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
You can find out more about Kate and her huge range of work on her website: https://www.rattraymosaics.co.uk/
Kate, welcome to The Face Behind the Mosaic.
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 important to 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?
What plans do you have for the future?
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.”