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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18 Comments

  1. My dear Helen,
    thank you for that very touching, inspirational personal post. Have a great start in Edinburgh. I am living an expat life for over 16years now myself and only slowly begin to understand what that means. When they say home is where the heart is, I think they are right. And this can change many times during our lifetime, it can change during the day even (with our means of transportation nowadays), it can change during the hour, depending on who you are surrounding yourself with. But I believe we are our home, deep inside and we are taking ourselves wherever we go. All the best for you now and forever. Thanks

    1. Many thanks for this, dear Susanne! You are so right about how the sense of home can change and evolve and move with us but I suppose I am either lucky (or more probably unlucky) in that my sense of home is very much attached to a particular place and it is only there that I feel fully myself and so it’s there that I want to be. Although, who knows, that could change too! Looking forward to meeting in Edinburgh, xx

  2. Jyoti

    Thank you for choosing to document and share your journey with the world. I’m grateful that you were a journalist and decided to think aloud instead of being protective about your new area of learning and not pen it. You’re brave for having worked on a new skill with 3 kids and a house to manage! I do love the blend of simplicity and elegance that your mosaics carry.. Looking forward to part-II…
    Wish you much success in years to come.

  3. Marianne Dundon

    I loved reading your post as an old friend who was with you on part of your journey in Greece and as a fellow ex-pat in Greece, I can totally identify with much of what you say and can also hear much of what is unsaid.
    You’ve done incredible work with your mosaics and I wish I had more than only three of your pieces.
    Wishing you all the very best of luck in Edinburgh! Hope you enjoy being surrounded by family and friends on common ground and when you miss Greece, as you undoubtedly will in time, that you will be able to enjoy it in its essence without its frustrations.
    Lots of love to you, David and the boys
    Marianne

  4. Having a love of words but no language seems to sum up a majority of the feelings you must have encountered in that first year or two in a new country where you were not welcome. But you persevered and carved out a niche for yourself, piecing yourself in with rabbit glue bit by bit. I enjoyed learning a bit of your difficult journey and wish you all the best in a yet another environment as you return home.

  5. Lisa

    Thank you for sharing your very interesting story. I read it because I make, and love mosaics and was hoping for some tips (although have yet to sell them) but still enjoyed reading your experiences.

    1. Hello, Lisa. Thank you for your comment. I hope you find some tips in some of my older blog posts. If you look in the subject headings or in the ‘tutorials’ tab at the top you should find plenty to keep you busy on the mosaic front.

  6. Cat

    Hello Helen
    I read your mother’s blog of course – so I feel I know you a little. Knitting is a little like mosaics – one stitch at a time.
    I’ve spent my entire working life living by “the most important thing a human being learns to do is communicate” – but there are many ways of communicating and making a mosaic is just as much a means of communication as saying something like “kalimera” to your neighbours – although I know it most certainly doesn’t feel like it at times!
    I envy you the move to Edinburgh – it’s a lovely city and has much in common with Adelaide here in Downunder!

    1. Hello Cat, thank you for this. Yes, my mother is certainly the family pioneer when it comes to blogging and I quite agree that knitting and mosaics are intimately related. There are indeed many ways to communicate and mosaics were my way in at that time and in that place. I wonder now what form they will take in a different world where other more conventional ways of communicating are open to me.

  7. Hat

    I read your blog with enjoyment and with a new awareness of mosaics in my everyday world, be it pavements or floors in galleries and museums. I love your designs and I wish you well in the new stage of your life. I found this post very moving.
    I do enjoy hearing about your family on Jean’s blog!

  8. Hi Helen,
    I just thought you might like to have a copy of this on your blog – it’s what I wrote to CMA not long ago about your remarkable achievements in world of mosaics – a tribute to how you survived and flourished against all odds, or so it seemed, at times.

    I also thought your other friends in Athens might like to see it too.

    Well done CMA for spotlighting Helen this week. Your timing is particularly apt as she is soon to leave Athens and start a whole new chapter. Your article celebrates her quite amazing achievements in all thing mosaical (so far.. ).
    Most of us reading this will be familiar with Helen’s fabulous and instantly recognisable work. The assuredness with which she works didn’t come out of thin air – it’s been a journey of constant striving to do better, to learn more and perfect her knowledge and technique – and all this done on is what has often been a local environment often enmeshed (no pun intended) in its own time honoured practices.

    It would be an interesting discussion to see to what extent one’s local environment influences and/or encourages progress – or not. Seen in this context, it makes her achievement all the more admirable.
    Yet, apart from the practical side of things, Helen has also compiled a considerable body of written work in her blog and if you haven’t read every corner of it yet, you are in for a treat. It’s a document, not only of her ongoing journey as a mosaic artist, but also an authoritative step by step learning guide. But even that doesn’t cover it. It’s also an informed and informative observation of and commentary on the mosaics (and not only) of Greece primarily, and her travels beyond.
    And all of this pulled together with a light and witty touch. It takes time and dedication to write as she does – and generosity too – to share her thoughts, ideas and insights. Not everyone is willing or able to do that.
    Whether or not you see mosaic as a purely contemporary art form, or as something that grew and developed down the centuries, we can, perhaps, agree that by pulling all these strands together Helen has gone some way to consolidating a base for many to appreciate contemporary mosaics and allow the art form to move forward.
    I’d better finish here before this turns into an essay! In common with much mosaic making, it’s turned into something different from what it started out as!
    Best of luck to you Helen. May your passion and tireless enthusiasm take you far. It’s been great knowing you and having you near.
    Ta leme.
    Love Alison.

  9. Helen thanks so much for your generosity: all the tips and thoughts and findings for making and enjoying mosaics, and also the ones about your personal journey. I am argentinian and also started making mosaics as an expat, but in NYC. I can relate to you since my first teacher didn’t feel as sharing as much either so I too improvised a corner in my home, bought books and learned by doing. Being an expat in the US I didn’t feel as one, and Riverside CT (where we moved after 2 years in NYC and lived there for 10) is home for me. Happy to hear that you are back where you truly want to live!
    I have come back to live to Buenos Aires and it has been very hard. I thank every day that I feel a passion for making mosaics!! This piece that you’ve written has given me more to think as what makes a place Home.
    I have always admired your pieces but never read your blog. Thanks for taking the time to write it!

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Maria, and good luck with the transition back to Buenos Aires. These huge moves – leaving country, language, people, place – behind are always hard and I hope your mosaics will give you the stability, sense of purpose and creative thrill that you need to carry you through. All the best, Helen.

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