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.
All images used courtesy of 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!