julie sperling

Contemporary mosaics: mosaic innovators.

Mosaic innovators

mosaic innovatorsCaCO3. Movimento n.1. Photo: @Arte Mosaico Ravenna.

 

Part III of a three-part post on contemporary mosaics.

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Part I Highlighted the particular properties of mosaic by demonstrating what mosaics are not.

Part II Examined how contemporary ceramics have broken down the barriers between art and craft and how the material used is less important than the ideas behind it – an obvious lesson for mosaic artists.

This post will look at how contemporary mosaicists are creating work ‘which uses the medium of mosaic, but not to make us think ‘that is a mosaic’ but to make us curious, to amaze us, to unsettle us, to take us, in short, by the scruff of the neck and say: ‘Look, look and look again. I have something interesting and exciting to say.’

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mosaic innovators
Dugald MacInnes, Xenolith (MOHO). Photo: @Chicago Mosaic School

The time has come to look at the world of contemporary mosaics, at the mosaic innovators of our time: the explorers, the risk takers, the convention-shatterers, the beauty-creators. They’re there, they’ve always been there, hiding in plain sight, being exhibited, winning awards, attracting acclaim and attention – but only in certain circles.

mosaic innovators
Fahrelnissa Zeid. Photo: @WikiArt.

It’s as if mosaics are somehow considered fringe – a little bit out there – despite the fact that thoroughly ‘in there’ artists (Damian Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Bridget Riley, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Santiago Montoya, Andy Goldsworthy, the ceramicists Sandy Brown and Barnaby Barford to name but few*) manifestly use mosaic-like techniques in their work and are celebrated for it. Where once there was a polite murmur behind the door, there is now a jostling and a clamour as contemporary mosaic artists get restless. It’s time for mosaic innovators to be seen and heard.

But before I go any further on the subject of mosaic innovators, I must say one thing: Mosaic Art Now. For most of you that’s all I need to say. There may still be a rare few who haven’t come across this terrific website run by Nancie Mills Pipgras which champions and showcases contemporary mosaics. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery than let this to be my tribute to MAN and my whole hearted acknowledgement that it was to MAN I went and to MAN I return when I want to see some of the best that this art form has to offer.

mosaic innovators
Silvia Naddeo, Transition, 2012. Photo: Mosaic Art Now

Let’s start with an example that steps lightly over the invisible and arbitary barrier that separates mosaics from art: Samantha Holmes’ mosaic ‘Unspoken.’ The piece won the 2011 Banca Populare di Ravenna Award for Use of Unconventional Technique and Materials award in Ravenna and is a work about the frustrations of expression in a foreign language. Each bit of folded paper wrapped in wire holds an idea or thought left unsaid during Holme’s early months in Italy before she could express herself confidently in Italian. The arrangement of the notes in horizontal rows is reminiscent of the conventional laying pattern of tesserae.It’s an elegant and eloquent work of art.

mosaic innovators
Samantha Holmes, Unspoken, detail. Photo: @Mosaic Art Now courtsey of the artist.

It’s worth starting with this work because it describes the distance between the achievement of contemporary mosaicists and how they are perceived. It demonstrates that mosaics have narrative, they have soul and story, context and importance. They have, like other art forms, the surface of the thing and the ideas behind it. In Samantha Holmes’ case the narrative is plainly expressed but of course this is not always the case. There may be plenty of mosaic artists who say: ‘ My mosaics are saying this in order to bring attention to that’ but narrative can also mean a striving, a yearning, an inarticulate struggle. Things, as we know too well from our messy lives, cannot always be said. That’s why we have art. That’s why we have mosaic innovators.

mosaic innovators
Julie Sperling, Dialogue. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Take Julie Sperling whose exquisitely crafted mosaics are the result of her clearly defined postion ‘camped out at the intersection of art, environment, science and policy’. They can be appreciated for what they are, works of art, or decoded to unlock her eloquent messages about the impact of humanity on our planet.

Julie uses the process of making mosaics, the accumulation of parts to form a whole, to draw attention to important environmental concerns. In her hands, we see that mosaics give the artist ample room for expression and are no more confining than the process of applying paint to a canvas. Why should they be? Whereas paint is paint, and clay is clay, mosaic and its materials are almost limitless. Many mosaic artists use the classic selection of stone, glass, smalti, and ceramic but others incorporate foraged and found materials with almost limitless possibilities. Artists like Julie (Canada) and Rachel Sager (USA) pick up and use whatever comes to hand. Paint layers (above), coal, a firehouse cap, Native American arrow heads, computer components, piping, deer antlers, tools, drift wood…the list goes on.

mosaic innovators
Rachel  Sager’s Ruins Project (detail). Photo: @Rachel Sager

Indeed it is the materiality of mosaic which is often central to their narrative: ‘We work in pieces, not paint. Tesserae, not clay. The inherent heaviness in these pieces of things provides us with the challenge of creating the illusion of lightness. There is no one solution to this challenge. The beauty of the problem lies in the unending ways an artist can create that lightness and elegance of line,’ writes Rachel Sager whose work reflects her fascination with lines – where they lead, their intent, their possibilities. Like Richard Long’s pathway through a field, Rachel’s lines have also become physical interventions on landscape: she took over an abandoned coal mine in 2015 and created the Ruins Project, an ambitious, evolving plan to turn the walls of the derelict buildings into a collaborative mosaic installation.

mosaic innovators
CaCO3, Movimento n.12. Photo: @www.caco3.tumblr.com

 

mosaic innovators
Joanna Kessel, (In)visible Cities, Reveal, 2016. Photo: @Michael Wolchover.

Other mosaic innovators turn this sort of experimentation upside down, stripping away all superfluity, to focus on the singular. CaCO3, a trio of graduates from Ravenna’s School for the Restoration of Mosaics, produce works so pared down the result is like a single spotlight on a darkened stage. The eye hones in on the tesserae – single, collective, single, collective – akin to watching rain drops on a window, producing an effect which is as visually calming as much as it is intriguing.

Edinburgh based artist Joanna Kessel, who recently exhibited at the London Design Fair, is also drawn to simplification, using less to suggest more. She employs flashes of strong tessalated colour in contrast with smooth monochome surfaces to lead the viewer to consider the juxtaposition of things and how we see the world around us. Her work is both restrained and expressive, quiet and forthright. She is, moreover, a mosaic innovator in more ways than one: Joanna has crossed the divide – by being chosen to represent Scotland at the London Design Fair along with other regional designers and makers, she has taken mosaics into a new realm and shown how they can be appreciated and applied at large.

I could go on (and on, and on) but truth be told I tried not to write this post at all. I put it off and fiddled about and went away and did other things because the subject of mosaic innovators is too big  – it’s as limitless as the work that contemporary artists are producing. So this isn’t even a summary, not even a toe dipped into the world of mosaic innovators. Go surf the internet, follow leads, look up your favourite artists and you’ll see for yourself. All I wanted to do was give the age-old dialogue a little nudge in a new direction – to move it away from the question of whether or not mosaics have been accepted by the art ‘establishment’ (they have, but their mosaic-ness less so) and towards the work itself.

* See Part II of this series for further discussion of how mainstream artists use mosaic techniques and effects in their work.

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The secrets of using thinset for mosaics by Julie Sperling

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Drinking from a firehose: flood prone yet drought stricken. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling
Guest tutorial by Julie Sperling: Using thinset for mosaics

I am delighted to present a guest post (my first) by award winning Canadian mosaicist Julie Sperling about using thinset for mosaics. Julie’s work stands apart in being both fiercely beautiful and intelligently polemical. In her hands mosaics move out of the decorative realm and into a hybrid world where art meets politics meets activism. Using a wide range of tesserae and found objects from the traditional (smalti and limestone) to the unusual (grafiiti paint layers) and the bizarre (flue damper), Julie explores the subject of climate change and our human response to it through mosaics which make your heart sing and your thoughts linger.

using thinset for mosaics
Dialogue, the Burden of the Message. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling

How does she do it? you ask. I have often wondered. No one (probably least of all Julie) could precisely explain the process by which she interweaves her materials with the subject matter to create works of art but Julie’s work is impressive on many levels, including its sheer technical virtuosity. In many of her mosaics the substrate is part of the piece rather than just a surface to be mosaicked. It’s a pause, a space, a frame, it allows her to open the work up to infinite suggestions, to make emphases, to change direction and to add permutations and explorations both on and beyond the ‘canvas’. See how she does it here in Heat (Each Decade Hotter Than The Last) where the central ‘graph’ is separated by a perfectly balanced border of thinset:

using thinset for mosaics
Detail from Heat, Each Decade Hotter Than the Last. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.

Thinset (or mortar) isn’t an attractive word or in most people’s books the most appealing aspect of mosaics, but in this blog post about using thinset for mosaics, Julie shows us how this most mundane of substances can be used to create stunning effects. Many thanks Julie!

using thinset for mosaics
Flip the system; Amplified Change. Photo and mosaic: @Julie Sperling.
 
Julie’s tutorial: Using thinset for mosaics

Before we start, a caveat: This is what works for me, but it is by no means the only (or best) way to do it. It is the method I have learned through trial and error to compensate for my complete lack of palette knife skills. So proceed with caution, take it with a grain of salt, use at your own risk, etc.So, how do I get the thinset in my mosaics smooth, both between my lines and tesserae and in the background?

First, my go-to implements for the task: an array of paintbrushes, spatulas, and palette knives, as well as water and a rag. And don’t think I only use the brush/blade end! Anything is fair game, including fingers.

using thinset for mosaics
Julie’s thinset smoothing tools. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Now, if you want to save yourself work, make sure your initial bed of thinset is as smooth as you can make it. Just like taking a good photograph to start will save you time and frustration in post-production, touching up a smoothish surface is much easier than trying to fix an area riddled with bumps and ridges and lumps later on. A pass or two with a clean palette knife (wiped with a damp cloth) will make your life much easier. Admittedly, though, I usually skip this part or, at best, make a half-hearted attempt to get a nice smooth bed. Why? Because I’m not really great at using a palette knife and because fixing it later doesn’t particularly bug me.

Smooth thinset in between lines and tesserae

When I weave my lines, I like the thinset to be smooth, especially where there’s more open space. I have no reason for this other than personal preference. Once I set my tesserae into the thinset, I leave them for a bit before attempting to go in with my various implements to smooth it out. I’ve found it’s far easier to work with the thinset once it has set up a bit—it’s less sticky and far more compliant. I just pat it / brush it as best I can, mostly with a dry brush or other tool (or, more frequently, the blunt end of a tool).

both-ends-of-brush-2

using thinset for mosaics
Patting and brushing the thinset into place using both ends of the paintbrush, once it has set up a bit. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes the thinset dries shiny and smooth. I don’t particularly care for this look, so I will take a slightly thinner mix of thinset at the very end (when I’m cleaning up the background) and just dab it into the small spaces, being very careful not to get any on the tesserae.

using thinset for mosaics
The shininess of this dry thinset really bugs me, so I always go back and fix it. Photo: @Julie Sperling
using thinset for mosaics
A steady hand and a small paintbrush. Dabbing a bit of thinset onto the shiny part is an easy albeit nerve-racking fix. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Smooth thinset as the background

I save this step for the very end. I spread my thinset on the background, usually in stages (I find doing one side at a time works well for me). I try not to put it on too thick (because then it just squishes around when I try to smooth it with my brush) or too thin (because then the roughness of the substrate comes through).

using thinset for mosaics
Covering the background with thinset. No need to be careful or make it look pretty, because it gets fixed with the damp foam brush. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Then I take a foam brush, wet it with water, and squeeze the excess out with my cloth so the brush is just damp—this is very important, because if your brush is too wet you risk getting white splotches on your thinset once it dries.

using thinset for mosaics
Make sure your brush isn’t too wet. Trust me. Photo: @Julie Sperling

I lightly brush the thinset with my damp brush to smooth it out, taking care to keep my brush strokes going in the same direction. I find that shorter, quicker strokes work better for me. When too much thinset accumulates on my brush, I rinse it, wring it out in my cloth, and keep going.

using thinset for mosaics
A barely-damp foam brush is your best friend when smoothing out your background thinset. Photo: @Julie Sperling

Sometimes I have to switch to a smaller brush to work closer to the tesserae, but normally I can make it work by angling my foam brush this way and that to follow the curves of the outer tesserae.

And that’s it! It really all boils down to working as neatly as you can from the start to save yourself the headaches later on, making sure your brush isn’t too wet, and being patient.

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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: © mused-mosaik.de – 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: © mused-mosaik.de – 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

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Mosaics for special occasions

mosaics for special occasions
Matt and Hellie’s wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

A special occasion is approaching…

There’s a special occasion coming up, so what do you do? Buy your dearest friend a set of cut glass goblets to celebrate his wedding? Wrap up a bottle of perfume to give to your mother on her 70th birthday? Select a stuffed toy when your sibling has her first child? How special does that feel? The goblets will end up at the back of a cupboard, the perfume will be saved for other special occasions (but how many will there be?) and I can guarantee the stuffed toy will be added to the great pile of cute animals already arranged on a high shelf in the child’s room.

mosaics for special occasions
Detail from Angie and Perikles’ wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaics for special occasions

But a mosaic…well, mosaics are ideal for special occasions. They are hard to forget or neglect or even to squirrel away in the back of cupboard. They say that the recipient matters  in just about the clearest, plainest, most eloquent language there is. You could hire a plane and write a message in the sky or build a neon sign to flash out your words but the letters will evaporate and the sign will grow rusty and malfunction, whereas as the years roll by a mosaic will quietly carry on saying it’s thing.

mosaics for special occasions
Christian and Rawan’s wedding mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Helen Miles Mosaics

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Inside mosaic studios

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Before the Big Clean Up. My mosaic space. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Until a few days ago I was a mosaic maker with a dark secret. My mosaic workspace was a horrendous mess: tesserae jumbled together in yoghurt pots, bags of marble rods dumped on the floor, books shoved unceremoniously onto shelves, sketches tucked into nooks never to be seen again, and pencils and tools scattered randomly in miscellaneous containers. All this might be shocking enough for you tidy tesserae folk out there, but I don’t want you to think kindly of me as a disorganised, flighty type with higher things on my mind than colour coordination. No, the awful truth is that I was not only perfectly aware of my shambolic way of working, but I positively revelled in it. No longer. You will be relieved to learn that I am now an entirely new person and it’s all thanks to you.

emma biggs workshop
Emma Bigg’s workshop. Photo: Emma Biggs

The transformation happened as I sat down to write about mosaic studios. When I came up with the idea, I thought it would be a straight forward matter of asking mosaicists from the online community for their help with supplying photographs and then it would all flow smoothly from there. But I quickly discovered what should have been obvious from the beginning – mosaic studios are more than just spaces where we work. They are private places, refuges, hideouts, sanctuaries, inner sanctums, and spaces generally of much greater importance than what goes on within them (although that’s pretty bloody important too). Continue reading

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Why do we make mosaics? Let me count the reasons…

 

Gary Drostle pond
Gary Drostle’s pond. Image from the www.thecraftmaker.co.uk

Not so long ago I wrote a post about why I started making mosaics and called on everyone out there – fellow mosaic obsessives – to tell me what attracted you to the medium and what keeps you here, painstakingly cutting and placing, when you could be making big bold statements with fantastically coloured acrylics or stroking clay into marvellous shapes. Mosaics are limited. The palette is what it is – you cant stretch it out by adding a dot of this and a dab or that and mistakes once made are in many cases hopelessly irredeemable. The materials are often expensive, the time taken to produce even a modest work is ludicrous and the horror of being required to dump dollops of gloopy grout over your completed masterpiece is enough to deter all but the most committed. So why do we make mosaics? I told you why I do (a mixture of mosaic making being a compulsion which I cant control and the necessity of finding occupation in a new country with no language to express myself) and now it’s over to you….

Julie Sperling sea ice.
Julie Sperling. Sea Ice (detail). Photo: Julie Sperling Mosaics

 Why do we make mosaics? The reasons.

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