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.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail from the 4th C AD Rotunda, Thessaloniki. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

At that point, as hard as it is to conceive now, I had no knowledge of mosaics. In a previous life I had been a journalist with a deep interest in the Arab world and language and I had assumed that once things settled and I had a better understanding of my new environment, then somehow I would be able to pick up more or less where I’d left off when the boys were born. But that, for a variety of reasons that extend beyond the scope of this post, wasn’t possible. I had to take everything I’d known and loved before arriving in Greece, quietly pack it away and start again from the beginning.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Head of Medusa, detail. Athens Archaeological Museum. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

I’m not easily daunted and I don’t mind things being tough but this was tougher and more daunting that anything I’d done before. I loved words, but I had no language. I loved work but I couldn’t leave the house with small children, a baby and no support system. I was about as frustrated, lonely and trapped as it was possible to be until the day I sat down on a beach and everything changed. I was sifting through handfuls of pebbles as the children played next to me and I had a full-on halleluya moment. With a certainty that I can’t explain, I decided then and there that I would make mosaics.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail from 11th C monastery of Osios Loukas. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

At this point, of course, I really had no idea what mosaics were, I wasn’t an artist and I hadn’t made anything much during the previous 25 years so it’s a little odd in retrospect that it struck me with such utter surety that this is what I would do. I was younger then and still naive so I thought in my younger, naive way that all it would take would be to find a class, apply myself and away I would go. Right? Wrong. Things in Greece are never as easy as that.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Late Roman mosaic fragment underwater, Atalanti. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics.

Alison Scourti, a mosaic friend from Athens, recently wrote a comment on CMA in which she mentioned my work and added:  ‘all this [has been] done on in what has often been a local environment enmeshed (no pun intended) in its own time honoured practices’. Delicately put, Alison, but ‘time honoured practices’ is a euphemism for super-glue-stuck in the old ways.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Bird and flowers, 6th C Basilica. Byzantine Museum of Thessaloniki. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

If you want to learn how to make mosaics in Greece prepare yourself for learning how it was done 1,000 years ago, with match-head sized tesserae, a hammer and hardie (fair enough), rabbit skin glue (why?), a total aversion to the concept of andamento and a conviction that the only real way to work is the indirect method cast in concrete or (very rarely) to use the weirdest substrate of compressed seaweed you are ever likely to meet. And that’s if you’re lucky. If not, you will end up spending weeks and weeks going to classes and sitting in a corner and never learning much of anything at all because mosaic techniques are treated like state secrets during the Cold War – never to be divulged to outsiders.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Fish detail, 5-6th C, Delphi. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

So I went home and I practiced. A lot. The children were still tiny and inbetween wiping noses and mushing up carrots and changing nappies and finding lost bits of lego down the back of the sofa I used to creep down to the garage where I had a table in a corner and add another tessera to the piece I was working on. Often just one, but that one was enough to give me an enormous sense of satisfaction. For one thing it made the day (and my life) feel that they had progressed infinitesimally forward. I had achieved something – hurray! Now that I understand more about creativity and the focus it requires, I can see that that sense of achievement partly came just from stopping the nose wiping, however briefly, and just being still for two minutes, or five or maybe even a glorious fifteen.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Detail of the Nikopolis mosaics, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

My first influences were the Byzantine church mosaics which surrounded me in the UNESCO city of Thessaloniki and the ceramics from the same era with their lovely naive dancers with flared skirts, strangely etiolated animals and stylised plant patterns. I made horrible mosaics but I loved the medium and I kept on going. I would try and get my Greek mosaic teachers to consider radical concepts like spacing between the tesserae or new substrates but was derided for my efforts so I bought mosaic books and went on various weekend courses in the UK, with Emma Biggs, Martin Cheek and Lawrence Payne although I was so overawed by being in the presence of such big names in the mosaic world, that I could scarcely function.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Medusa head, 3rd C, Sparta. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Anyway, I carried on practicing. On and on and on and eventually we gave up the idea that Thessaloniki would ever become home and moved to Athens to put the children in a Brtiish school. It was a good decision even though my husband stayed behind and commuted down at weekends and I arrived with still-young children without knowing a soul. The difference between life in Thessaloniki and life in Athens is that here I encountered kindliness. That’s really all one needs in life and I prized it.

Helen Miles Mosaics
The Three Graces, Lamia. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

By and by, my mosaics evolved. I become more interested in Roman mosaics and took the family to visit as many sites as they could tolerate and then some more. Greece is a fertile ground for mosaic lovers. Almost everywhere you go, every museum, every ancient site, has at least one example of the ancient art and that’s not even counting the modern examples that decorate the facades of a large proportion of contemporary churches.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Modern mosaic of St. George and the dragon. Agios Georgios, Pelion. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

With the move to Athens, I met new people. It was like stepping out into the wider world again. There was Alison who made wonderful contemporary mosaics and others who lifted my spirits and my horizons and whose ideas and interests influenced and changed me. I felt comfortable; the silt of low self confidence shored up during the years in Thessaloniki slowly washed away. In recent years I started to write this blog and explore the online mosaic world which opened up a whole new source of support and inspiration. Writing brought me back to where I’d come from and so mosaics returned to me what I’d lost. As I became happier, my mosaics got better. My goal with making mosaics had always been to sell but visiting a friend’s photographic exhibition of exquisite, heart rending beauty at the Cycladic Museum of Art made me realise that I needed to shift my goal to aim for something else and sure enough once I did, the mosaics sold themselves.

Pebble mosaic floor, Pella, Greece.
Pebble mosaic floor, 4th C BC, Pella, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

In a week’s time I will be heading back to Edinburgh after 15 years in Greece. Two of the boys will be at university in the UK (one will be studying Arabic, so maybe I didn’t pack that bag of pre-Greece loves away as quietly as I thought ) and the third will be at a nearby school. I have rented a tiny studio space not far from our flat in the city centre and my parents live down the road.  I don’t know if this next phase of life will be temporary or permanent – there is a lot still to decide – but I know it’s time to move forward and to experience what it feels like to be living at home again. My first few days back at home will be spent doing a lime mortar master class with Joanna Kessel of Edinburgh Mosaic Studios and Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo. It will be something new and unfamiliar – much like everything that lies ahead.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Mosaic floor, Rhodes Archaeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

 

Coming soon. Part II: Guide to the Mosaics of Greece.

In addition to mosaics, I learnt a few other things while living in Greece (in no particular order): 

Using a parking bay correctly is an art.

To pity the dolefulness of octopi.

To understand that the definition of cooking is to look in the cupboard and work with what you have.

That the first hours of the day are the most precious.

That however much you want to or try, you cannot be other than who you are.

That loneliness is like grief, it’s doesn’t end but you learn to live with it.

That only some people will forget you when you’re not with them. Others remain true.

That you can relearn the language of beauty.

That the definitions of home are multiple and varied. It’s not a place, but it can be. It could be one person, or many. It can change, or stay the same and if you’ve never had to think about it, you’re lucky. Home is layered sediments of place and people and memory. Mostly, it’s not knowing but being known.

That friendship changes everything. 

***

COMING SOON: Greece, Mosaics and Me. Part II. A Comprehensive Guide to the Mosaics of Greece. 

 

 

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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.

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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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The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece.

The Mosaics of Rhodes, Greece (or How Mosaics Should be Seen)

mosaics of Rhodes
Partridge feeding her chicks, 2nd century AD, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

The conversation went a bit like this:

D: There are some really good off-season deals on flights to the islands. Shall we go?

Me: Yes!

D: Santorini or Rhodes?

Me: (Inner musing: Santorini = the whole Greek thing. White washed houses set on cliffs over looking azure seas. Rhodes = mosaics)  Rhodes! 

mosaics of Rhodes
Mosaic floor, Rhodes Archeological Museum, Greece. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

And so off we went one weekend to see the mosaics of Rhodes, Greece. As it happens, Rhodes is a perfect place to really see mosaics, not just the tarted up ancient variety which now hang on museum walls. Pebble mosaics, characteristic of many of the Greek islands,  are everywhere in the medieval town of Rhodes covering pavements, shop entrance ways, hotel foyers and cafe floors. What a delight! Instead of cranning your neck to see mosaics plucked from their original settings and displayed like works of art in hushed settings or having to lean precariously over a barrier to get a closer view of them at archeological sites, here they are all over the place. Neither revered or disregarded; they are just there. Continue reading

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Making a mosaic hour by hour

The Lemon Tree Mosaic Project

making a mosaic hour by hour
Me and the finished lemon tree mosaic before grouting. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

This is a photo gallery showing the process of making a mosaic hour by hour.

Or: Why Kenyans make such good runners. 

If you were to ask me if I’d like to meet for coffee. you might notice a flicker of panic cross my face. Rest assured, the panic is not about the thought of spending an hour or so in your company. There’s nothing I’d like better. But my moment of hestitation will usually hide a rapid calculation as to whether that hour, short but infinitely precious, can be spared from my latest mosaic project. If I were to try and explain why an hour matters so much, I think you’d probably assume I was thinking of excuses or had become slightly unhinged. ‘What’s the big deal?’, I can almost hear you thinking. Surely, in the space of day with all the time it contains, I can spare one mingy little hour for a simple cup of coffee.

a mosaic project hour by hour
Lemon tree mosaic design by Constantinos Gallis. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church

Behind the panic there is also an befuddled internal monologue in which I attempt to articulate the importance of that hour. But if I say it out loud, the words sound unconvincing and fall flat. So to circumvent the need to explain myself, I decided to keep a photographic record of a mosaic under construction. I wanted to show you what’s really involved in making a mosaic – not just the work in progress shots and photos of the finished piece but the nitty gritty of the whole process. Continue reading

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Making Roman mosaic copies

roman mosaic copies
Copy of a Qasr Libya fish. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Roman mosaic copies – why?

It’s not unusual for me to look at an ancient mosaic in situ or pore over the details of one hanging in a museum and seriously wonder if there’s any point in what I’m doing. Modern mosaics inspired by ancient designs. That’s me but, I mean, really? Why bother? Why go to the effort of doing my own designs when I could just make Roman mosaic copies? After all, the Romans have pretty much covered it: gorgeous colours, exquisite patterns, arresting designs, grandeur, domesticity, humour, tenderness, you name it, the Romans have done it mosaic-wise. Done it on a massive scale. Done it so well that thousands of years later we still admire their workmanship. It’s enough to make you feel like a paltry foot soldier, dusty and dishevelled, scampering to keep up in the wake of the mighty Roman armies.

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Central panel from the Basilica of Heraclea Lyncestis, Macedonia. Photo:@ Helen Miles Mosaics

And yet. There’s always an ‘and yet’. And yet when I surf the internet or click absent mindedly through social media, time and time again I am stopped short by modern examples of Roman mosaic copies. They keep cropping up: students’ copies of the famous fish skeleton from the Vatican’s Upswept Floor; multiple versions of Pompeii’s Cave Canem; endless backward looking doves perched on basins; gods and goddesses, peacocks, still lives, hunting scenes. It doesn’t matter that we are surrounded by dazzlingly fast high tech machines and can eat a pineapple for lunch which has been flown overnight from the other side of the world, Roman mosaics still have a firm hold on our collective imagination. Continue reading

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Teaching Yourself Mosaics – Part II

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Pet portrait by self taught glass mosaic artist Christine Brallier. Photo and mosaic: @cbmosaics

Part II: Books, forums and experiments

(For Part I – my guide to online mosaic courses and tips please follow this link: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/mosaics-miscellaneous/online-mosaic-courses/)

This post is both a source of information about teaching yourself mosaics and a resounding bell-ringing shout-out. Since I can’t go to the top of a building with a megaphone it’s the next best way to say that self taught mosaic artists are one helluva inspiring bunch. Until I started a discussion about teaching yourself mosaics on Contemporary Mosaic Art I had no idea that there was a whole sub-category of mosaicists out there who have sat down and quietly and doggedly taught themselves everything they needed to know to pursue their artistic vision. Their work and dedication says much louder and clearer than I ever could that great things can be achieved, creative wonders realised, beautiful mosaics materialised without the help of classes or formal training.

teaching yourself mosaics
An early home experiment made during my mosaic class days. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

I can’t claim to be a self taught mosaicist myself as I attended weekly classes here in Greece with mastercraftsmen who specialised in the making of Byzantine-style icons. But I was frustrated by the limitations of the methods and approaches of the teachers (only the indirect method was used, no tessera could be larger than a match head, no spaces were allowed between the pieces) and went home and experimented. I read mosaic books and followed step by step projects, I endlessly visited ancient mosaics in museums and sites and I made an awful lot of mosaics which I am glad that I will never had to see again.

teaching yourself mosaics
An early indirect method mosaic made with glass, mirror and smalti. Photo and mosaic: @Helen Miles Mosaics

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Teaching yourself mosaics, Part I: Guide to online mosaic courses and tips

Online mosaic tips: free

teaching yourself mosaics
My sorely neglected hammer and hardie. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

There is no point in pussy-footing around so I may as well just spit it out: I don’t know how to use a hammer and hardie. Dear me, what was that? You falling off your chair? I dont blame you. To be a full time, full-on maker of mosaics inspired by the ancients, to be a mosaicist who uses stone and not to know how to use a hammer and hardie is, quite frankly, a disgrace. It’s not something I am proud of but I need to get it out there if I am going to discuss the topic of online mosaic courses.

teaching yourself mosaics
Some of my mosaic books for those teach-yourself moments. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

It’s not that I haven’t been shown how to use a hammer and hardie and it’s not that I don’t have one, I do, but it is gathering dust in the corner of my workspace and I rely on this gorgeous beast – a purpose made stone cutter – in its stead:

teaching yourself mosaics
Stone cutter. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

It’s a bit of a brute to look at and I can’t fling it in the back of the car, but it’s handy none the less and has allowed me to slip into bad habits – for years. However, I have recently taken the bold and exciting move of signing up for a three day master class with Dagmar Freidrich to be held in Edinburgh at the end of August and I need to learn how to use a hammer and hardie fast. And, thankfully for me, help is at hand – teaching yourself mosaics has never been easier thanks to short online videos offering mosaic tips and advice. Continue reading

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Lime mortar master class in Edinburgh

Mosaic Inspiration: Lime Mortar Master Class*

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The Lime Mortar Method. Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo. Photo: © mused-mosaik.de – Miriam Bastisch

I recently signed up for a lime mortar master class in Edinburgh and as I sat down to write about it, I felt a door gently click open. I left the writing and went back to my current mosaic project – a house warming commission of a tree; an oak for Ireland with roots winding around the frame for the roots of family.

oak tree mosaic sketch
Sketch for house warming mosaic. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And as I worked, ideas began to creep in through that open door. At first they were hesitant and kept their distance and then they grew bolder and came to lie at my feet. The simple act of signing up for a lime mortar master class to be taught by Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo and Joanna Kessel of Edinburgh Mosaic Studios had let in a whole new world of mosaic inspiration.

lime mortar master class
The Lime Mortar Method. Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo. Photo: © mused-mosaik.de – Miriam Bastisch

As with all inspiration, however, the ideas had always been there, but they were translucent, hovering things which would occasionally try to land and take hold but were mostly batted away by current projects, domestic duties and more familiar, easier ways of working. But as I read what the lime mortar master class entailed, about the gathering of materials – of stones, marble, porcelain and glass, sea worn glass, ceramic and fireclay – and how I would learn to mould the lime substrate, to make it textured or smooth, and then take the materials and press them into the surface, the ideas began to grow larger, to gain substance and to gather around me.Lime mortar short3

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