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There’s no world without mosaics

Barnacles, Scotland’s West Coast. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

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.

Farook relaxing with a good book on the beach. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

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.

Tiled floor, Hereford Cathedral, England. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Usually I compensate for the lack of mosaic time by dragging my reluctant boys to obscure (or not so obscure) mosaic sites. I tailor the summers to make sure our road trips take in mosaic places that otherwise I might never get to see. Over the years we’ve been to Aquileia, Rome, Ravenna, Venice, and even slogged across the Anatolian plains to visit Zeugma. This year there were no such opportunities. We stayed in London for two nights and I snatched a few hours to see Tessa Hunkin at work on a new project with her Hackney Mosaic Project volunteers, but other than that, the entire summer, all 63 days and counting, were entirely mosaic free.

Detail of Hackney Downs Mosaic made by Tessa Hunkin’s Hackney Mosaic Project. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

But fortunately for me, there’s no world without mosaics. Mosaics are really nothing but the slow and deliberate accumulation of parts, the materials change, the way of achieving that accumulation changes, but essentially they all boil down to the same thing – to pattern, line, movement, form. So, bereft of mosaics, I found them everywhere.  We use them to build walls, to shore up seas, to protect our cattle or our kings.

Wall. Ruined castle, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

We see them in the flow of rivers, the line of hills, the shapes of plants and the markings of feathers and shells. We find patterns in the greatest of all human achievements – in mathematics, in music, in poetry, in architecture – they are essential to the way we exist. Codes, chess, mazes, maps, textiles – all, when you strip away the wrapping, are nothing more than patterns and lines. This summer, watching a performance at the Edinburgh Festival, I even saw mosaics in the choreography of the dancers’ moves – that fluid crescent, the perfect curve of energy, muscle and motion.

Sea urchin shell. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

Without my own mosaics to focus on, I found my mosaic antennae constantly zinging and pinging, alerting me to real and imagined mosaics. I couldn’t stroll down a street, lie on the beach, go on a country walk, visit a museum or do any of the other myriad ordinary things that the summer entails without finding an actual mosaic or a mosaic connection. On the Sydenham High Street in London, lined with funeral parlours and fast food outlets, I looked up and found this decorating a public building:

Detail of a mosaic, Sydenham High Street, London. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Visiting an English Heritage house in Herefordshire, I was delighted to see this:

Micro mosaic of Roman ruins, Croft Castle, Yarpole, Herefordshire. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

These casual, incidental mosaics like this one at an Edinburgh shop threshold, remind me that mosaics aren’t an esoteric, weird out-there kind of thing, but something that all kinds of people in all kinds of ways have sought for and appreciated from those Roman banqueteers adorning their dining floors to 19th century country gentlemen on their grand tours to our own elected councillors thinking how to brighten a dull facade.

Shop threshold, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Nature, of course, does it best.

Dandelion. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Nature is the one that gave us mosaics in the first place (a leopard’s coat, a peacock’s display, a fish’s dappled markings) and then gave us stone. When that mosaic antennae of mine was pinging about but sending no signals back, I found stone, that lovely neglected stuff, to relish in. I got up early to really look at the stones that line our favourite beach and found that once I started looking there was more and more to see:

Rock strata, Kalamaki beach, Pelion, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics


It turns out that once you stop you can’t fail to notice that the process of life, the slow erosion of all we build and create, produces it’s own mosaics. Paint weathers in the rain, street tiles break, porcelain acquires an exquisite patina of cracks:

Flaking paint on wooden door, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Nature can’t seem to help itself – there’s a constant need to break out, push up, slide in. It’s what we do when we make mosaics, fitting parts around other parts and once we see that there is no world without mosaics, we see that that’s precisely what’s going on around us:

Tarmac and pebbles, New Town, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Succulents between rocks, Perthshire, Scotland. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

In the process of my mosaic finding I discovered too that my brother, well into middle age and living quietly on the shores of Loch Fyne on Scotland’s west coast, is busy making his own version of mosaics  – cutting out random quotations from the Bible and sticking them with that restless obsessive mosaic making urge, onto styrofoam balls:

‘Mosaics’ of paper. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Add in my mother’s knitting and my great grandfather’s embroidery and you can see that my mosaic thang runs deep and strong:

My great grandfather’s embroidery. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Dear reader, I must confess that I was so determined to show you that there is no world without mosaics I went so far as to take a rather elegant photograph of sheep’s poo in a field in Perthshire but on the off chance that you are eating your breakfast, I thought I’d leave you with this rather more salubrious photograph of beachnut casings:

Beachnut casings. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.













  1. Rachel sager

    I will be instructing all my students to read this Helen! Beautiful, funny, and right on the mark. Write some more please…

  2. Jacki Sowers

    Loved reading this, Helen! I haven’t been able to mosaic for over 6 months…. illness, packing to move, moving, now unpacking. Have felt frustrated and very incomplete. You have given me a new way of looking at things,and I am most appreciative! Until I can get my studio set up, and be back at work, I need to train my eye not to miss Nature’s mosaics. They are all around me, as are so many everyday arrangements I never thought of as being “mosaics”. Thank you!

    1. I hope the unpacking goes smoothly and you get back to work soon. Nothing beats the actual business of mosaic making but nature certainly helps ease the yearning.

  3. Pat

    I took an elegant photo of bison poo in Yellowstone National Park for the same reason as you! It was gorgeous!

  4. dawn

    Hi Helen I trust the divine timing to have discovered your inspiring and informative mosaic sharing so refreshing as i think of its journey past to present love respect gratitude

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