Creativity in the placing of every tessera
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…
Gary, welcome 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 Eberle for 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 last?
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 next project.
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.
Anyone 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.
You teach 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 alone.
I think you recently completed work on a floor of the Stanford Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto in California. How did you get invited to install that?
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.
I was 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.
You’ve spent 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.
My 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.
The 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…