorporated into murals done by members of our group in Germany, Chile and the USA.
You’ve worked with many artists over the years. What is the strength of working with different people?
Elizabeth: Each group project is different, but one thing they have in common is the questions, stories and humour helping raise the energy level during the loooong hours involved in creating mosaic murals. Having the proper balance of leadership and teaching skills along with flexibility and diplomacy to flow with the ideas of others where appropriate is an important factor. Being raised in a large family probably helped and it’s a good thing I like a very wide range of music!
In October 2018, you completed work on another community project called ‘Art from the Ashes’. But this one had particular meaning for you as its purpose was to create an opportunity for the community and survivors of the ‘Redwood Complex fire’ in Mendocino County to come together and help in their recovery. You knew many of the people affected by the fire. Watching the online video of you describing your reactions on hearing of your friends whose homes and businesses were destroyed by the fire showed how upsetting it was for you personally. It must have been a very tough project to work on. What were the stages involved in the designing and building of the mosaic?
Elizabeth: As friends were going back to their destroyed homes to examine the wreckage. I heard story after story of broken pottery, burned artwork, melted glass, jewellery, cars and more. At first, I invited a friend who’d done some mosaics to bring her gathered shards and use my studio to lead a few friends with similar losses in making mosaics. But as the enormity of the destruction became known, the project grew. The next step for me was lots of grant-writing and looking for several local businesses and organisations to fund what became a three-part project: individual mosaics, community mural and exhibits.
For the individual mosaics, we were able to offer two free weekend workshops to anyone who was strongly affected and wanted to build a mosaic from their shards, or with all materials from my studio if they had none. I made several batches of letters and numbers so participants could include them if they wanted. The gatherings started with introductions, a short healing ritual and a circle of telling their fire stories if they wished. In addition to incorporating Mom’s melted wedding ring, husband’s melted tractor or game pieces from children who’d died in the fire, into artwork they could keep, the workshops also provided a place where people felt safe talking about their fire experiences and losses.
And then the ‘work-shoppers’ were invited to participate in helping with the Art from the Ashes mural, whether that meant giving ideas, letting me incorporate their poetry, making a tile of their lost house, couch or pet, helping with glazing or oxides, gluing tiles or grouting. It was important to me to build the imagery, including as much input from fire survivors as I could. There is a large heart in the centre with the names of each person who died in the fire. One side is the ‘Run, keep going, Fire, Fire, FIRE!!!’ imagery and the other is the ‘How can we help? Mi casa, su casa! Come eat!’ side. We had three open studio sessions a week for three months for anyone to come work and my two interns and I led the troops and filled the gaps. The mural is permanently installed on the front of the Redwood Valley Grange, which had opened its doors to feed all, give out clothes and tools and provide childcare and meeting space during and after the fire.
Then, for the one-year anniversary of the fire, we put out the call for anyone who’d made fire-related artwork; we received about 120 pieces and hung shows in four venues.
Did you get the feeling that people responded well to the idea and to taking part in the mosaic? Was it cathartic for you all?
Elizabeth: The participants in and viewers of all parts of the Art from the Ashes project were touched and moved in many ways. Making art can be so healing! Making decisions about colours and shapes, applying adhesives and grout, talking, listening to and laughing with others who’ve gone through similar hardship was such a relief from lawyers and insurance claims, FEMA [the former Federal Emergency Management Agency, now part of the Department for Homeland Security] and building contractors! One woman said that making a decision about where to put each tile made it easier for her to make important decisions about all areas of her life than it had been since the fire.
Many people who came to work on the mural cried when they first saw it, as have many viewers since the installation. It was a much-needed emotional release and recognition that they weren’t alone in their pain. Being able to help make a tile of their family on the run or their lost couch helped participants heal and gave them an opportunity to give back. I’m very glad to have taken it on and have felt and heard lots of love and appreciation from my community.
I understand you’ve yet to visit the UK, Elizabeth, but you have some interesting links to some well-known British mosaic artists, including Caroline Jariwala and Martin Cheek. How did you get to know them?
Elizabeth: When the first US mosaic book in this wave, Making Mosaics, came out in 1997, Martin was one of a dozen UK artists included. The following year he published Design Sourcebook: Mosaics, in which I was one of only four US artists he featured. This led to some funny moments when I’d meet mosaic artists who were surprised that I’d lost my British accent… It took me a minute to realise that they’d first seen my work in Martin’s book! I finally met him in person several years later at a Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA) conference in Chicago.
Ms. Jariwala and I were room-mates during the Chilean mosaic adventure, so I know her to be every bit as entertaining as her work is beautiful! After the project, we travelled around the country together, along with Neslihan Erdal from Turkey. A splendid time was had by all! I do look forward to visiting Caroline sometime, as well as other fabulous mosaic pals – Melanie Watts, Carrie Reichardt and Gary Drostle.
Do you still have time to work on your own projects? If so, WHEN??
Elizabeth: It was less about time than space… I went through about ten years where I made almost no mosaics that weren’t commissions – no more wall or storage space! My active narrative bug would itch, but I mostly ignored it until Trump was elected. I can’t just protest on the streets, I have to keep the protests going in my studio and exhibits, too.
You teach both adults and children mosaics. What do you think the children find so interesting about mosaics? Is it any different from adults?
Elizabeth: Children are generally less judgemental of their own ideas and artistic abilities; ready to jump into a project without paying much attention to the rules, which can take some choreography skills. Having a team to herd small groups in for short times to work on large projects is helpful, as is verbally repeating the short-term goals. Many adults also need to be reminded of leaving grout lines, not using too much adhesive or creating too much dust around the mask-less, but they are usually there by choice and have longer attention spans.
How do you keep going and getting new ideas and finding new possibilities for future projects?
Elizabeth: Ideas are far less of a problem than juggling the proposals and numbers! Telling the histories, needs and natural surroundings of schools and communities in a colourful way that informs and makes people feel included is my basic path. When the public projects aren’t presenting themselves, I’m quite happy telling personal tales in my own studio.
Is there any advice you would give for mosaic artists who are thinking of making mosaics their business?
Elizabeth: As with any small business, do your research. Find out regional business, tax and copyright laws. Write a good resume and have a good website. Are there opportunities, galleries or potential teaching opportunities for you? Be ready to handle rejection and still love your work!
Elizabeth, you’ve viewed mosaics across the world. Is there any one mosaic you’ve seen and said “WOW! I wished I’d made that!”?
Elizabeth: There are plenty I’ve seen and wished I’d had the opportunity to cover that wall, or thought about what image I might have done, but I’ve never coveted other artists’ visions.
And is there an artist whose work you particularly admire?
Elizabeth: There’s Carrie Reichardt – I’m a fan of the humour, beauty and politics she works into her mosaics. I very much admire two of my successful proteges: Colette Crutcher, who’s fabulous mosaics cover stairways and sculptures all over San Francisco and beyond and Gila Rayberg, my sister, who got her hands into my grout as a teenage trombone player, and now teaches ‘picassiette portraiture’ classes at mosaic conferences and schools worldwide! [‘Picassiette’ is sometimes known as ‘Pique Assiette’]
So, both you and your sister are internationally known artists and both work with mosaics? Fabulous! Just returning to your own work, is there a particular piece you’re really proud of?
Elizabeth: I was invited to make a book for the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here project, in response to the bombing of book stores in Baghdad in 2007. Poet Armand Brint [former Ukiah Poet Laureate] wrote two poems, A List of the Broken and Nightfall, that I used as inspiration for the mosaics in the books, which travelled around the world for years.
What are you currently working on?
Elizabeth: Building a winter studio into the warehouse behind my new home, ready to start mosaicking my new front steps when the rains stop and organising GroutCamps for this summer!
And plans for the future – or should I ask, any MORE plans for the future?
Elizabeth: Planning another post-fire piece for The Phoenix Project the local college is having this fall and a mosaic for the 50th anniversary of the Back to the Land Movement next year. I think I’ll Keep Making ART!
Elizabeth, thank you.
Don’t forget to read previous interviews with John Sollinger and TomatoJack Arts’ Lynda Knott and Angela Williamson. More interviews are on their way!
Clay Expectations: A Festival of Tiles and Mosaics, September 12, 2010, 10-5 p.m.
EL Sol! March 2014 issue http://www.eraybeemosaics.com/events.html