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Inside mosaic studios

Inside mosaic studios

Before the Big Clean Up. My mosaic space. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Until a few days ago I was a mosaic maker with a dark secret. My mosaic workspace was a horrendous mess: tesserae jumbled together in yoghurt pots, bags of marble rods dumped on the floor, books shoved unceremoniously onto shelves, sketches tucked into nooks never to be seen again, and pencils and tools scattered randomly in miscellaneous containers. All this might be shocking enough for you tidy tesserae folk out there, but I don’t want you to think kindly of me as a disorganised, flighty type with higher things on my mind than colour coordination. No, the awful truth is that I was not only perfectly aware of my shambolic way of working, but I positively revelled in it. No longer. You will be relieved to learn that I am now an entirely new person and it’s all thanks to you.

emma biggs workshop
Emma Bigg’s workshop. Photo: Emma Biggs

The transformation happened as I sat down to write about mosaic studios. When I came up with the idea, I thought it would be a straight forward matter of asking mosaicists from the online community for their help with supplying photographs and then it would all flow smoothly from there. But I quickly discovered what should have been obvious from the beginning – mosaic studios are more than just spaces where we work. They are private places, refuges, hideouts, sanctuaries, inner sanctums, and spaces generally of much greater importance than what goes on within them (although that’s pretty bloody important too).

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Marian Shapiro’s studio. Photo: Marian Shapiro.

Kind online friends promised that they’d get back to me with photos but they needed a bit of time first. Their mosaic studios, usually private domains, weren’t quite fit for public viewing. They needed to spruce them up, do a bit of organising, get things looking respectable before they’d let the cameras in. Of course a great deal depended on whether the mosaic studios in question were for their exclusive use, also used for teaching purposes or were roomy enough for mosaic making assistants.

Drostle Public Arts
Drostle Public Arts’ studio. Photo: Gary Drostle.

I had intended to show how diverse mosaic studios can be; how those of us who are passionate about making mosaics practice our art in a variety of ways, that the space doesnt matter as much as the process of designing and making. To a certain extent that was true; we make mosaics in all sorts of places – I use a landing at the top of the house and extend into my son’s room opposite when working on larger projects, Kim Grant has a converted double garage space with views over the garden and Tracey Cartledge shares an old Manchester cotton mill with a group of other artists:

Tracey Cartledge’s warehouse studio, Manchester. Photo: Tracey Cartledge.

Moreover, there are individual quirks to the way we work, devices we use to help us and stablilising influences we gravitate towards to keep us focused. I am an inveterate listener to the BBC’s Radio 4 while Julie Sperling in Ottawa, Ontario has a liking for music:

Julie Sperling’s ipod and mosaic. Photo: Julie Sperling.

Marian Shapiro, based in Austrailia’s Lower Blue Mountain outside Sydney, has her cat as a shoulder wrap to keep her warm at the mosaic table:

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Marian Shapiro’s shoulder warmer. Photo: Marian Shapiro

And LKF Designs over in Cincinnati, Ohio, watches/listens to her favourite television series in her studio:

Lori Kay watches Homeland. Photo: LKF Designs, Instagram.

But then, as the photos began to trickle in, I realised that leaving aside these individual differences, mosaic artists of all persuasions seem to share one very noticeable trait in common – they all like serious amounts of order. Here’s Sonia King with her impeccably sorted tesserae:

Sonia King at work. Photo: Sonia King

And Kim Grant‘s gloriously organised work room:

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Kim Grant’s studio. Photo: Kim Grant.

Naturally, there are other things that mosaic studios share – the need for good lighting, copious shelving and a clear work surface – but the really striking feature of them all is the presence of transparent containers, sometimes on a vast scale; a strong predilection for colour groupings of tesserae and a tidiness that put my space to shame. Not for us, it seems, the cliche of chaotic disarray so often associated with artists’ studios:

David Dawson, artist, in his studio. Photo: Richard Saker/Observor

Which got me thinking that maybe the art of mosaic itself, it’s precision and slowness, not only lends itself to ordered spaces, but positively requires it. We have to make careful, considered decisions when we place our tesserae and so we need to have mosaic studios where everything is easily accessible and tabulated. We can’t whip up a particular shade of burnt orange by dabbing in a touch of blue or – what the hell – just a little bit more. No, we have a limited palette and all our choices must be displayed before us so we can select the exact tessera we need for the the particular space we require it. Here’s the way Patrizia Brasch does it:

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Patrizia Brasch’s studio. Photo: Patrizia Brasch

So, with this thought it mind, I went back to my studio and turned it upside down. With only a small space at my disposal, everything surplus to requirements was OUT: the yoghurt pots, old designs that I will never use, rolls of card I don’t know why I have, tubes of acrylic paint that don’t need to be on my desk, stacks of magazines which are surplus to requirements. Out, out, out. The rods were neatly stacked, the books carefully aligned:

Ordered books and boxes. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Once I started, nothing would stop me. I had fun organising my inspiration boards:

Inspiration boards. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

Grouping my colour charts:

Colour charts. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

And placing my oldest tesserae (a fragment from a Roman mosaic) next to my newest (a little piece by Line Mortensen):

Old and new tesserae. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The satisfaction of getting the job done was compounded by the fact that as I dug deeper into the accumulated stuff of years, I unearthed useful and lovely things that I had forgotten even existed; unusual stones, a rather fine and untouched notebook, a whole jar of slightly fluorescent glass, and beloved postcards and children’s drawings which had fallen behind the shelves. The only thing that escaped my tidy-up bonanza was the old trusted plastic boxes that I have always used to keep my half centimetre rods:

Rods in their boxes. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The other up-side, besides the obvious one of getting a tough job done, was that when I finally sat down at my revamped workspace, with the light pouring in onto those rows of jars of enticing tesserae, I felt a huge sense of excitement and creative possibility. New avenues seemed to open up. Weirdly, when my mosaic was a disaster zone I felt drawn to making neat, flowing, clean mosaics:

Recent mosaic in the ‘old’ workspace. The weight is for exercises when my mosaic arms hurt! Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

But now I want to go wild in my neat organised space, to try new things, experiment with colours, break personal boundaries, go off on a frolic. Who knows what the discipline of tidiness will do to my mosaic making ….

After. My transformed space. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics


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