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Making mosaics: in praise of slowness

Making mosaics: in praise of slowness

Two hours work...
Two hours of work…

Three things happening around the same time got me a-thinking about making mosaics and its inveterate, intractable, irresolvable, maddening and absolutely fundamental slowness.

Making Mosaics: slow and steady

You pick up a tessera, after having spent hours chopping rods of stone down into workable pieces if, like me, you prefer using natural materials. You then check to see if the piece you’ve selected will fit it’s place, nip it to size, check again and re-nip if necessary, place it and then squish it down into the adhesive.  Then, if you dont like the result, you go back and do the whole thing again or you pick up the next one….

Mosaics cannot be hurried. Making them is like baking bread or gardening. Like pulling a brush through long hair or watching a hedgehog walk across the lawn at dusk – there is no way for it to be speeded up. Describing the process of knitting, my mother says:  It is rather wonderful the way ..[it] calms and steadies one ….by holding the world at bay. For however long one can allow oneself to keep at it, it is necessary to concentrate on the here and now.  Mosaics are the same.

There are others who are faster I know: mosaic makers who use the tesserae as they come, without nipping, or sensible people who aren’t too pernickety about spacing or shaping. But when it comes to making mosaics, I’m a plodder.

Replica mosaic
Copy of the Orpheus Pavement, Woodchester, made by Bob and and John Woodward. The pavement, which has 1.6 million individual tesserae, took ten years to make.

The three things are:

  • The book I am reading called The Old Ways, a Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane.
  • The mosaic I am working on at the moment which is particularly slow. It has a repeat wave pattern border (see top photo) which is 8cm wide which means cutting an awful lot of trapezoids to get round those sticky corners.
  • And coming across a tumblr blog called Richard’s Interesting Blog which is, as far as I can work out, nothing more than a series of sketches made by a man of his glass and coffee cup.
A kalderini – traditional stone donkey path in Pelion, Greece. Part of a vast network of old routes which crisscross the country.

Walking – slow too

Macfarlane’s book is essentially a celebration of the simple act of walking, of placing one foot firmly in front of the other and covering distances along worn paths usually through stunningly beautiful and wild places. The process of walking is, he explains, both an exploration of the exterior landscape and of the interior world of the mind. Nothing could be truer. The process of walking is enormously therapeutic, creatively stimulating and also a great pleasure. It is delightful to set out and arrive somewhere new and a walk will always hold something different no matter how many times it is repeated ( as Dr Zeuss tells us so eloquently).

Path back from the cairn. Kirkmichael, Scotland.
Path back from the cairn. Kirkmichael, Scotland.

Reading about walking made me realise that making mosaics has a lot in common. It is a methodical, repetitive process which is also enormously therapeutic, creatively stimulating and a great pleasure to do. Moreover, no matter how many times you do it, it is never the same. You plod along at your mosaic table putting one tesserae down after the other, like feet falling, and you enter an alternative zone where hours zip by like minutes and from which, despite the ache in your arm, you complete your day’s work with a sense of accomplishment and arrival. Today’s point in the mosaic making process is quite different from yesterday’s.

A few days later…

Sketching – not slow at all

So on I go, patiently and almost rhythmically, with my repeat wave border making slow but steady progress. Meanwhile, Richard of Richard’s Interesting Blog is doing the exact opposite. He is zipping along doing coffee shop sketches of his cup and glass at the rate of knots, skidding and sliding, leaping and doing air somersaults as he rattles off one sketch after another. He sketches on his ipad and tries to beat his own time record.

Richard's Interesting Blog sketch
Costa Coffee 361 by Richard Carl Pearson

I am sure Richard, whom I know nothing whatsoever about except for his wonderful, impulsive sketches, has as much sense of exhilaration and accomplishment in his rapid drawings as I do in my slow, plodding wave-repeat border. In fact, I would vouch that he is being a great deal more actively creative, while I am merely creating.

But, for me, it is the very slowness of mosaics that gives me the thrill. I wouldn’t want it otherwise just as I would prefer to go for a walk than go off-piste skiing. Mosaics give me time to think and breathe. If I don’t make mosaics I become irritable and petulant. I need their soothing slowness to deal with the rest of my day. Slowness is a way of viewing things which otherwise I cant see.

Sky after a storm. Pelion, Greece.

So give me the winding ways of mosaics, the styles to cross and brooks to ford, the hills to climb and the gradual descents. It might take me a while, but I will get there in the end.

Laying the final tessera

If you’ve got to the end of this post, you deserve a little treat, so enjoy this:







  1. Fantastic post, Helen! Really enjoyed it. It’s funny, I’ve been struggling to write an artist statement for months now and in it I start out by drawing parallels between walking and mosaic! Also, love that quote by your mom. Totally bang on.

  2. I’ve so enjoyed reading this post. I took a mosaic art class in Ravenna, Italy, this past November, so I know what you mean about the slowness. Your mosaic is quite beautiful! Do you lay the adhesive onto the board or each tessera?

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