Contemporary mosaics – learning lessons from ceramics

Part II of a three-part post on mosaics and contemporary art.

‘Ceramics have moved away from utilitarian pottery into a much wider realm… It’s not about craft but about making a new kind of object,’ Medeleine Bessborough, art dealer.

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Hattori Makiko, Waiting to Hatch. Photo: @Joanna Bird

Learning lessons: Contemporary mosaics and the world of ceramics.

Part One of this post on contemporary mosaics pointed out the seemingly obvious –  mosaics might create images, patterns and moods but they are not paintings. Mosaics are born of function, rooted in history, and pixelated by necessity and when thinking about the place of contemporary mosaics in the art world they must be understood and responded to on their own terms. The fact that mosaics are made up of collections of things or bits – precious or rubbishy, purpose made or found, artificial or natural – is a fact that defines them. You can’t ask a mosaic to be other than what it is.

I dont care what my label is – potter, ceramicist or artist – I want to put another layer onto history.’ Chris Antemann, artist.
contemporary mosaics
Sandy Brown, Temple at Chatsworth.  Photo: @www.joannabird.com

In times not so very long past, that meant (bizarrely) that mosaics were relegated to a lesser category of creative endeavour. The slipperly. wriggly, elusive thing that calls itself Art might have become ever more elastic in recent decades but somehow mosaics (or at least mosaics which called themselves mosaics) never quite made it.

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Holocaust, Felice Nittolo. Photo: @Mosaic Art Now

But now a quiet revolution is underway; dissent is growing, unrest is stirring, the people are rising up. There are subtle, yet real, shifts in the world of contemporary mosaics. Tessera by tessera, contemporary mosaic artists are clammering to be heard. Piece by piece, they are demanding to be included. It clearly doesn’t make sense that some modes of expression should be decreed worthy to enter the haloed portal of Art, they insist, while others are condemned to hover at the threshold.

‘I want to create forms that you cant immediately understand,’ Merete Hartmann Rasmussen, artist.
Contemporary mosaics
For the Love of God. Damian Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. Photo: @Reuters.

A few years ago Mosaic Art Now published a fascinating dialogue  entitled ‘What is it Going to Take to Advance Contemporary Mosaic?’ between Paul Bentley, former chair of the British Association of Modern Mosaic and Gary Drostle, its current chair. Bentley argued that we need to push for mosaics to be included in the contemporary art scene, that we can’t sit quietly on the sidelines and allow them to be marginalised as an art form. Drostle pointed out the mysterious ways in which the ‘highly stratified art market’ works with layers of influence and importance working up from small independent galleries to major public collections. ‘The market sells The Artist and his/her vision, thought, and exploration of concepts,’ Drostle wrote, ‘Those influential curators and critics who drive the art market system will never choose a medium – they will choose Artists,’

‘It has to be more than just a beautiful pot – it has to have a narrative’ Joanna Bird, dealer in contemporary ceramics.
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Mosaic panels by Pascale Beauchamps. Photo: @Mosaic Art Now.

Put another way, the system will never choose a medium – they will choose the ideas which express themselves through the medium. That’s where ceramics come in. Once upon a time, again not so long ago, ceramicists were also outsiders. Then something changed. ‘A fondness for that most elemental and ancient of materials is increasingly shaping a new aesthetic,’ wrote Catherine Milner in a recent Financial Times magazine article, Thinking Outside the Pots, about pushing the boundaries of clay. Ceramics, she says, are no longer just pots. ‘A generation of contemporary art ceramicists is emerging whose work is irreverent, playful and radical – but also beautiful.’ Swop the word ‘ceramicists’ for ‘mosaicists’ and we are onto something.

‘Why are ceramics often second class citizens and not exalted as ‘art’? The answer is that these boundaries have been broken down and are no longer relevant. They are art,’ Simon Stock, specialist in impressonist and modern art at Sotheby’s.
Stools, Ai Weiwei. Berlin. Photo: @Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Barnaby Barford, a ceramicist whose six metre high Tower of Babel was exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Musuem in 2015, said in the same article that the fact that ceramics are so commonplace and present in almost all aspects of life makes them the perfect medium for artistic expression. ‘People eat out of them, drink out of them and go to the loo on them – but they dont expect to be challenged by them.’ Bang, bang, dead to the theory that mosaics can’t be art because of their historic functionality.

There is a fiery tension between the worlds of craft and contemporary art and explaining how some artists enter the pricier realms of the fine art world while others sit resolutely in the pottery camp is dependent on the scope of their ideas,’  Joanna Bird.
contemporary mosaics
Barnaby Barford, Tower of Babel. Photo: @Victoria and Albert Museum.
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Tappeto, Raffaella Ceccsarossi.

Have you been paying attention? Do you see what’s happening? Not only are ceramicists striding forth with heads held high (and being paid tens of thousands of pounds for it) but some of them are doing so using techniques which are profoundly mosaic-like. Look at the work by Hatori Makiko, Sandy Brown and Barnaby Barford above. They are mosaics in all but name. At the same time instantly recognisable artists like Ai Weiwei and Damian Hirst are employing the principles of mosaic (repetition, placement. line, materiality) in their work without giving so much as a nod to mosaic.

It is time, therefore, to stop being so hung up on the mosaic-ness of mosaics. We do not look at a painting and think: ‘Paint!’ Nor look at ceramics and think: ‘Clay!” We look at the work itself and the material or medium is an adjunct to that. It is not the main story. So it should be with mosaics. As Drostle puts it: ‘Many highly collected artists like Tony Cragg, El Anatsui and Chuck Close are creating work by massing or sticking multiple objects to surfaces or creating their own visual tesserae using traditional materials. While one may question whether these works are mosaics or not, mosaic artists should learn from the success of these artists that the concept must take priority over the medium.’

And so, in the third and final post, I will look at how contemporary mosaics are indeed doing just this; creating work which uses the medium of mosaic, but not to make us think ‘that is a mosaic’ but to make us curious, to amaze us, to unsettle us, to take us, in short, by the scruff of the neck and say: ‘Look, look and look again. I have something interesting and exciting to say!’

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 What is it going to take to Advance Contemporary Mosaic?, Mosaic Art Now, April 20, 2013.

Thinking Outside the Pots by Catherine Milner, Financial Times, How to Spend It, November 27, 2016.

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What are mosaics? First, five things that they are not

What are mosaics? Part one of a three part blog on the place of mosaics in contemporary art.

Joan Eardley. Summer Grasses and Barley on the Clifftop. Photo:@City of Edinburgh Council.

PART ONE: WHAT ARE MOSAICS?  FIVE THINGS THAT THEY ARE NOT

Joan Eardley‘s paintings are urgent; running-to-catch-the-last-bus kind of urgent. They are full of rushed energy, of stops and darts, turns and returns. They grapple and wrestle and finally heave the beast to the ground. There is no diffidence in them. There are scribbles and swirls and drips and blotches and slap-it-down-on-the-table flashes of pure, gorgeous, rich, deep (so deep you could sink) colour. You can see why she stuck to her two beloved places – the Scottish sea and the Glasgow city streets, why she didnt feel any need to tramp around looking for new subjects to paint. ‘It seems silly to shift about,’ she wrote and so, standing still, she found everything she needed right where she was.

Joan Eardley, Sea. Photo: www.nationalgalleries.org

If their urgency means they are unruly and dishevelled, that only makes them more compelling. They are piled and layered and flung. I wandered around the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art recently with two reluctant teenage boys. ‘How can you keep looking?’ one asked petulantly. The other had already disappeared. ‘What are you looking at, what do you see?’ Continue reading

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Mosaics in the history of art (or not as the case may be)

mosaics in the history of art.
Neptune mosaic, 2nd century AD, Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Photo: @Tony Hisgett.

My father, old now, was and is an art historian through and through. An academic who’s devoted his life to art, he is now confined to a chair but his mind is still keen and his hearing is sharp so he seemed like a good a person as any on which to test my theory about mosaics in the history of art. The theory revolves around the fact that mosaics are essentially written out of the history of art but as I started to expound my theory, my father took exception to my premise. That’s quite wrong, he said. So I corrected myself: Not all mosaics, but pre-Byzantine mosaics do not feature in the history of art, I said. At that, he relaxed and listened.

mosaics in the history of art
Port Scene, detail. 1st to 3rd century AD. Photo: @John Paul Getty Museum.

The theory first took root when I was visiting the Archaeological Museum of Sparta in Greece with a friend, S, whose life, like my father’s, has been devoted to art. I have often wondered why these glorious, clever, beautiful and infinitely varied and various things are not referred to in the history of art. Why does The Story of Art, the seminal work by E. H. Gombrich, only mention them in passing before he stops to dwell on the 6th century mosaics of St Apollinare, Ravenna? Why does Stephen Farthing in Art, the Whole Story also gloss over pre-Byzantine mosaics before taking note of the12th century Monreale Basiilia in Sicily? What’s going on here? Why are we all familiar with the Venus of Milo in the Louvre but few of us have any idea about the existence of the Zeus and Ganymede mosaic in the Metropolitan? Continue reading

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The secrets of using thinset for mosaics by Julie Sperling

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Drinking from a firehose: flood prone yet drought stricken. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling
Guest tutorial by Julie Sperling: Using thinset for mosaics

I am delighted to present a guest post (my first) by award winning Canadian mosaicist Julie Sperling about using thinset for mosaics. Julie’s work stands apart in being both fiercely beautiful and intelligently polemical. In her hands mosaics move out of the decorative realm and into a hybrid world where art meets politics meets activism. Using a wide range of tesserae and found objects from the traditional (smalti and limestone) to the unusual (grafiiti paint layers) and the bizarre (flue damper), Julie explores the subject of climate change and our human response to it through mosaics which make your heart sing and your thoughts linger.

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Dialogue, the Burden of the Message. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling

How does she do it? you ask. I have often wondered. No one (probably least of all Julie) could precisely explain the process by which she interweaves her materials with the subject matter to create works of art but Julie’s work is impressive on many levels, including its sheer technical virtuosity. In many of her mosaics the substrate is part of the piece rather than just a surface to be mosaicked. It’s a pause, a space, a frame, it allows her to open the work up to infinite suggestions, to make emphases, to change direction and to add permutations and explorations both on and beyond the ‘canvas’. See how she does it here in Heat (Each Decade Hotter Than The Last) where the central ‘graph’ is separated by a perfectly balanced border of thinset:

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Detail from Heat, Each Decade Hotter Than the Last. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.

Thinset (or mortar) isn’t an attractive word or in most people’s books the most appealing aspect of mosaics, but in this blog post about using thinset for mosaics, Julie shows us how this most mundane of substances can be used to create stunning effects. Many thanks Julie!

using thinset for mosaics
Flip the system; Amplified Change. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.
 
Julie’s tutorial: Using thinset for mosaics

Before we start, a caveat: This is what works for me, but it is by no means the only (or best) way to do it. It is the method I have learned through trial and error to compensate for my complete lack of palette knife skills. So proceed with caution, take it with a grain of salt, use at your own risk, etc.So, how do I get the thinset in my mosaics smooth, both between my lines and tesserae and in the background?

First, my go-to implements for the task: an array of paintbrushes, spatulas, and palette knives, as well as water and a rag. And don’t think I only use the brush/blade end! Anything is fair game, including fingers.

using thinset for mosaics
Julie’s thinset smoothing tools. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Now, if you want to save yourself work, make sure your initial bed of thinset is as smooth as you can make it. Just like taking a good photograph to start will save you time and frustration in post-production, touching up a smoothish surface is much easier than trying to fix an area riddled with bumps and ridges and lumps later on. A pass or two with a clean palette knife (wiped with a damp cloth) will make your life much easier. Admittedly, though, I usually skip this part or, at best, make a half-hearted attempt to get a nice smooth bed. Why? Because I’m not really great at using a palette knife and because fixing it later doesn’t particularly bug me.

Smooth thinset in between lines and tesserae

When I weave my lines, I like the thinset to be smooth, especially where there’s more open space. I have no reason for this other than personal preference. Once I set my tesserae into the thinset, I leave them for a bit before attempting to go in with my various implements to smooth it out. I’ve found it’s far easier to work with the thinset once it has set up a bit—it’s less sticky and far more compliant. I just pat it / brush it as best I can, mostly with a dry brush or other tool (or, more frequently, the blunt end of a tool).

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using thinset for mosaics
Patting and brushing the thinset into place using both ends of the paintbrush, once it has set up a bit. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes the thinset dries shiny and smooth. I don’t particularly care for this look, so I will take a slightly thinner mix of thinset at the very end (when I’m cleaning up the background) and just dab it into the small spaces, being very careful not to get any on the tesserae.

using thinset for mosaics
The shininess of this dry thinset really bugs me, so I always go back and fix it. Photo: @Julie Sperling
using thinset for mosaics
A steady hand and a small paintbrush. Dabbing a bit of thinset onto the shiny part is an easy albeit nerve-racking fix. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Smooth thinset as the background

I save this step for the very end. I spread my thinset on the background, usually in stages (I find doing one side at a time works well for me). I try not to put it on too thick (because then it just squishes around when I try to smooth it with my brush) or too thin (because then the roughness of the substrate comes through).

using thinset for mosaics
Covering the background with thinset. No need to be careful or make it look pretty, because it gets fixed with the damp foam brush. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Then I take a foam brush, wet it with water, and squeeze the excess out with my cloth so the brush is just damp—this is very important, because if your brush is too wet you risk getting white splotches on your thinset once it dries.

using thinset for mosaics
Make sure your brush isn’t too wet. Trust me. Photo: @Julie Sperling

I lightly brush the thinset with my damp brush to smooth it out, taking care to keep my brush strokes going in the same direction. I find that shorter, quicker strokes work better for me. When too much thinset accumulates on my brush, I rinse it, wring it out in my cloth, and keep going.

using thinset for mosaics
A barely-damp foam brush is your best friend when smoothing out your background thinset. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes I have to switch to a smaller brush to work closer to the tesserae, but normally I can make it work by angling my foam brush this way and that to follow the curves of the outer tesserae.

And that’s it! It really all boils down to working as neatly as you can from the start to save yourself the headaches later on, making sure your brush isn’t too wet, and being patient.

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A collection of ancient mosaic Medusa heads.

 

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Medusa head, Dion, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics
Mosaic Medusa heads: warding off evil.

Hello, hello, I’m back! Is anyone there? Coo-eeeeeeee (echos reverberating down the corridors of mosaic lovers). Let me just walk in, sit down for a moment and take a deep breath in and another long one out. There, that’s better.

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Medusa head, Sparta, 3rd century, Greece. Photo: @helenmilesmosaics

Shall I regale you with tales of the move? Do you really want to hear about boxes piled up to the ceiling and mountains of packaging, the multiple runs to the municipal recycling centre and charity shops, the scraps of love, the hordes of letters, the 1970s diaries, the 80s boob tubes, and the sense of quiet and not so quiet panic at the number of unidentified socks that are still heaped up in a corner? I doubt it. So instead it seems appropriate to talk about mosaic Medusa heads – partly because I have felt not unlike one myself over recent weeks and partly because in all the relocating confusion I have at least been spared the obligation of finding a Gorgon to put on my doormat.

medusa head
Archeological Musem of Palencia, Spain

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Comprehensive guide to the mosaics of Greece.

Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part II: A guide to the mosaics of Greece.

Helen Miles Mosaics.
Nereid riding a sea centaur. Sparta Archaeological Museum, Greece. 3rd century AD. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

I’ve left!

To mark the fact that my days of being permanently based in Athens have come to an end, my previous post was a personal story about my mosaic journey in Greece. As well as learning how to make mosaics there and practicing the art for over a decade, I also visited and explored as many mosaic sites as possible across the length of the country: ancient and modern, famous and obscure, well preserved and neglected.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Mantlepiece mosaic, Theodora (?), Candili, Evvia, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaic

I know that there are many more sites left to see, particularly on the islands, and I hope that I will have the opportunity to visit them in the years to come, but meanwhile in Part II of this two-part series about Greece, Mosaics and Me, I have compiled a comprehensive guide to the mosaics of Greece for visitors and mosaic enthusiasts. Continue reading

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Greece, mosaics and me

Helen Miles Mosaics
Me in the middle of my pre-move studio mess. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part I: A personal story. 

Coming to Greece in 2001 stripped everything from me: language, family, friends, work, culture, points of reference and sense of self. I arrived five months pregnant with two small children after my husband took a job in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with the expectation of finding a cosmopolitan city where we could settle and I could find work. We put the children into a local Greek school so that they could learn the language and integrate. After a while, I went to the university to learn Greek myself and we threw ourselves into exploring the country.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Fruit detail, 2-3rd C AD, Corinth. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

I don’t know when or how the realisation dawned that our expectations of our new life in Greece were off kilter, but I do remember neighbours who wouldn’t acknowledge we existed years after moving in, struggling to entertain boisterous boys in a badly insulated house where it’s against the law to make any noise between 3 and 6pm, and feeling baffled by a school system which finishes at noon and depends on grandparents and paid help to fill in for working parents. I also remember one day curling myself into a ball in the corner of a downstairs room where I hoped no one would hear me and crying so desperately that it felt like retching. Continue reading

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Andamento: an old subject with a new twist.

Andamento is the visual flow and direction within a mosaic produced by the placement of rows of tesserae. (From: www.joyofshards.co.uk) 

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Leaves and fruit. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics
Andamento – time for an update.
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Infilling detail. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

You might be forgiven for thinking that I am a bit of a traditionalist. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs has a distinctly tweed coat and brogues ring to it. And then there all my blog posts about ancient mosaics and precious few about their modern equivalents so really I wouldn’t blame you for being convinced that I wear knitted cardigans and have a deep fondness for Anita Brookner novels. But buried within this buttoned-up exterior lurks the heart of a rebel and when it comes to the subject of andamento in mosaics that rebel is chafing to get out.

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Cockerel. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

 

My andamento rebellion is one of those quiet ones that disgruntled children excel at. Not saying anything, perhaps. No screaming and slamming doors, maybe. But a pervasive presence and a body language that’s as clear as a siren that says whatever you have decreed is not well received and will just not do. You might not be able to see me but my arms are crossed across my chest, my shoulders are hunched and my bottom lip is protuding all because I feel that the opus-sayers, the shadowy figures who decide what is an opus and what is not, have apparently checked out and forgotten to turn off the lights.

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Eight easy steps to making larger mosaics on mesh

larger mosaics on mesh, fish mosaic, Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail of fish mosaic splashback. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Larger mosaics on mesh.

Part II of a two-part post on making mosaics on mesh.

Let me cast your minds back to February, 2014 when I wrote a step-by-step tutorial post on how to make a mosaic on mesh. Back then I was full of the joys of mesh and two years later I am still bursting with enthusiasm about the method. I love its versatility, and lightness and the way it solves the problem of making mosaics for faraway destinations, hard to reach places or awkward surfaces. It has all the advantages of the reverse paper method without the disadvantages of working in reverse.

larger mosaics on mesh, Helen Miles Mosaics,
Installing the Unswept Floor Mosaic. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

The original blog post laid out the method for making a small mosaic and now its time to think about larger mosaics on mesh. Over the months a few people (to whom I am eternally grateful) have written comments in response to the post and it’s clear that people are interested in the method but that the first post doesn’t go far enough –  so this post about larger mosaics on mesh is for all those mosaic makers out there who are ready to take off and tackle bigger, more ambitious projects. Continue reading

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