I have recently returned from what was possibly the hardest vacation I have ever had the good fortune to survive. It wasn’t really a vacation at all. The little village of Cong, Ireland, witnessed nine days of breakneck stone and glass work by a crack team of mosaicists this summer. It all started with an innocent conversation about limestone. Note: any mosaicist who works in stone knows that there are no innocent conversations about limestone.
Two summers ago, Meghan Walsh, architect and dynamic mosaic student, crashed into one of my workshops on building relationships with stone. Meghan doesn’t do small projects. With fire in her eyes, she told me I must go to Ireland to work with her friend Travis Price and the Irish limestone. So, we worked for the next two years to make it happen.
Travis Price, one of the most influential architects of our time, works with Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture to lead design/build expeditions for students. In addition to research, design, and hands-on building, the project associates itself with anthropology, archeology, philosophy, environment, and the arts. Turns out, this year, we were the Arts. Myself and Meghan, along with Deb Englebaugh, Julie Sperling, and Lee-Ann Taylor immersed ourselves in the storyline of the 2017 Spirit of Place. We learned about Manannan Mac Lir, god of the Irish Otherworld, and his solar boats that rise and fall into the depths of the sea to create the light and the dark. We learned about St. Matthew and The Fishers of Men casting their nets into the waters. These pre- and post-Christian stories inspired both the student-built structure and the mosaics themselves.
From the start, our goal was to create mosaic that was so integrated into this piece of architecture that it wouldn’t make any sense without it. As thoughtful mosaicists in our world often posit: why mosaic? Creating mosaic that cannot be replicated or even imagined into another medium has become a challenge for many of us. We achieved this in two key ways. First, by being a part of the design and research from day one. I traveled twice to visit with Travis and Meghan in DC for preliminary talks. I remember telling Travis passionately that our mosaic would not be mere decoration. After the team of five was assembled, I gave a presentation to the students about the miracles of mosaic and worked to illuminate them on what mosaic can be.
In response to every challenge, our team exceeded expectations. Lee-Ann showed up at a studio meeting with a full-scale mock-up of one pillar in cardboard. This proved to be invaluable on multiple occasions; the most memorable being when Meghan bravely stood her ground as the general contractor cast doubts on our understanding of easements on the returns. We understood every millimeter and every inch (metric system pun intended).
The second way we transcended being merely the decoration at the end was by building relationships with the material. We traveled to Youghiogheny Glass factory in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and hand-picked every slab of every shade of glass. We packed up our hammers and hardies and carried them to Ireland. If you caught a glimpse of us as we worked, it’s quite obvious that the tools made the cut and the clothes got left at home.
I must say the most thrilling moment of this adventure was when I finally got my hands around a chunk of the famed Irish limestone. The cracking sounds as our hammers got to work in the damp quiet of the woods was mosaicista music. I was the lucky emissary to jump in the work truck for the short drive to the quarry for stone collecting. Amidst the green fields of the Irish landscape, the giant limestone operation was like the Mordor of Middle Earth. I’ve visited many a heavy machinery job site; this one dwarfed them all. As the days progressed, we kept watchful eyes out for any geology that would enrich our lines.
A lucky find of a sandstone pile, which is rare for the area, turned out to be a blessing. We knew the limestone would be our anchoring material, in keeping with the building itself, but having the easy cutting and familiarity of sandstone gave us confidence that we would be able to cut in high enough volumes to finish the job. I remember looking to that pile of sandstone in relief, knowing that it may end up being our salvation.
Turns out, as is often the case in a foraging atmosphere, another stone came along later in the week to surprise us. The contractors had shipped a beautiful black Kilkenny limestone for the floor of the structure. It was creamy, smooth, and cut like very hard butter (that description may only make sense to a hammer and hardie artist?).
Once we got it in our grubby, mortar-covered hands, we couldn’t stop cutting. I believe we cut twice as much as could be used for the job. All five of us were overweight with limestone-filled suitcases coming home. No Irish linen or Waterford crystal for us. Just as much Kilkenny limestone as our tired backs can carry, please!
In keeping with the musical terms, as is proper, since andamento is a musical term, I describe our work for that nine days in July as a calculated symphony and a spontaneous polyphony. What is a polyphony you wonder? It’s a musical composition made up of several simultaneous but independent melodic lines. I use this exact definition to help students define andamento in my workshops, so it is beautifully appropriate that now I get to attach it to a wholly new and unique word that was born that week: congdamento. Here is my best shot at defining a word that deserves more than one definition: Collective, intuitive line-building into the structure of a very narrow time frame. Origination, Irish.
Credit to Julie Sperling for coining this new and exciting word. For a complementary blog, please go to Julie’s writing to round out your understanding of this experience.
What does this definition leave out? It leaves out the magic of relationships, the mystery of old stories influencing fresh ones, and the courage of five strong artists who chose to humble their separate voices in order to create one mosaic concert.
As a team, we planned ahead to forego the ego of any one person and create an anonymity in our work. A last minute addition appeared like a fairy in the woods in the form of Abby Dos Santos. Now we were six strong.
We laid the stone and glass on mesh that had been cut to size months before and packed into suitcases. During our full tilt tesserae laying days in the woods, we switched off every 45 minutes to someone else’s work. This helped us avoid getting too emotionally attached to any one section but also kept our voices harmonized. It worked like a charm. I can identify some of my own work in the greater composition, but for the most part, the whole is a beautifully, fuzzy net of all of us. In some ways, it was more fun to identify Deb’s elegant lines than my own. Or to be surprised at remembering a specific unicorn that Meghan had enjoyed (unicorn was our term for a strikingly shaped tesserae that could not be categorized).
We ended with 390 separate mosaics on mesh installed into a sanctuary built to accommodate them. Broken down, that could conceivably add up to 30,000 pieces of tesserae, foraged, cut, and laid in what amounted to less than five days. A staggering amount of work.
We went into the woods and came out the other side carrying what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s treasure. The hero’s journey has many steps.
A partial list of these archetypal steps are; the call to adventure, a departure, meeting the mentor, trials, allies and enemies, a crisis, a treasure, and finally the return to the ordinary world. I like to think that, as the heroes of this little story, we gifted the treasure to the people of Cong. I didn’t get nearly enough time to sit in our Mosaic Sanctuary and contemplate what we had done. It helps to imagine the people of County Mayo and County Galway doing that for us.
Things I learned in Ireland:
How to raise and lower a tarp very quickly and without drama.
Ask for ridiculously more than you expect to get in terms of infrastructure and materials. It sets a precedent and makes the people in charge slightly afraid of you.
I am capable of working harder than I ever thought possible.
Being a small part of a talented team is a very satisfying thing.
Even though you plan and measure and are prepared, events will arise over which you have no control. Adapt.
Guinness is good for you.
I will never work for free again.