Why did YOU start making mosaics?

My mosaic studio. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
My mosaic studio. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Often, as I sit cutting and nipping and shaping and placing in my little studio at the top of the house, I ponder the attraction of mosaics. It does, as I’ve said before, provoke the ‘yer wha?’ response when you mention it to others. It’s solitary, it’s a bit odd, it’s horribly slow and frankly it’s rather eccentric so why do we do it? And how did we get from A (knowing nothing about mosaics) to B (being so absorbed in them that we are writing/reading blogs about them)?

Making mosaics. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Making mosaics. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Inspired by Julie Sperling’s brilliant piece on the experience of taking a mosaic course, I decided it would be interesting to collect your thoughts and stories about the moment when you realised that mosaics were for you. Whether you are a professional, full time mosaic maker or someone who makes mosaics in the odd spare moments that jobs and children and life allow you, then the question is the same: why did you start making mosaics?

Stone on stone. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Stone on stone. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Even for those of you who did formal training in the arts, the decision to take up mosaics as your specialism must have raised a few eye brows. And for others, who were once perfectly normal people with a vague understanding but little interest in mosaics, how did you become an obsessive (is there any other kind?) mosaic artist?

The wonderful Contemporary Mosaic Artists website to which most mosaicists belong asks us how we trained, what materials we use and what we hope to convey through our mosaics, but it doesn’t tell the story of how we got started on making mosaics in the first place. That’s the story I want to hear. And then with your help, I will uncover the truth of this mutual fascination and follow up with a post about my findings.

Aquileia bird by Helen Miles Mosaics
Aquileia bird by Helen Miles Mosaics

Malcolm Skipp, a recent featured member on CMA , wrote that he started making mosaics when he retired in 2003 and his wife gave him a kit. A small, simple thing which led to a string of beautiful creations. There must be plenty of other tales out there, of unwitting stumblings into the world of mosaics as well as of those who pursued mosaics with a conscious and single minded intention. I want to hear them all.

First, here’s my story:

Question: Why did you start making mosaics?

Answer:  I think I was always making them even when I didn’t know it. I remember being taken to visit artist friends of my parents when I was around nine. The visit was memorable because they were bohemian in a way that my parents were most decidedly not, and their house was full of colour and chaos. During the visit I was shown a half made patchwork quilt and I can still feel the thrill of excitement and delight I felt when I saw it. From then on I started making my own patchwork quilts and later I would spend long afternoons happily helping my father mend the old stone walls around our house in Perthshire, Scotland – surely just a large, practical kind of mosaic making.

'My' wall. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
‘My’ wall. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Many years later and via a very circuitous route, I arrived in Greece, without speaking a word of Greek, without work and hemmed in by small children. Journalism, my previous occupation, was no longer a possibility. But one hot day on a beach in Pelion, I was running pebbles through my fingers and I had a light-bulb moment when I knew, just knew, that I wanted to learn how to make mosaics.

Tumbling blocks design. House of the Faun, Pompeii.
Tumbling blocks design. House of the Faun. Pompeii.

But maybe the reason I felt so certain about mosaics goes deeper than a mere whim on the beach. My mother is a classicist and an extraordinary knitter which is surely just another way of making mosaics except in wool:

Tumbling blocks by my mother. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Tumbling blocks by my mother. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

So it’s not surprising perhaps that my teenage quilting had a bit of a classical theme going on:

Unfinished patchwork made in my teens. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Unfinished patchwork made in my teens. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Which led in turn to mosaics inspired by ancient designs:

Dancers by Helen Miles Mosaics. Original in Vatican Museum.
Dancers by Helen Miles Mosaics. Original in Vatican Museum.

And these needle point covers made by my great grand father, an Edinburgh surgeon, who used needle work to keep his fingers nimble, suggest that the urge to create things by adding one square to another might go back even further:

Needle point cushion 1. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Needle point cushion 1. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Needle point cushion detail, 2. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Needle point cushion detail, 2. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Needle point cushion, 3. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Needle point cushion, 3. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Now it’s your turn: why did YOU start making mosaics……?

 

 

 

13 Responses

  1. I have always been ‘arty’ in one way or another and first dabbled with mosaics 18 years ago (aged 20) when I smashed a mirror…I didn’t want to throw it away and decided to mosaic round a window frame with the shards and tiles. It looked lovely and bounced the light round the room. I did a few more, eg kitchen splashback, windowsills etc and then didn’t really do anymore until 2013 when I bumped into a mosaic artist who inspired me to create again. I cleared out my loft and this became my art room. I loved it and started my Facebook page ‘Melting Pot Mosaics’ I have no formal training and never done a class but I read a few books to help along the way. One of the main things art gives me is therapy. In a tough world it centres me and I absolutely love it.

    1. Thank you for this. I like the way you came to it originally as a way of solving a practical problem – namely, using up the smashed mirror. I totally agree about mosaics having a centring effect – that’s exactly how I feel too. Have just ‘liked’ your FB page and am happy to have linked up. 🙂

  2. I was working as an ITU nurse and having rekindled my interest in ancient history I was watching the Horizon program on the Zeugma mosaics. Seeing those mosaics I knew that was what I wanted to learn to create. I attended Lucianna Nottorni’s mosaic school in Ravenna and since then my only interest has been in the ancient Greek and Roman mosaics.

  3. Hello Helen, thanks for your message. I am really enjoying looking around your blog. But to answer your question: After finishing a creative arts degree, I was making and exhibiting collage, photomontage and music video as well as making my own children! When our little family moved into a school house, I asked the headteacher if I could run some art workshops with the kids. He showed me a large outdoor wall and asked if I could put a mosaic on it. “No problem” I said!!! I got some amazing old mosaic books from the library and talked to some builders in the village. They showed me how to mix a good strong mortar, and they prepared the wall for me with wire mesh and cement screed. The children collected crockery and pebbles, and I got some scraps of stained glass from a stained glass artist. The mosaic took a long time to build, but I discovered how much I loved the tactile nature of the materials and the glow of the glass and ceramic. That mosaic led to a mosaic garden at the school, and several other school mosaic murals, then adult workshops in between developing my own mosaic works. All thanks to Mr.Fosbrook! And I suppose it is a kind of natural progression from collage to mosaic, but I do still play around with other art forms as it keeps ideas fresh 🙂

    1. Thank you! I have always wanted to work on community projects and think that must have been a wonderfully satisfying way to get involved in mosaics. Is there a site where I can see photos of your community work?

  4. Dear Helen, thank you for this post. It is very interesting in fact to learn more about how people came to making mosaics. And your posts reflect your passion in a very beautiful way.

    For me, mosaics are the perfect contrary to the abstract world we live in. It is concrete, you can touch, smell and hear the different materials. And there is nothing more beautiful than a piece of marble or stone and the way of making its beauty stand out even more by combining it with other material.

    I thought to have begun doing mosaics during my Erasmus studies in Naples having found beautifully washed pieces of maiolica on the beach of Istria. It was only some time ago that I bumped into an old friend from school who told me she still has a mosaic I made for her when I was about 12 years old. I had totally forgotten about that. But of course, as you describe it above, putting pieces together lies in so many other creative processes. When I was little I was cutting pieces of paper from fashion magazines and made collages from them. I made clothes from rests of fabric for my dolls and barbies. It just always was inside me.

    During my very theorical media studies I somehow lost my passion for creating things. Later, In my old job as an online manager I didn’t feel connected to anything I did. I couldn’t see the difference my work made. And I missed creating things with my own hands.

    But the essence of what you love and like doing can’t get lost. Sooner or later it will always return to you. So here I am studying mosaics full time in Spilimbergo and I have never been happier in my life.
    Miriam Bastisch recently posted…Werkzeug: Starterkit für das Arbeiten mit Smalten und MarmorMy Profile

  5. As a child, I was given a foil pie dish and some fish tank gravel that was essentially waste offcuts of vitreous glass mosaic and told to arrange the gravel in the bottom of the dish. My mum then mixed up some polyfilla, spread it on the shards, added a loop of wire and we waited for it to set. Next day my mum took my mosaic out of the dish and hung it up in the kitchen. I never forgot my first effort at mosaic but never did another, preferring to draw.
    Later, as an adult interested in craft, I took up machine knitting. Designing stitch patterns on squared paper was something I really got into as those that came with the machine left something to be desired. The restriction of a 24 stitches wide pattern repeat made it really quite difficult to get a good design but I persevered and got quite good results. I even had a garment pattern published in a monthly magazine. Then I had a baby and the knitting went on hold.
    I’d always been fascinated by beach glass and shards of pottery turning up in gardens and on beaches and I’d always collected pebbles and shells. I’d watched my dad, a builder, doing crazy paving with large stones and broken paving slabs. I’d also liked patchwork but found it slow. I was looking for a new crafting hobby but i didn’t know what. Then one day I saw the most beautiful mosaiced table in a clothing shop and knew I had to have a go at it so after buying a second hand circular table in a charity shop, I took the bull by the horns and ordered several kilos of scrap vitreous tile from Edgar Udny. Without any nippers, I spent a fortnight high as a kite, gluing the square tiles onto the table top in a pleasing arrangement with 2 part slow setting epoxy, inspired by the scrabble board. odd shaped gaps were filled with the best fit of broken tile in the box and the whole thing grouted with white, ready mixed grout.
    Then I saw Martin Cheek’s book, Mosaic in a Weekend, in my book club newsletter and ordered it. It came with goggles and nippers. I read every word of it and set to on a plant pot using broken china and vitreous tile. nothing could hold me back, the freedom compared with machine knitting punchcard design was amazing. I learned to colour grout, bought stained glass scrap, gold smalti, glass nuggets, millefiori and handmade ceramic tiles by other craftspeople for my mixed media work.
    I have now moved on again and for the past year I have been making my own ceramic tiles for eventual inclusion into my own mosaics but for now, just making the tiles and learning the technical aspects of the process is my current challenge.

  6. Hi! Happy to find your site. I have promoted myself from AIDS epidemiologist to Mosaic artist. I teach intro to Mosaic Art classes and make Mosaic mailboxes. Will write more when I’m not on a cell phone… Cheers, Jill

  7. Hi Helen, I’ve been looking round your blog etc as I am new to Mosaics. I have been exploring & learning, looking at all the different styles & beautiful creations! I always liked creating & loved Art, I studied at college but later life took over & I just kind of stopped! For the last twenty years I have worked as a Youth Worker, with Young Offenders & the homeless plus working with people at High Risk of Donestic Violence during my time as an IDVA. During this time I also made my best & most precious creations to date ~ my two beautiful daughters now aged 7 & 9yrs respectively. I continued to work full-time in what could only be described as stressful roles & eventually I burnt out. I needed some time off & during this time I decided I would pick up my pencil & draw again. It was extremely therapeutic & I realised just how important it was for me to have art as an outlet, I had completely forgotten & supressed all creativity over the years~ I never had enough hours in the day! I started thinking about other mediums. I love photography (almost as much as mosaics) & decided I wanted to use my photographs & transform them into another form of artwork. I decided to make an image using paper & started a piece. I began quilling. From this I soon thought about Mosaics & the more I thought about it the more I wanted to do it. It was a moment when you ‘just know’ something is right. I booked myself on a two day course with the wonderful ‘Sue Smith’ & that was it I was hooked! I haven’t made many mosaics yet but I cannot wait to continue learning & developing this amazing art form. I do not have a website yet but have recently created a FB Page which is quite exciting! & I hope to soon be joining the ranks of all you brilliant, talented, & professional mosaicists! X

    1. Hi Rachel, great to hear from you and especially to hear that you have ‘found’ mosaics and are determined to pursue the art form. I know exactly what you mean about being burnt out and needing to find creative expression – the more burnt out we are and the more we feel we dont have time for creative pursuits, the more essential and theraputic they become. I have just tried to look up your FB page – is it called Smashing Pieces (great name!)? I couldn’t find anything under that name so please let me know what name you are going by. Good luck with all your endeavours and I look forward to following your progress on FB. By the way, Instagram is also a very useful tool for following mosaicists and keeping an eye on what’s going on in the wider mosaic world. All the best, Helen.

  8. Hi Helen, Many years ago I went to art school and studied 3 Dimensional design (woodwork, metalwork, ceramics and plastics.) I then got married to someone in the army and lived abroad, moving every 2 years, which made any of those things impossible. In 2005, we came back here for our children to get continuity in education. Our eldest was 14 and GCSEs loomed. I then worked teaching TEFL until 2011, when our finances were a bit more stable. Over all this time I drew and painted on and off, and got involved in art clubs, did life drawing classes and so forth but although I enjoyed these things I never stayed focussed and drifted from one project to another. I had always liked mosaic – we saw the splendid ones in Berlin before the wall came down, modern ones in the Gulf and of course many Roman ones everywhere we went. But it wasn’t until we visited an army friend in Spain who had started making mosaic in the USA that I realised that mosaic wasn’t a dead art. I found supplies on the internet and got stuck in. I love it. I satisfies the part of me that has to be practical – the 3D side, but also the picture making side. I was making art that really satisfied me! I still work part time, but make mosaic as much as I can. I love Roman mosaics, but also modern quirky mosaics, and my own work tends to be more decorative. I particularly love Italian mosaic floors. I take photographs of mosaics wherever we are lucky enough to go and like to make designs based on the things I see.

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