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Five days at the Chicago Mosaic School with Gary Dostle

Five days at the Chicago Mosaic School with Gary Dostle

Gary Drostle and students installing Pride mosaic at Chicago Mosaic School
Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle and students proudly installing the Pride mosaic. @Helen Miles Mosaics

The Chicago Mosaic School was founded in 2005 by artist Karen Ami and now plays a pivotal role on the international mosaic stage. Classes run throughout the year on every aspect of mosaic making and the list of teachers and visiting artists who run workshops reads like a Who’s Who of everyone who’s anyone in the mosaic world. Thanks to a grant from Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund I recently spent five days there learning large scale mosaics with Gary Drostle.

Chicago Mosaic School - students' works before grouting.
Chicago Mosaic School: students’ works after being set in thin set and before grouting. @Helen Miles Mosaics.

Chicago. Say the word and what do you think of? You think wheat, you think wind, you think the Chicago Bears, you might think about that great big shining Anish Kapoor bean sitting in the middle of the Millennium Park  and now, if your mind runs along mosaic tracks you think: the Chicago Mosaic School.

The Emperor Justinian at the Chicago Mosaic School
The Emperor Justinian at the Chicago Mosaic School. @Helen Miles Mosaics

There are, as Dr. Seuss would say, lots of thinks you can think. But it’s important to keep this think high up there on the think list because it wasn’t so long ago that if you had any interest in mosaics you would think of Italy, probably Ravenna first and Spilimbergo second and so the very fact that you are thinking about Chicago and mosaic schools in the same thought means that the mosaic world has shifted on its axis. Not just slightly, but one of those tectonic lurches that none of us can ignore.

Chicago Mosaic School - Lisa Domenici's bird before grouting.
Chicago Mosaic School: Lisa Domenici’s bird before grouting. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I have wanted to go to the Chicago Mosaic School for more years than I care to remember. To be fair, I have also wanted to study mosaics in Ravenna for about the same length of time but when the moment came to apply for Creative Scotland Open Project funding to extend my mosaic practice into new territory, the Chicago Mosaic School won hands down. In fact, there wasn’t even a contest.

Karen Ami and Gary Drostle at the Chicago Mosaic School
Karen Ami and Gary Drostle at the Chicago Mosaic School. @Helen Miles Mosaics

The main reason was Gary Drostle and his course in large scale mosaics. I find it inconceivable that anyone reading this blog would not know Gary or his mosaics, but just in case you are a mosaic newbie, then let me just say that his public art works once seen are never forgotten. They range from the boldly iconic to the quietly nonconformist taking in courage, energy, delight and technical wizardry along the way. He specialises in making large scale, site specific mosaics for landscapes and interiors across the UK and abroad. But if you want to learn his mosaic-making techniques, there is only one place you can go – the Chicago Mosaic School.

Lily pond mosaic by Gary Drostle
Lily pond by Gary Drostle who teaches annually at the Chicago Mosaic School. Photo:

The force behind the school is Karen Ami, a classically trained artist who switched to sculpture and ceramics after studying painting. ‘I would save all the pieces of my broken sculptures and then one day I attached a broken sculpture to a new sculpture and the [mosaic] obsession took hold,’ explained Karen.

Chicago Mosaic School. Karen Ami's studio.
Chicago Mosaic School: a corner in Karen Ami’s studio. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Karen tried to find out more about mosaics, but hit a brick wall. The only places which offered serious courses were in Europe so, undeterred, Karen began making mosaics out of her own studio which eventually led to her setting up her own mosaic school: ‘I was told that it was a crazy idea, but I needed to try. I knew that if I failed, at least I would have tried. This is not about me, this is about a community, a supportive collective which is not just local, but international.’

Chicago Mosaic School. Gary Drostle's attentive students.
Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle’s attentive students. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Karen’s determination, artistic rigour, mosaic focus and downright charm won the day and her school now attracts renowned mosaic artists from all over the world. I had to travel almost 6,000 kilometres from Edinburgh because Chicago is the only place that Gary – who is based in London – teaches his large scale mosaic course. Scottish slate artist Dugald MacInnes, Japan’s Toyoharu Kii and the Italian maestro Verdiano Marzi also run annual seminars there while an ongoing programme of workshops covering all possible aspects of mosaic caters for every skill level and interest group throughout the year.

Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle and student discuss mosaic technicalities.
Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle and student Etty Hasak talk through some mosaic technicalities. @Helen Miles Mosaics

So off I went, joining 13 other students from America and Canada most of whom were full time professional mosaic artists but the group also included a mother and daughter team from Texas, an investigative journalist from Toronto and a publisher from Utah. Ahead of us stretched a week of practical and technical instruction on the logistics of making big (that means big) mosaics. Up until now I have been concentrating on smallish domestic-scale pieces often on mesh – panels for niches, kitchen splash-backs, fireplaces – so the purpose of taking the course was to help me climb out of my tesserae-lined comfort zone  and get familiar with different approaches.

Chicago Mosaic School - Isabel reveals her mosaic moon.
Chicago Mosaic School: Isabel Samperio, 18, peels back the paper from her mosaic moon. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Gary’s teaches the reverse method on paper and, since the technique is applicable to any size of mosaic, you learn big by working small. We approached our 30cm by 30cm panels in exactly the same way as we would if we were making a mosaic ten times the size – dividing it up into smaller sections, numbering them and then rolling up the paper and unfurling it bit by bit as we applied the tesserae using flour paste glue.

Chicago Mosaic School - mosaic students hard at work
Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle’s students working with their rolled up paper designs. @Helen Miles Mosaics

In-between mosaicking we were treated to informal lectures from Gary on every conceivable aspect of making public art mosaics using his own works as examples. You name it, Gary covered it: design, tesserae, health and safety, fixing mosaics, trouble shooting, weather conditions, grout colours, movement joints, substrates and packing. The Chicago Mosaic School is currently  in temporary premises – the new purpose-built school is under construction a stone’s throw away – so we had the added bonus of being able to experiment with our new techniques with actual mosaics on actual walls (which will later be pulled down).

Chicago Mosaic School - Gary Drostle gives an installation lesson
Chicago Mosaic School: Gary Drostle gives a mosaic installation lesson. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Used to working alone in that comfort zone I mentioned above, I find it hard to conjure up the mental focus I need when making mosaics in a formal group setting and so my class mosaic wasn’t my best, to put it mildly. But I went to learn and learn I certainly did and now I need to head out, nippers in one hand, tile adhesive in the other, and start making my own great big beautiful outdoor mosaics. Needless to say, I’ll keep you posted!

Further reading:

Mosaics in Chicago. Part I: Ancient Mosaics at the Art Institute of Chicago









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