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Intuitive Andamento by Rachel Sager (a review)

Intuitive Andamento by Rachel Sager (a review)

Intuitive Andamento_ an online course
Intuitive Andamento_an online course with Rachel Sager.  @Rachel Sager Mosaics

Intuitive Andamento: a new way of working.

I was ready for a shake up. I needed, nay, craved, to press the mosaic ‘refresh’ button. After years of making mosaics which, let’s face it, had a certain Helen-y look, I felt I needed to break free; to become the mosaic equivalent of Freddie Mercury in a leather mini skirt tossing my perfectly coiffed tesserae lines aside to reveal a whole new defiant mosaic-er within.

Andamento_ controlled
Andamento_controlled. @Helen Miles Mosaics

This is not necessarily just my problem. We can all get stuck in our ruts and find ourselves too comfortable with the way we work. If we’re not careful that way of working ceases to be creatively demanding  because it comes instinctive, effortless. I get lost in the making of mosaics, fall into a time vortex when nothing else exists except the stones and the flow of the andamento; the long, slow, gentle curves of the tesserae beautifully aligned but undeniably controlled. It was time to loosen up.

Apocryphal typography by Rachel Sager
Detail_ Apocryphal Typography, Rachel Sager. @Rachel Sager

That’s why I decided to take Rachel Sager’s Intuitive Andamento online course offered by Mosaic Arts Online.

Intuitive Andamento_mosaics 1 & 2
Intuitive Andamento _ the ‘ants’ and handwriting. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Intuitive Andamento maestro Rachel Sager

Rachel Sager, as many of you must know, is a forager mosaic artist based in South-western Pennsylvania, USA.  She lives next to an abandoned coal mine which she has re-imagined as The Ruins Project, an innovative and exciting plan to turn the broken walls and derelict outbuildings into a large-scale, constantly evolving, site specific mosaic art park. Mosaicists from around the world have been invited to participate and I couldn’t resist offering my own contribution unsolicited when I lived in Greece: a tiny triangular lodestar now surrounded by tesserae added by Rachel and Canadian artist Julie Sperling.

Rachel Sager Ruins Project detail.
Alchemy by Rachel Sager, Julie Sperling and Helen Miles made with red dog, coal, shale, gold, iron ore pellets, ancient pot shards and sea-worn ceramic. @Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter

It’s been years since I started reading Rachel’s blog and watching her project develop.  I know what envy feels like: that little burning hole in the pit of your stomach that niggles you every time you look at someone else with the thing you long for. I know that admiration feels different. It’s a softer feeling, more generalised, and not located in any one part of the body. It’s mostly curiosity, mixed with a heightened level of attentiveness. And I know that that my feelings about Rachel Sager ‘s mosaics are a blend of both – I admire the beauty and power of her work and the way that she has evolved a very distinctive technique of mosaic creation and I envy her the space and opportunity to explore her art on a huge outdoor canvas.

Out door mosaic canvas
Rachel Sager’s Ruins Project_an outdoor canvas by Rachel, Julie Sperling, and Deb Englebaugh. @Rachel Sager Mosaics

These ill defined feelings were getting me precisely nowhere until I signed up for Rachel’s online course.  I devoured it in one sitting – gulping down her eleven ‘lectures’ with impatient enthusiasm to get cracking and start using her methods.

‘I will separate you from the distraction of any kind of composition,’ says Rachel in the introduction to the course. ‘With time and practice you will build lines that reflect who you are, possibly even define who you are.’ If my lines reflect who I am, then up to now I must have been unwittingly harbouring an inner control freak, the sort of person with a colour coordinated sock drawer who won’t leave the house unless the bathroom towels are perfectly aligned.

mosaic bird detail
Colour-coordinated sock drawer lines. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I saw myself sitting in a sea of found objects; antique china fragments dug up in my parents’ kitchen garden, beads retrieved under the sofa from broken necklaces,  subtly shaped and coloured shells pressed into my palm by small boys on Sunday walks,  pebbles examined in uncomfortable detail as I lay stomach-down on scorching Greek beaches, wave-worn glass, coins, wrist watch innards, bottle tops, all would tumble effortlessly into gorgeous creations with Rachel to guide me.

The Great Sandstone Mountains Rachel Sager
The Great Sandstone Mountains, Rachel Sager. @Rachel Sager Mosaics

Intuitive Andamento and the lines

But first I needed to absorb the lessons of the course which revolve around Rachel’s concept of ‘the line,’ or the ‘pathways that mosaic tesserae travel.’ In these classes, Rachel builds her lines on purpose-made, narrow rectangular substrates which she calls ‘yoga mats’  constructed  by layering mesh and mortar. The method she uses to make the boards isn’t included in the course but both Rachel and Tami Macala, who runs Mosaic Arts Online, are generous with their time and knowledge and quickly responded to my enquiry. It didn’t take long to rustle up some practice boards:

Intuitive Andamento_preparing the yoga mats
Intuitive Andamento _ preparing the ‘yoga mats.’ @Helen Miles Mosaics

Then it was time to concentrate on the lines. These lines would be my poetic meter and within it’s rules (which Rachel is quick to point out are made to be broken) I would find the freedom of expression I was searching for. I was already steeped in the principles of classical andamento but this andamento is on the rocks with a slice of lemon.

Intuitive Andamento- my way

With no further ado, I sat down and made a mosaic using the direct self-grouting thin-set method used by Rachel and others like her. Again, not exactly new for me, but something I rarely do. This is what I produced:

Intuitive Andamento_the ants are marching.
Intuitive Andamento_the ants are marching. @Helen Miles Mosaics

It was obviously different from what I have had been doing up until now but it didn’t feel right. Despite Rachel’s expert telling of the processes behind her method, it seemed formulaic and predictable. The tesserae ambled casually up the substrate and then disappeared over the edge like a maverick section of an ant trail off on its own foray.

I watched Rachel’s lectures again, more slowly this time. Ah, this is the real pleasure of taking an online course. The thrill of suspending time, of rewinding, catching that half-heard line, having the leisure to pause the video and take notes, to focus in on the bits that catch your attention. Oddly, however, when I tried to sit down once more, the mosaic within me refused to budge. It just sat there like a heavy dinner making me feel clumsy and awkward. I tried various approaches but still I couldn’t get it to shift.

Building lines…is where the personality really gets to shine,‘ says Rachel. My lines were truncated, aborted, half hearted. Something was wrong.

In-between my experiments with Rachel’s Intuitive Andamento I had been working on other mosaic projects and immersed in clearing out my parent’s beloved cottage in the hills of Perthshire after my father’s death last year.  The house has been in the family for decades and my parents are hoarders with an admirable lack of interest in housekeeping. Every drawer, every surface, every cupboard, every corner is piled high with things and in amongst it all are countless scraps of paper with my father’s writing on them. Notes to himself mostly. About trees, plantings, plans, ideas, page references. The majority are written in his distinctive, elegant hand but later ones have the spidery illegibility of the very old.

Intuitive Andamento_hand writing inspration.
Intuitive Andamento_hand writing inspiration. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I found myself unable to throw them away and have collected them together with no purpose or intention. The next mosaic I made with Rachel’s Intuitive Andamento approach reflected something of this. I liked it more but I wouldn’t describe it as ‘intuitive’ – I had been thinking a lot about hand writing and the marks we leave behind us and before I made the mosaic I looked closely at the loops and flows of the pen across the page.

So I needed to go back to the principles that Rachel is teaching and watch again. Rachel’s method is predicated on having a rich store of natural materials to work with. In her case, the material is mostly limestone from her native Pennsylvania and Rachel is a devotee of the hammer and hardie which she describes as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for mosaicists – the means by which we break down the material and find the secrets that lie within. The online course covers the principles of using the tools and how to produce useable tesserae – cubes, keystones and slivers of varying sizes – from an unappetising lump of rock.

Intuitive Andamento_Listen to Your Rock

Intuitive Andamento_making progress
Intuitive Andamento_making progress. @Helen Miles Mosaics.

Back in September when the British Association for Modern Mosaic‘s annual conference was held in Edinburgh, Australian artist Marian Shapiro visited and kindly gave me the most exquisite piece of veined rock I’d ever seen. It’s called Mookaite and is named after the place it’s found, Mooka Creek, near Perth, Australia. ‘The more interaction you have with your pieces or things, the richer and more interesting your lines will be,’ says Rachel in her Intuitive Andamento course. Never mind the shells and pebbles, I had to sacrifice my beautiful piece of Australian stone.

hammer and hardie
Using the hammer and hardie to bond with my material. Cutting Mookaite. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Listen to your rock,’ says Rachel and sure enough she was right. Once I allowed myself to hone in on the materials themselves, the lines began to build.

Intuitive Andamento_detail (2)
Intuitive Andamento_ detail (2). @Helen Miles Mosaics

A 200-year old nail from a floor board which we’d recently pulled up wriggled its way in there too.

Intuitive Andamento_nail detail
Intuitive Andamento_nail detail. @Helen Miles Mosaics

Along with bits of this and that, ancient pot shards found on the beach where St. Paul landed, some of those shells I wanted to use and my old trusted hammer-cut marble.

Intuitive Andamento_ listening to the rock
Intuitive Andamento_listening to the rock. @Helen Miles Mosaics

I didn’t try to control or dictate where the lines were going – they formed themselves, dividing and joining, extending out and regrouping, more like an animated school party than those pesky ants. I enjoyed it. I stopped thinking about Freddie Mercury. The result isn’t what you would call a masterpiece  – more like a wobbly outline of Italy or perhaps a frayed sock. If these lines reflect who I am, I clearly have a bit of inner examination (or sock clearance) to do.

But maybe that was the whole point.


Rachel’s Intuitive Andamento Course is available for $149 from Mosaic Arts Online. She has recently added a follow-on course, Intuitive Andamento 2.0, which is available for $269. 

She is also leading a series of Ruins Project Workshops on site in Pennsylvania. The details are available here:







  1. Great article Helen, I had been looking for some teaching around andamento and had got in touch with one of the tutors at Chicago Mosaic School to see if they had any online teaching. Thank you for flagging this up.

    1. Thanks, Jane. Mosaics Arts Online has quite a range of classes to choose from and so I hope you find something that suits you. It’s a really great resource.

  2. Gaylen Worthen

    Helen, it is always a delight to read your blogs. You are unique in being a talented artist as well as having a knack for being a poet and wordsmith. Please keep it up. I have devoured your delightful take on the medium I love.

  3. Sue Binzer

    Thank you so much for putting my own struggle with andamento and control into words! I too, lured by the beauty in Rachel’s lines, signed up for both her courses and discovered that ‘intuitive’ was something that was led by the material, not by me. It was like I was learning a new language and could only say a few stilted phrases for weeks! It’s still far from intuitive; more like going down a road, getting lost, and backtracking!

    1. Good to hear from you! Yes, I agree that the intuitiveness takes a while to work into your practice. I am now using it a lot but it is still a self conscious and slightly clumsy process for me. I need to work on it more and maybe get Rachel’s second course too?!

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