The title to this piece came to me in the shower this week. There must be something about the hot steam that brings out ideas. It happens often enough that I’ve come to smile as they appear above my shampooed head like little burning fairies, screaming for attention. (I consider this an excellent reason for why the proposed bathroom in the basement should be designed with a steam room!)
I did not use the word popular in this title. Or the word respected. I chose the word powerful with all of the confidence I possess as an artist and a writer. I have spent half of my life working in this medium and have learned some important things about how the world perceives mosaic.
What do I mean by powerful?
Let us start with the power of the casual viewers experience; the art appreciator who knows nothing about the thousands of years of history that precede the mosaic upon which he looks. He is mesmerized by all of the pieces of things organized in a particular way. Note: this happens to be my own personal definition of mosaic.
He may not realize why he can’t look away, even from far below as he cranes his neck up in awe at the dizzying angles of irregular surfaces that catch the millions of rays of light. He just enjoys the show of smalti and gold and marble. Its not his job to learn that each piece of tesserae was hand-cut with a hammer by an artist or artisan who was very likely in a high state of meditation as they worked. He doesn’t need to see the hammer and hardie in the hands of a skilled crafts-person to understand the gravity of time and talent involved in a large-scale mosaic installation.
Well-made mosaic has the power to impress. Back stories are fun but not necessary for the WOW factor. The every-man is overwhelmed as he imagines what it takes to organize all those pieces of things. Those of us who work in the medium are quite aware of what it takes; time, focus, technique, and then lots more time. We do it because all those pieces of things make sense to us.
Mosaic is also uniquely powerful to the artist. There are of course, many, many ways for an artist to make a mosaic. Some are inherently more powerful experiences than others. The nature of the six-sided shapes that we use as building blocks create an intimacy with the art that isn’t available to the painter. Unless you finger-paint, of course.
The mosaicist touches every single piece.
Many of us touch every single piece multiple times before we set it in its final resting place. Still others of us cut our own tesserae by hand, one careful piece at a time. There is power in all those purposeful touches. I am reminded of an old blacksmith who told me once, with no sarcasm, that tools carry some of the soul of their user. Energy, time, and obsession; these all translate into a kind of power. The mosaicist has these three in spades.
My particular skill set as an artist involves foraging the earth for raw material. I have created workshops and philosophies around the act of foraging. I help people break it down into relationship building sessions.
Yes, I tell people that they can, and should, build a relationship with a stone. A stone has the secrets of time all layered up inside it. It has stories to tell for the careful observer.
For the foraging mosaicist, there are literal earthly secrets at her fingertips. Cracking open a piece of geology is a little, miracle-filled act; the sharp crack as it cleaves in two, the mineral smell that might waft from it, the rough or smooth feel of its insides. And, of course the honor of being the first to use all your senses to witness a thing that has been sealed up for thousands or millions of years. I will not mention my propensity for licking a rock from time to time, just because. Or maybe I just did?
That is a powerful relationship; being able to make a meaningful, literal connection between the earth and yourself.
But material is secondary to another word in the mosaic dictionary. A word that transcends all the bling. All the color. All the everything else that is mosaic.
This is a much misunderstood and often flat out ignored word. If you are not a mosaicist from the European continent, you may make mosaic your whole life and never even hear it. Happily, I was taught that the lines of communication and the rules surrounding them were the most important thing. In consequence, I choose to worship the line, to take it apart and build it back up from scratch every day. Some may be of the opinion that being a forager is what defines me as an artist, and there is truth to that. I love foraging for stone. But if I was ever barred from geology for some reason, I would continue to be a passionate line builder. That’s because any material (and I do mean any) can be translated into andamento. I could cut glass beer bottles into tesserae and build lines of communication with them. I could destroy, cut up and transform my printer into a collection of lines organized in my very particular way. I have, indeed, already done this.
I could cut up my coffee maker if I took to the idea. I joke that I draw the line at people and animals. Although bones of the already dead could possibly be considered.
The world is a mosaicists oyster.
If it can be cut, it can be translated into elegant lines that help an artist to express the best parts of themselves. The ideas I posit here are not exaggerated. They are accessible to any artist who chooses to embrace the pieces of things and the andamento that makes them talk to each other.
However, a medium is only as powerful as its artists.
Unfortunately, outside of the classical schools, mosaic is misunderstood. It is misunderstood by the powers that be in the art world. From curators, to gallery owners, to museum directors, mosaic is something that is either part of the ancient wing or dismissed as craft; often bad craft at that.
There is clearly a bias against mosaic in the high arts. And this is not me calling sour grapes. I am, for the most part, happily building my body of work outside the institutions (more on this subject in another blog). But it’s an enigma that I like to chew on from time to time.
This is not a black and white problem or solution. Unfortunately, there are too many artists making mosaic that fails. What do I mean by failing? I mean those who are so distracted by color and texture that they sweep over learning how to make the tesserae talk to each other. They fail because they willfully choose to remain ignorant about what makes all those miraculous six-sided shapes tick. Or they fail because of deeper problems. They fail because they aren’t taking risks.
I’ve always believed that the buck stops with the artist. If we don’t make the tough sacrifices, who will? Isn’t it our job to help our fellow humans see a world that they might never imagine?
The artists who will push mosaic into its rightful spotlight will be the ones who will take the heavy, chunky raw material and transform it with intention into shapes that illuminate the mysteries of the human condition. Or artists who tell stories of what isn’t, but what could be. The kind of mosaic that balances virtuosity of technique while straddling that razor’s edge of universal truths and contemporary trends. Happily, mosaic is experiencing a new golden age and those who want to learn can find good teachers. This new age comes to us as the world shrinks and online learning and research make a once hard to access art form available to any artist.
As the esteemed N.T. Pipgras says, by way of Rodney Dangerfield, mosaic often “gets no respect.” I have come to the conclusion that it simply needs better artists. Better, as in committed to learning techniques over a lifetime. Better, as in “it’s not a hobby, it’s my job”.
And not just better, but brave. Brave in the way that one is brave as she risks her reputation. Brave because she is afraid but she charges ahead anyway. So, she holds her head up high and she says proudly,
I am a mosaicist.
There is power in those four words.
I end by changing one word in the above title. Mosaic can be the most powerful medium in the art world. But we must be better and braver if we want to lead it into its rightful future.
To all of you out there;
who are committed
or are dreaming of committing
or are afraid to commit to the most powerful medium in the world, let me say this…
“the times they are a changin”. Credit to my man for insisting that behind every great line you will find Bob Dylan.
The time to commit to mosaic is now. The world is at your fingertips.
Use the pieces of things to tell stories the world will remember.
PostScript: if you want to learn more about this powerful art, you can view my online courses here.