Groundbreakers and good books

A reader knows she’s read a good book when it leads her to another book. That little shiver of surprise that she feels when an author or a character refers to another writer or another book; that’s one of the perks of immersive reading. I say immersive because so much of our reading has devolved into those clipped, abbreviated snippets of information. Slow, leisurely reading has become the exception.

Sometimes it’s just a name drop. I can be deep in the middle of an historical fiction novel and a character will quote Marcus Aurelius or make fun of Mark Twain. The fuzzy nature of those little hints _at all _are such a turn on. Sometimes they sit sleepily in the back of my brain until I come upon that as yet undiscovered author in the book store (I will hang on to the physical book in my hands for as long as they let me). Sometimes I am compelled to go out and find a copy of this new discovery post haste. E.M. Forster led me to Dante. Jefferson gave the nod to Montaigne, who, it turns out, is one of the most readable and accessible philosophers I’ve had the pleasure to read. He just happens to be from fifteenth-century France.

When I experience these bookish connections I feel like I’m a fly on the wall of the conversations between great minds that can span not just centuries, but millennia. As I plod through my River House renovation, some days feeling like we are moving backwards and not forwards, I keep thinking of the character in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun as she struggles through her very Italian adventure of fixing up a dilapidated villa. I have my own cast of quirky and colorful characters who show up every day to work. I often get so mired in the dirt and the mess and the general slowness of this giant undertaking that I simply cannot go on. But then I do. Go on. Funny how a book I read decades ago can help me see the comedy of my current living arrangement. A good book will do that for you; it leads you somewhere else. Or helps you see a picture that is bigger than your own melodrama.

Art will do that too. As the creator of the art, I have learned to sit up and pay attention to the pieces that change me or push me into new territory. These pieces don’t need to be good. I don’t even have to particularly like them. But when I look back, I can spot them clearly and say, oh… that’s where I changed.

Let’s call them groundbreakers. Sharing them here in this venue is an exercise in humility. They are not my best work. I am sharing each of them for the specific ways that they changed me.

Canadienne (2008)

"Canadienne" mosaic by Rachel Sager “Canadienne” (2008), 12” x 12”, marble, granite, Blenko glass, slate, jasper, desert rose

Created in Sophie Drouin’s Ontario studio, this little piece of awkwardness represents one of my more painful groundbreakers. After working in the medium for at least a decade, I had come to the horrifying realization that, like John Snow, I knew nothing. My materials were complex and inspired; I had a handle on design and composition. But I was still ignorant of that most basic of mosaic elements: language. My lines were static and often unwieldy.

My friend, colleague and force of nature, Sophie Drouin, whipped me into shape over a week of immersive andamento training. When I look at this piece, I see my uncomfortableness. I am just dipping my toe into the water of what would soon become my obsession, the elegant line. To a sensitive mosaic eye, especially in the top half, the lines look technically correct, but they lack that naturalness that is necessary for elegance. Students take note, one must make lines like this to get to lines like this:

Rachel Sager "Paradox of the Coastline #2" mosaic - map cartography coastline “Paradox of the Coastline” detail

Deep Well (2010)

Rachel Sager "Deep Well" mosaic - Marcellus drilling and geology “Deep Well” (2010), 26” x 10”, Slate, Pennsylvania fieldstone, galena, pyrite, sandstone, marble, Italian smalti

I come from a family of coal miners. My bad memory is one of my biggest downfalls, but some moments simply stick. Like the day I experienced the light bulb of illumination about stratigraphy. It came at me all at once, like a barreling train. I could build the layers of earth out of the earth itself. I had been working in my native stone for less than a year but understood instinctively that I had a lot to say with it. The natural gas industry was just getting started in my part of the country, but my father was keenly aware of what was coming. We Googled and learned about fracking years before most people had even heard the word. The image of the drill cutting deep into the earth attracted me immediately. Those spaces where nature and industry meet have always been a trigger for my imagination.

Now that the Marcellus series has taken on a life of its own and become one of my most successful ventures, I can look back at the simplicity and primitive design of Deep Well and remember. I remember that day vividly when I called my dad and asked him to list the layers of earth under our farm. He rattled them off like a grocery list…topsoil, clay, sandstone, Freeport coal seam, limestone, Pittsburgh coal seam, sandstone, aquifer, and on until we reach the Marcellus shale at 8,000 feet. I rushed to scrawl them onto my studio table with a sharpie. That was a beginning.

Driveway (2012)

Rachel Sager "Driveway" mosaic “Driveway” (2012), 15” x 11”, #2B limestone gravel, metal flower frog, 24-karat gold, vintage key, Italian smalti

As I traveled deeper into my andamento work, the perfection of the line became more and more crucial. Driveway is me turning the corner into purist territory. In order to separate the line from everything else that distracts me as an artist; color, composition, material, I distilled this piece down to basics. Or maybe I should say I distilled it down to gray gravel. The field tile is made up entirely of #2B limestone from my driveway. With a casual glance, the gravel looks uniformly gray and pretty unremarkable.

gravel #2B limestone gravel

But with a discerning eye and focused time spent with the hammer and hardie, turns out this stone has all kinds of color nuance going on. Notice, however, that even when I try to separate andamento from any other element, color insists on making an appearance. Even subtle color can be powerful. But that’s getting off point. The point of this groundbreaker is that it taught me the power of the line is absolute in mosaic. It matters more than anything else. Period.

Printlandia (2012)

Rachel Sager "Printlandia" mosaic “Printlandia” (2012), 19” x 24”, 100% printer—plastic, metal, and glass on hand-built substrate

Mosaic artists are always wrestling with Material. That’s Material with a capital M.

We don’t just think in stone; we go deeper and think marble, sandstone, granite, machine-cut or natural edge. We don’t just talk about glass; we talk smalti, stained, dichroic, vitreous and gold. I can make lists of material till the cows come home. But I also believe that material can be a trap for us. I see examples of well-meaning artists getting caught up in the excitement of all that bling. I see artists depending too heavily on either the novelty or the flash of a given material. Novelty as in, who knew that feathers could be used for mosaic?! Or flashy, as in all gold or beads or dichroic and not enough technique or restraint.

The experience of Printlandia taught me the lesson that authenticity in material is essential (for me). My authentic story with this groundbreaker began back when it was my actual printer. It stopped working when I really needed it to work. I was able to redirect my rage at its malfunction into inspiration and success. I clearly remember plopping on the couch and saying to my husband, ‘I’m gonna turn that thing into a mosaic.’ That mind opening moment changed me forever. I can see a clear line of demarcation between pre-printlandia and post-printlandia. When I realized that I had the power to transform any material into mosaic–worthy tesserae, the game had changed. I now had an incredible independence at my fingertips. I believe this was the year that I quit shopping for material. Today, I rarely purchase tesserae. I don’t need to. I have my nippers, my hammers, and my tin snips. So watch out!

I look forward to the next groundbreaker with a mixture of humility and an edge-of-my-seat excitement. If I have learned anything about the creative process, it is that the unexpected is a sure thing. It’s my job to keep my eyes open so I can spot it when it makes itself known.

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