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.