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.
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.
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.
All summer I felt bereft; longing for mosaics, pining for my studio, aching for the peace and purpose of my work. Every summer I am obliged by the tradition of nine-week-long school holidays to down my tools and go where family and heart and other people’s needs direct me. We always go to Scotland, sometimes driving through Europe, sometimes stopping in England, once striking off eastwards to Turkey or simply staying in our little hillside house on the Greek mountain of Pelion and hanging out on the beach.
There is much to appreciate about the summers. For all their broken-upness, the two days here, three days there nature of them, they allow us all to reconnect. I see old friends, spend time with my increasingly decrepid parents and visit my favourite places. But nonetheless I feel bereft because I can’t be making mosaics. Continue reading →
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)?
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? Continue reading →
I know I have a bit of a tendency to see mosaics or connections to mosaics even when there aren’t any, and you might be forgiven for thinking that I am pushing things a bit to try and claim a link between mosaics and my daily walk in the park but believe you me, there is one.
Walking, it seems, is the ideal, mindless, uncomplicated activity for letting your brain have a break. It facilitates a kind of mental blankness in which ideas can swirl about and inspiration (including mosaic inspiration) can strike. Apparently, many great minds from Darwin to Kant have been keen regular walkers and while I cant claim to have much in common in other respects, I do feel a certain kindred spirit when it comes to my partiality to walking.
I’m an early riser and when the light permits it, I tip toe down the stairs, bundle the dog into the car and head for the park leaving a house of sleeping boys. The best months are when I can arrive at the park just before dawn, have a whole blissful 45 minutes of watching the sun rise, the sky change colour and the silhouettes of the trees take form and clarity, before getting home to put breakfast on the table and wake the boys for school.
The finest of parks
I do believe that this park, my park (for habitual park walkers feel proprietorial), is simply the best park there is. There has been no other park in my life and I am quite sure there never will be. It was once a private estate on the northern fringes of Athens and is now used as an agricultural school and is surrounded by conurbation. It has the best of everything. It’s large enough to get lost in, there’s a hill you can climb up to see Athens steaming in the distance, wild bits with narrow trodden paths wriggling off in unexpected directions, as well as glorious prolific flowering trees and leafy tracks to shelter you from the summer sun.
So I tramp along every morning thinking about mosaics and what to cook for supper and the things I have to do and having little conversations with myself in Greek (since no one else will have them with me!) and marvelling at how lovely the park is. Sometimes I think about nothing at all. Quite often I have ideas about things I want to do (not all of which I do do) and ways to solve practical mosaic difficulties and even, very occasionally indeed, I have strokes of (mild) inspiration.
A mosaic to finish
And because I cant leave you without a mosaic or two, here’s a little thing that might have been inspired by a park – designed by my friend Alison Scourti and made by me:
And another on a plant theme that I have just finished and haven’t even had a chance to grout yet:
This is Part II of my four part series on making a mosaic trivet – Part I explained how to prepare your base, the marine plywood board, and so now’s the time to choose your materials and mosaic designs. This is where the fun starts.
Materials will influence your design and visa versa so you need to be thinking about both at the same time. In this instance, however, you are going to be making a direct method mosaic trivet which needs to be flat to put pots on, so there are only three choices of materials (pictured above):
Within these three choices, however, the range of colours is enormous and the effects they create are entirely different so limited choices doesn’t mean limited results. Take a look at the work of mosaicists who are established in the field and tend to prefer certain materials. Martin Cheek, for example, does amazing things in glass:
Tessa Hunkin has just completed the wonderful Hackney mosaic using ceramic (this is just a detail):
When you start thinking about choosing mosaic designs, you need to bear in mind that the process of mosaic making comes with certain constraints. Given that the piece will, by its very nature, have a fractured effect, designs work best which are:
Different components of the design need to be clearly delineated from each other if you want the image to be instantly ‘readable’, although there are also abstract options too – look at this work by Sonia King:
And don’t forget that patterns make wonderful mosaic designs:
The best thing I can recommend at this stage, is to allow yourself a free-internet rein and surf about looking at different mosaics using different materials until you get a feel for what you would like to do. Here I am going to stop everything and hold up a huge placard saying ‘OPEN A PINTEREST ACCOUNT NOW!’ It’s incredibly useful for getting ideas and keeping hold of them for a later day and also for general dabbling about.
Basically, its like using Google images except that you have an account so when you find something you like and want to keep, then you pin it on one of your boards which can be organised into any subject/theme you like. Other people can then ‘follow’ your boards or you can follow them so that if they are busy pinning images of all the sorts of things that you are interested in, then you wont miss their pins. To make things even better, you can create secret boards so the whole world doesn’t have to know about your particular weird obsessions. I have a secret board called Kitchens because one day, when I’m grown up, I am going to have a real kitchen but its sort of sad that I am sitting here fantasizing about work surfaces and cupboard space so I keep it to myself on my secret board.
My Pinterest account has boards entitled things like: Ancient Mosaics, Byzantine Mosaics, Pebble Mosaics, Mosaic Inspiration and so on but obviously you can choose to categorise your boards however you like.
More inspiration: look around you
If you feel like you want to do your own thing, then look around you – the natural world is full of inspiration:
And there are plenty of designs which can be taken from other contexts and adapted to mosaic – take this Korean wrapping cloth from the British Museum:
Coming soon: Making a mosaic trivet – get sticking!
(formerly Athens, Greece)
Take a look at what I'm working on now by clicking on my Instagram icon below
Join the Mailing List
Helen Miles Mosaics
I learnt how to make mosaics with Greek masters of the craft in Thessaloniki and Athens who taught using traditional methods with a focus on Byzantine iconography. Later, I become fixated with Roman designs and now my aim is to preserve the simplicity and directness of early mosaics while creating pieces which suit our modern lives.
New blog post on contemporary mosaic innovators. 1. Samantha Holmes ‘Unspoken’ 2. CaCO3, Movement No 12 3. Detail from Rachel Sager’s Ruins Project 4. Dugald MacInnes, Xenolith. http://helenmilesmosaics.org/contemporary-mosaics/mosaic-innovators/
Mosaics by Felice Nittolo, Raffaella Ceccsarossi and Pascale Beauchamp feature in my latest blog post about contemporary mosaics: http://helenmilesmosaics.org/contemporary-mosaics/contemporary-mosaics/