Mosaic inspiration

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

Lime mortar master class in Edinburgh

Mosaic Inspiration: Lime Mortar Master Class*

Lime mortar master class, dagmar_friedrich_mused4
The Lime Mortar Method. Dagmar Friedrich of Spilimbergo. Photo: © – 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: © – 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

Continue reading

There’s no world without mosaics

Barnacles, Scotland’s West Coast. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

All summer I felt bereft; longing for mosaics, pining for my studio, aching for the peace and purpose of my work. Every summer I am obliged by the tradition of nine-week-long school holidays to down my tools and go where family and heart and other people’s needs direct me. We always go to Scotland, sometimes driving through Europe, sometimes stopping in England, once striking off eastwards to Turkey or simply staying in our little hillside house on the Greek mountain of Pelion and hanging out on the beach.

Farook relaxing with a good book on the beach. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

There is much to appreciate about the summers. For all their broken-upness, the two days here, three days there nature of them, they allow us all to reconnect. I see old friends, spend time with my increasingly decrepid parents and visit my favourite places. But nonetheless I feel bereft because I can’t be making mosaics. Continue reading

Mosaic inspiration in the park

A daily walk

I know I have a bit of a tendency to see mosaics or connections to mosaics even when there aren’t any, and you might be forgiven for thinking that I am pushing things a bit to try and claim a link between mosaics and my daily walk in the park but believe you me, there is one.

Just read this article by Damon Young in the Guardian and you will see why:


Walking is when inspiration strikes

Walking, it seems, is the ideal, mindless, uncomplicated activity for letting your brain have a break. It facilitates a kind of mental blankness in which ideas can swirl about and inspiration (including mosaic inspiration) can strike. Apparently, many great minds from Darwin to Kant have been keen regular walkers and while I cant claim to have much in common in other respects, I do feel a certain kindred spirit when it comes to my partiality to walking.


I’m an early riser and when the light permits it, I tip toe down the stairs, bundle the dog into the car and head for the park leaving a house of sleeping boys. The best months are when I can arrive at the park just before dawn, have a whole blissful 45 minutes of watching the sun rise, the sky change colour and the silhouettes of the trees take form and clarity, before getting home to put breakfast on the table and wake the boys for school.


The finest of parks

I do believe that this park, my park (for habitual park walkers feel proprietorial), is simply the best park there is. There has been no other  park in my life and I am quite sure there never will be. It was once a private estate on the northern fringes of Athens and is now used as an agricultural school and is surrounded by conurbation.  It has the best of everything. It’s large enough to get lost in, there’s a hill you can climb up to see Athens steaming in the distance, wild bits with narrow trodden paths wriggling off in unexpected directions, as well as glorious prolific flowering trees and leafy tracks to shelter you from the summer sun.


So I tramp along every morning thinking about mosaics and what to cook for supper and the things I have to do and having little conversations with myself in Greek (since no one else will have them with me!) and marvelling at how lovely the park is.  Sometimes I  think about nothing at all. Quite often I have ideas about things I want to do (not all of which I do do) and ways to solve practical mosaic difficulties and even, very occasionally indeed, I have strokes of (mild) inspiration.


A mosaic to finish

And because I cant leave you without a mosaic or two, here’s a little thing that might have been inspired by a park – designed by my friend Alison Scourti and made by me:


And another on a plant theme that I have just finished and haven’t even had a chance to grout yet:





Visiting Bologna

Visiting Bologna

Or: Mosaic spotting in Bologna – even when there aren’t any.

Meet the mosaic spotting team (from left to right): Resigned, Keen, Reluctant. We (The Team and I) were on our way from Athens to Kirkmichael (a wee bitty of a place in Perthshire, Scotland) by car and on Day One we were visiting Bologna  – fresh off the boat, guide book in hand, much to see, and raring to go (or not) – but lost.

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Not that that mattered much. With site-seeing son in charge, one only has to twiddle one’s thumbs for a moment or two, and he’s off like a racehorse towards the first post which was, in this particular case, the Archiginnasio – Bologna’s medieval university.  I was already two weeks into the summer holiday by this stage which means I had staggered through two weeks of enforced mosaic shut-down so I was suffering from severe withdrawal symptoms. On arrival in Italy, however, everything seemed to look like a mosaic, reminded me of mosaics or inspired me to think of mosaics.

Take these 16th century William Morris-esque frescoes on the university ceilings – what beautiful mosaic borders they would make:

 In fact, the Romans had already thought of something similar hundreds of years before. These come from the Vatican Museum in Rome:

Visiting BolognaVisiting Bologna

Visiting Bologna

Brick, glass and wood – mosaic inspiration

At various points while we were visiting Bologna we stopped at the churches of Santo Stefano, which offered some wonderful brickwork…

Spotting mosaics in BolognaSpotting mosaics in Bologna

…and the church of San Domenico which had astonishing 16th century marquetry choir stalls (or, as I would see it, opus sectile in wood):

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

We  saw stained glass…

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

…posed for a new album cover….

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

…and (I, at least) relished the city’s covered walkways :

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Then, when we were so exhausted by our cultural overload, that even the thought of a real Bolognese in Bologna couldn’t keep us from crawling back to our hotel, we saw this:

Spotting mosaics in Bologna

Yes, even the birds in Italy behave like their mosaicked counterparts:

Ravenna birds