I want to tell you a story about mosaic materials. It is also a story about a couple who are getting married. We all love love stories but of course we love mosaics too so really its a story about mosaic materials and love. Two for the price of one, so to speak.
The mosaic part of the story begins in my studio which is in the corner of a large classroom in an old Victorian school building in central Edinburgh. I share the space with a number of other artists who come and go but my one constant companion is Alison, who paints and creates on a mezzanine level in the same room. It is comforting and inspiring to have Alison there. On the few occasions when I can’t find my mojo, her calm industry suffuses the space and gets me going again.
A few months ago she asked if she could commission a mosaic for her daughter’s wedding present. Her daughter had visited the studio at some point and liked some experimental pieces I had been working on when I was thinking about the process of writing by hand in relation to mosaic making. The impermanence/permanence thing, mark marking in rows/andamento, words/tesserae. Alison wanted to commission something of what I had been trying to express. But what?
We sat down one afternoon to talk about Alison’s daughter and the man she loves. I have never met either of them so Alison’s descriptions as well as photos that she showed me on the phone were important. I needed to build up a sense of the couple – separately and together – and work from there. But despite Alison’s input I struggled to come up with ideas. I knew what I wanted – something quiet and deeply personal that you could get lost in when you stop to look at it. But that didn’t move things forward.
I began working on sketches and mini panels, trying out different lines and spacing. I showed them to Alison who in the gentlest of ways told me what I already knew. I was still off course. Then one afternoon I took a step back and decided to approach it from the other way around. Instead of working from the design to the mosaic, I would let the mosaic materials dictate the design. I arrayed everything out in front of me and started a new panel.
When I say I arrayed everything, I mean everything. I took down jars from my shelves and emptied them into trays (aka old dog food containers). I spilled boxes of broken china onto the floor, pulled out clam shells and cut them into usable pieces, sifted through my pebble collection and allowed myself to select the loveliest. By the time I was ready to start, there were gold smalti slivers, sea-rounded bits of local brick, ancient pottery shards picked up from the beach St Paul landed near Corinth, marble from Greece, rusty bolts and washers from my father’s garage, old plates with crackle glaze and new ones with pitted surfaces.
The sifting and sorting of the mosaic materials was the key. I organised the materials by colour, not type. This is a tip from Emma Biggs, to whom I am profoundly grateful. I placed disparate materials side by side and let them decide whether the coupling was a good one. Nor did I presume they were the colour that convention has decreed for them. For example, if you put white shells alongside white plates you realise that the white of the shells has pink or orange-y tones. Without stepping too far into the realm of airy fairyness, mosaic materials work best together if you allow them to speak and don’t interrupt.
Almost immediately it came. The mosaic would be a loose weave, lines of andamento moving vertically with others running horizontally, touching and joining but distinct. Each strong and beautiful but in entirely different ways. The sense of combining without dissolving would be emphasised by the lines picking up themes (tesserae) from each other.
The groom’s lines would run upwards, be slightly thicker and use shades of ochre and terracotta as well as a darker, reddish soft sand stone. The bride’s lines running crossways would be lighter and more mixed, plenty of terracotta-y tones there too but different. Isn’t that the whole point of marriage – that you complement each other without either one dominating? I chose to have two panels rather than one for the same reason – two young people are getting married, not merging into a single entity.
I took the new sample to Alison and got her approval. It was time to start work. I wanted to collect things from the couple’s lives and incorporate them into the mosaic – using materials that were relevant to them. Alison came up with some wonderful additions – a little key, a brooch from an aunt, some beautiful pebbles, a broken porcelain tea cup, a family necklace of jet, and even a fish jaw bone picked up by the bride’s grandmother on a beach in Aberdeen shire. We agreed that a reference to a significant family event would be inserted too, but so subtly that only those who knew would be able to decipher it.
Inspired by forager mosaicists like Rachel Sager and Julie Sperling as well as the Mosaic Arts Online YouTube video about mosaic materials, I visited the town where the couple live and walked the walks that they walk. I picked up beech nuts and casings from under a copse of ancient trees at the foot of a steep climb to a viewpoint overlooking the mountain ranges of the Scottish highlands. Further up the hill I snapped off dry pine tree twigs, fuzzy with moss and dotted with embryonic cones and put a few twisted sticks of dried heather into my bag. Later, I spent a happy half hour crouched on a river bank selecting little red stones from under the water.
Back home I baked the organic materials in the oven on a low setting over a couple of hours to extract any remaining moisture. I was ready to go.
If you want to know more about the method used to make this mosaic, please follow this link about the tile adhesive method: https://helenmilesmosaics.org/blog/tile-adhesive-method/