Author Archives: Helen Miles

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Contemporary mosaics: mosaic innovators.

Mosaic innovators

mosaic innovatorsCaCO3. Movimento n.1. Photo: @Arte Mosaico Ravenna.

 

Part III of a three-part post on contemporary mosaics.

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Part I Highlighted the particular properties of mosaic by demonstrating what mosaics are not.

Part II Examined how contemporary ceramics have broken down the barriers between art and craft and how the material used is less important than the ideas behind it – an obvious lesson for mosaic artists.

This post will look at how contemporary mosaicists are 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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mosaic innovators
Dugald MacInnes, Xenolith (MOHO). Photo: @Chicago Mosaic School

The time has come to look at the world of contemporary mosaics, at the mosaic innovators of our time: the explorers, the risk takers, the convention-shatterers, the beauty-creators. They’re there, they’ve always been there, hiding in plain sight, being exhibited, winning awards, attracting acclaim and attention – but only in certain circles.

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Fahrelnissa Zeid. Photo: @WikiArt.

It’s as if mosaics are somehow considered fringe – a little bit out there – despite the fact that thoroughly ‘in there’ artists (Damian Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Bridget Riley, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Santiago Montoya, Andy Goldsworthy, the ceramicists Sandy Brown and Barnaby Barford to name but few*) manifestly use mosaic-like techniques in their work and are celebrated for it. Where once there was a polite murmur behind the door, there is now a jostling and a clamour as contemporary mosaic artists get restless. It’s time for mosaic innovators to be seen and heard.

But before I go any further on the subject of mosaic innovators, I must say one thing: Mosaic Art Now. For most of you that’s all I need to say. There may still be a rare few who haven’t come across this terrific website run by Nancie Mills Pipgras which champions and showcases contemporary mosaics. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery than let this to be my tribute to MAN and my whole hearted acknowledgement that it was to MAN I went and to MAN I return when I want to see some of the best that this art form has to offer.

mosaic innovators
Silvia Naddeo, Transition, 2012. Photo: Mosaic Art Now

Let’s start with an example that steps lightly over the invisible and arbitary barrier that separates mosaics from art: Samantha Holmes’ mosaic ‘Unspoken.’ The piece won the 2011 Banca Populare di Ravenna Award for Use of Unconventional Technique and Materials award in Ravenna and is a work about the frustrations of expression in a foreign language. Each bit of folded paper wrapped in wire holds an idea or thought left unsaid during Holme’s early months in Italy before she could express herself confidently in Italian. The arrangement of the notes in horizontal rows is reminiscent of the conventional laying pattern of tesserae.It’s an elegant and eloquent work of art.

mosaic innovators
Samantha Holmes, Unspoken, detail. Photo: @Mosaic Art Now courtsey of the artist.

It’s worth starting with this work because it describes the distance between the achievement of contemporary mosaicists and how they are perceived. It demonstrates that mosaics have narrative, they have soul and story, context and importance. They have, like other art forms, the surface of the thing and the ideas behind it. In Samantha Holmes’ case the narrative is plainly expressed but of course this is not always the case. There may be plenty of mosaic artists who say: ‘ My mosaics are saying this in order to bring attention to that’ but narrative can also mean a striving, a yearning, an inarticulate struggle. Things, as we know too well from our messy lives, cannot always be said. That’s why we have art. That’s why we have mosaic innovators.

mosaic innovators
Julie Sperling, Dialogue. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Take Julie Sperling whose exquisitely crafted mosaics are the result of her clearly defined postion ‘camped out at the intersection of art, environment, science and policy’. They can be appreciated for what they are, works of art, or decoded to unlock her eloquent messages about the impact of humanity on our planet.

Julie uses the process of making mosaics, the accumulation of parts to form a whole, to draw attention to important environmental concerns. In her hands, we see that mosaics give the artist ample room for expression and are no more confining than the process of applying paint to a canvas. Why should they be? Whereas paint is paint, and clay is clay, mosaic and its materials are almost limitless. Many mosaic artists use the classic selection of stone, glass, smalti, and ceramic but others incorporate foraged and found materials with almost limitless possibilities. Artists like Julie (Canada) and Rachel Sager (USA) pick up and use whatever comes to hand. Paint layers (above), coal, a firehouse cap, Native American arrow heads, computer components, piping, deer antlers, tools, drift wood…the list goes on.

mosaic innovators
Rachel  Sager’s Ruins Project (detail). Photo: @Rachel Sager

Indeed it is the materiality of mosaic which is often central to their narrative: ‘We work in pieces, not paint. Tesserae, not clay. The inherent heaviness in these pieces of things provides us with the challenge of creating the illusion of lightness. There is no one solution to this challenge. The beauty of the problem lies in the unending ways an artist can create that lightness and elegance of line,’ writes Rachel Sager whose work reflects her fascination with lines – where they lead, their intent, their possibilities. Like Richard Long’s pathway through a field, Rachel’s lines have also become physical interventions on landscape: she took over an abandoned coal mine in 2015 and created the Ruins Project, an ambitious, evolving plan to turn the walls of the derelict buildings into a collaborative mosaic installation.

mosaic innovators
CaCO3, Movimento n.12. Photo: @www.caco3.tumblr.com

 

mosaic innovators
Joanna Kessel, (In)visible Cities, Reveal, 2016. Photo: @Michael Wolchover.

Other mosaic innovators turn this sort of experimentation upside down, stripping away all superfluity, to focus on the singular. CaCO3, a trio of graduates from Ravenna’s School for the Restoration of Mosaics, produce works so pared down the result is like a single spotlight on a darkened stage. The eye hones in on the tesserae – single, collective, single, collective – akin to watching rain drops on a window, producing an effect which is as visually calming as much as it is intriguing.

Edinburgh based artist Joanna Kessel, who recently exhibited at the London Design Fair, is also drawn to simplification, using less to suggest more. She employs flashes of strong tessalated colour in contrast with smooth monochome surfaces to lead the viewer to consider the juxtaposition of things and how we see the world around us. Her work is both restrained and expressive, quiet and forthright. She is, moreover, a mosaic innovator in more ways than one: Joanna has crossed the divide – by being chosen to represent Scotland at the London Design Fair along with other regional designers and makers, she has taken mosaics into a new realm and shown how they can be appreciated and applied at large.

I could go on (and on, and on) but truth be told I tried not to write this post at all. I put it off and fiddled about and went away and did other things because the subject of mosaic innovators is too big  – it’s as limitless as the work that contemporary artists are producing. So this isn’t even a summary, not even a toe dipped into the world of mosaic innovators. Go surf the internet, follow leads, look up your favourite artists and you’ll see for yourself. All I wanted to do was give the age-old dialogue a little nudge in a new direction – to move it away from the question of whether or not mosaics have been accepted by the art ‘establishment’ (they have, but their mosaic-ness less so) and towards the work itself.

* See Part II of this series for further discussion of how mainstream artists use mosaic techniques and effects in their work.

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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.

contemporary mosaics
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. Continue reading

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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.

using thinset for mosaics
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:

using thinset for mosaics
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).

both-ends-of-brush-2

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.

 

medusa head
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.

mosaic medusa head
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) 

andamento
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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