mosaic decoration

Making a mosaic hour by hour

The Lemon Tree Mosaic Project

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Me and the finished lemon tree mosaic before grouting. Photo and mosaic: @ Helen Miles Mosaics

This is a photo gallery showing the process of making a mosaic hour by hour.

Or: Why Kenyans make such good runners. 

If you were to ask me if I’d like to meet for coffee. you might notice a flicker of panic cross my face. Rest assured, the panic is not about the thought of spending an hour or so in your company. There’s nothing I’d like better. But my moment of hestitation will usually hide a rapid calculation as to whether that hour, short but infinitely precious, can be spared from my latest mosaic project. If I were to try and explain why an hour matters so much, I think you’d probably assume I was thinking of excuses or had become slightly unhinged. ‘What’s the big deal?’, I can almost hear you thinking. Surely, in the space of day with all the time it contains, I can spare one mingy little hour for a simple cup of coffee.

a mosaic project hour by hour
Lemon tree mosaic design by Constantinos Gallis. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Ordination of women in the Roman Catholic church

Behind the panic there is also an befuddled internal monologue in which I attempt to articulate the importance of that hour. But if I say it out loud, the words sound unconvincing and fall flat. So to circumvent the need to explain myself, I decided to keep a photographic record of a mosaic under construction. I wanted to show you what’s really involved in making a mosaic – not just the work in progress shots and photos of the finished piece but the nitty gritty of the whole process. Continue reading

A gallery of pomegranate mosaics

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Pomegranate tree mosaic. Photo and mosaic: Frederic Lecut, Mosaic Blues.

I know why Hades chose a pomegranate to tempt Persephone. You’re stuck down there in the underworld, in those vaulted, sunless spaces and you’ve got to find something that she won’t be able to resist, something that conjures up all the light and energy that she’s pining for. It’s the perfect fruit. The blushing skin, those bright, too-red seeds, so small, so beguilingly small that surely it wouldn’t matter to just have one, or two. No one would notice. Why would they care?

Pomegranate. Hinton St. Mary. www.telegraph.co.uk
Christ and pomegranates, Hinton St. Mary, Dorset. www.telegraph.co.uk

Just as it’s not surprising that Hades chose a pomegranate to trick his victim, nor is it unexpected that religions and cultures from China and India to the Middle East, Iran and Turkey have commandeered the pomegranate as a receptacle for all sorts of symbolic meanings. The pomegranate is a casting agent’s dream – it’s rich, luxurious, sexual, and full and has been widely appropriated to signify propserity, marriage and fertility. Continue reading

Mosaic headstones: ancient and modern

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My aunt and grandfather’s grave, Mount Vernon, Edinburgh. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Mosaic headstones: my aunt’s grave.

When my aunt knew she was dying, she asked me to make a mosaic for her grave. It was four years ago, but even now I find myself enormously touched by her request. She wanted to be buried with her father, my grandfather, who died of a brain tumour in 1937 and was interred in a large, urban graveyard on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Their names and dates are written in black lettering on a simple granite tombstone which consists of three low steps at the base of a plain cross.

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Lachrimae Rerum mosaic. Photo taken after washing away the grout (which is why it’s wet) and before the final seal

 Mosaic headstones: a simple plaque

Continue reading

Six ways to use mosaics now!

Helen Miles Mosaics at work
Helen Miles Mosaics at work

Mosaics…yer wha?

Picture the scene. A drinks party perhaps. A casual conversation on the train. A longer than expected wait at the school gate. I have exhausted my repertoire of opening gambits and feel, with a sense of impending dread, the arrival of the inevitable question:

‘So what do you do?’

Slight pause. ‘I make mosaics.’

‘Ah’. Polite smile, eyes darting around frantically thinking of something to say.

And that’s it.

Mosaics are one big conversation stopper. I can see images of garden pots covered in broken plates floating in the eyes of my interlocutor and sometimes, seized by desperation, I start rattling on about using stone and marble and having a passion for Roman mosaics and liking to work with the spirit of them rather than to slavishly copy them, but it doesn’t really help much. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Houses – and their mosaic decoration

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Once upon a time we bought a house in Pelion, Greece. It was a simple house on a hill overlooking the sea. So simple that it had been on the estate agent’s list for years. No one wanted it. The agent’s photo showed only a drab concrete wall and an unappealing add-on room. There was a mention in passing of a view, but Pelion is a mountain peninsular surrounded by water so saying a house has a view is almost like saying it has running water.

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But one day, expecting nothing,  I went to see the house, climbed over the almond tree which had fallen over the entrance way, slithered down the bank to the front of the building (when I say mountain, I mean mountain – this house was settled comfortably into a steep slope like a head supported in the crook of an arm), and it was as if someone had punched me. I wasn’t quite standing on a precipice, merely on a continuation of the steep bank, but it was the same sensation you get when you climb in soft drizzle, doggedly following a path, head down, seeing only a few hundred yards in any one direction and then, when you finally get to the top, the clouds lift…. That lurching, exhilarating sensation of being deafened by beauty.

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Needless to say, we bought the house. The bank I slid down became steps to the lower level, the concrete wall was plastered and painted, the bare approach was paved and covered, the fallen almond was replaced with a sturdy sapling. We used the house on weekends and during the holidays and I planted anemones in the long grass and pomegranate, cherry and hibiscus trees on the terraces. A young vine and wisteria curled their way up the new pergola and every time I went, I had that same sensation. You couldn’t escape it, like having a world class symphony orchestra hidden behind the unappealing add-on. Brushing your teeth, doing the washing up, or putting the children to bed, there it was – that astonishing, heart-stopping view.

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I made one of my first ever mosaics for it – of two birds based on a mosaic from Larissa, Greece – and took it to the builders to insert into the wall above what were once the animal’s quarters on the lower level. That’s all there was in terms of mosaic decoration and I don’t even have a photograph of it.

Not that the house was perfect. The fact that it was built into the hill meant there was always some sort of problem with damp. The configuration of the rooms was odd and would have been odder as the boys got bigger. And the only way to get to the house was to park your car at the top of the hill and carry everything to the door down the steep slope, which was fine on arrival, but not so fine in 35 degrees lugging heavy cases back up after a longer stay.

Then one day we decided to sell it (don’t ask me why) and, as soon as the decision was made, I realised it was a terrible mistake and so within weeks, we’d bought another house over a ridge and down a bit from the first house. The second house did not make my heart stop but by this time I had grown fond of the hill and the neighbours and it wasn’t only the view I couldn’t bear to leave, so we bought the second house from the owner who was born in it and once again set to work to do it up. No need this time to plant a vine as there was already a grand, old, gnarled one leaning nonchalantly against an outside room. 1-Pinakates-7-6-09

Still in mourning for the first house, I had no interest in making a special mosaic for the new house and gave the builders a mosaic that I happened to have lying around – an indirect piece based on a Coptic textile from the Benaki Museum, Athens, with a heart-shaped pebble in the middle which they incorporated into the threshold paving:

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I also gave them an old mosaic which had broken across the middle during a move and so they put it around the side of the house where it cant be seen:

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Then, slowly, I grew attached to this second-choice house with its drooping electric cable stretched carelessly across the view. The venerable vine survived the building work and climbed quickly and obligingly over the wooden trellising, dropping fat bunches of grapes over the table where we eat. A red rose which was still blooming next to the outdoor kitchen twenty years after the house was abandoned, accepted relocation gracefully and continues to bloom. The house, in the middle of an olive grove, was difficult to fence so we only planted things which can withstand being nibbled by the herds of goats and untethered horses that wander across the terrace, but oleander, aloe vera and African daisies grow thick and strong.

Eventually and no longer grudgingly,  I made a mosaic on mesh for the window indent in the bathroom:

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Then last summer I covered a garden pot with broken shards from once loved pots to house a bougainvillea which, despite a harsh, dry summer and weeks of neglect, has somehow survived.

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Not very lovely (the grout should be darker, I haven’t bothered to paint the rim) but the shards include a bowl I bought in Fayoum, Egypt; a plate from the Iranian market in Bahrain, a jug made by a Thessaloniki potter and received as a present from a university friend, and a Turkish dish from a shop in Cappadocia whose proprietor freely gave me his cast-offs.

Which brings me to my first real mosaic project for the Blue House – a Gaudi-esque covering for this horrid column:

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Under Greek law, you are obliged to have a structure of some sort on the edge of your land to connect the mains electricity to the house. It would be nice to have it tidied away in a cupboard or to have something inoffensively and unobtrusively clad in stone, but somehow we ended up with this ugly column which has only taken three years to look woefully bedraggled and down at heel.

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I will ask all my friends and friends of friends to donate their broken crockery and slowly it will be transformed. I cant guarantee it will be a success. It might, like the wire across the horizon, just be something I get used to, but it will be a sign that after all these years, the house which I didn’t even like, has become a house I have become uncommonly fond of.

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(The house last weekend – a warm, bright December day)