Bass guitar mosaic
Ceramic dishes, grout
These photos of my mosaic process are on display at the Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kansas, through March of 2018. The photos accompany a recently-installed permanent exhibit of 6 mosaics titled, With Nature Sing
Making mosaics is a complicated process with moments of magic. Fitting the tiles in place is like putting together a puzzle, except that I create the puzzle pieces as I go along. Although one can buy tiles for mosaic-making or use all manner of things like paper, macaroni, seeds or rocks, I chip my own tiles from secondhand ceramic plates and other dishes that I find in a range of colors and patterns at thrift stores. I have accumulated many dishes over the years, with occasional gifts from friends and acquaintances who sometimes leave their broken dishes on my front porch.
Because I work with dishes that need to be continually broken and shaped, my tile nipper is always close at hand. But before I cut and shape the tiles with my nipper, I use it to break the dishes first with a good solid whack, dividing each into smaller pieces that I can more easily work with. I look for broken pieces that are the right shape and size to fill spaces, and I also cut and clip them to fit more exactly. By the end of a project my work table and floor are covered with tiny discarded bits from this process.
Before the tiling begins, I develop an idea and then make a plan. I play around with images and ideas by drawing in my sketchbook, often little pictures that would only make sense to me, and then I change and expand on these. When I have played around enough and have settled on a concept, I make larger drawings of the key elements at scale, sometimes using reference pictures from my own photos or ones I find in books or on the internet. The last step in the design process is to map the images and key color choices onto a plywood work surface, also called a backer board, with simple outlined shapes in black marker.
I enjoy the creative process more if I leave some design decisions and color choices to resolve in the making process. I have twenty dishpans in my studio filled with dishes in various stages of brokenness, sorted by color, accompanied by smaller containers of smaller pieces that are sorted too, to choose from. I try to create mosaics where the imagery can be read through distinct color-shape areas, and yet I bring color-variation into these areas too, for added interest. Sometimes I sneak other objects into my mosaics to surprise the viewer, among them fossils, rocks, shells, or specialty tiles. My mosaics have become more sophisticated over the years, and yet I continue to learn more and more through the process of making them.
For small wall mosaics like the ones in this exhibition, I work directly on plywood. I scrape and mar the plywood surface first with a screwdriver, and then seal the surface with watered-down Weldbond glue, the same glue that I use to affix the tiles. (For largescale projects on walls or buildings, one would use different materials such as concrete backer board and mortar.)
The final stage is grouting. After I glue all of the tiles into place and the glue has dried, I vacuum the surface to sweep up bits of dust and debris before I begin to apply the grout, a cement-based material used to fill the cracks between the pieces. I use grey or tan grout which contrasts well with a range of colors, but colored pigments are available to mix into the grout, too. It is hard to judge what a mosaic will look like once grouted, so I usually go into the grouting process with some trepidation – how will it turn out? That said, grouting always brings a sense of unity to the work that is often pleasantly surprising. The grout is like magic that helps transform a pile of broken dishes into a pleasing cohesion.
The grout must be removed from the face-surface of the tiles before it dries. Cleaning the tiles is a tactile process because my use of dishes creates an uneven surface, different from mosaics made from uniform commercial tiles. I use my hands and a rubber spatula to remove the bulk of the excess grout from the tiles before I begin wiping away the grout with a damp sponge and rags. The final stages of cleaning remind me of dental work. In fact, I use old dental tools that a friend gave to me to clean the smallest and shallowest pieces that I can’t wipe by hand. Finally, I buff the tiles with Windex, and then the piece is complete.
Some years ago, my family gathered at a ranch in the Flint Hills to spend a weekend and to celebrate my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. As a native Kansas from south central Kansas, I’ve always felt at home in open country and the Flint Hills are that and more, representing a spare and exceptional beauty that is unique to its place.
At night, when we walked outside to experience the Flint Hills night, we saw the stars like we’ve never seen them before and the wondrously speckled expanse of light that is the Milky Way.
That moment inspired several mosaics, among them Night in the Flint Hills, a new commission for the design firm Spellman Brady and Company in St. Louis, Missouri for a hospital in Onaga, Kansas. The Piece is 22″ x 22″.
Nearly Spring is complete! It is a seven-foot mosaic mural installed on New Year’s Day at the Free State Brewery in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. The mosaic was a wonderful project and I am writing to give thanks to all of the people who were in one way or another a part of its creation.
Foremost I want to thank Chuck Magerl, proprietor of the Free State Brewery. He was wonderfully supportive throughout this project. He invited me to discuss the possibility of creating a mosaic for a particular spot in the brewery. Our first meeting was in December of 2012 and, while I was hesitant to take on a large-scale mural and had never even used mortar before, I left the meeting excited about the possibility and hoped to get the job.
The ideas for the mosaic grew out of several conversations with Chuck that meandered through broad topics, among them birds, water, and the Lawrence area’s landscape. These themes became core elements in the mosaic. Once we finished the design work I worked intensively on the mosaic for about five months. Chuck provided a place for me to work at the Free State’s eastside brewery, and also hosted an open house there so that friends and brewery patrons could see the mosaic’s development. Thousands-of-tiles-cut-from-ceramic-plates-and-adhered-to-panels later, I am grateful to Chuck for trusting me with the project and for his kindness, generosity, encouragement and help throughout the entire process.
A number of people greatly helped, too. Conrad Snider, a ceramic artist and friend in Newton, Kansas, provided extensive and detailed advice on everything from concrete board, mortar, and grout to how to build sturdy panels that would hold heavy tiles and yet be light enough to move and install.
Todd Pederson and Jim Lewis of Independent Woodcraft in Lawrence built panels for the mosaic that would fit exactly right in that stairwell spot. Todd and Jim also installed the finished panels with what struck me as remarkable ease.
Brit Kring of Kring’s Interiors in Lawrence contributed tiles for the mosaic and in his good-natured way, advice on mortar, grout, and how best to use them in a somewhat unorthodox application. Jana Flory of Krings Interiors also provided information and assistance.
When I first moved into my brewery-studio I felt like an interloper in this industrial setting. But the folks who run the brewery and the brewers and bottlers who work there were friendly and welcoming and soon I felt at home. They helped me in ways large and small with things like holding the door open while I hauled stuff in, raising my work tables onto blocks so that I could work standing up, tidying the place for the open house, designing and building a brace for the largest of my panels so that it would travel in the van safely, and on. So thank you Steve Bradt, Brad Scott, Eric McClelland, Lucas Hachmeister, Matt Luna, TJ Campsey, Rick Berger-Munson, Luke Otter, Patrick Raasch, Steve Rold and anyone else from the crew who might have assisted with the mosaic even without me knowing it.
Thanks to you friends for your conversations with me about the mosaic and for your support (especially Sara Stalling who got the first peek at my design ideas and Lokelani Braisted who sent all kinds of interesting mosaic process information my way), for your social media “likes,” comments, and encouragement, and for attending the mosaic process open house and making it a fun and successful event.
Thanks to Catherine Bolton, Nicholai Jost-Epp, Kathi and Randy Masten, Kristi Neufeld, Kamala Platt, Christy Dersch Schneider and David Schneider for giving me ceramic dishes, pottery, glass, porcelain shards and other special things to incorporate into the mosaic. In addition, Eric McClelland gave me a mussel shell and access to the Brewery’s hardware drawer for me to pick out a few small things to include, and TJ Campsey gave me a bottle with the Free State’s Prairie Falcon beer logo on it — so be sure to look for that little glass piece.
Lastly, I would like to thank my family. My parents, father-in-law, and brother never failed to ask me about how things were going on the mosaic and always expressed their excitement about it. And to my husband Chuck and son Nicholai, thanks for all your support and for picking up the slack especially after school, and for keeping me laughing during a few tough times — you two are the best.
UPDATE: Please see Dave Loewenstein’s blog about the recent comings and goings of murals in Lawrence, KS, including murals by Stan Herd at the former Tellers Restaurant, KT Walsh at the Poehler Building, and me at the Free State Brewery.
I’ve just completed the second in a series of two mosaics for my sister-in-law. A relative of hers had given her an antique children’s tea set to give to her daughter — my niece. But in a freak accident my sister-in-law dropped the dishes and they broke into lots of little pieces. So she commissioned me to use the pieces in two mosaics. The process was loads of fun, and I enjoyed the chance to work with these special little dishes — the shards that are patterned with flowers and designs. (Scroll down my Mosaics page to see the other one in the series called Blue Moon.)
I’ve been having a lot of fun in my studio lately and I thought I would share some of my ideas, unfinished work, and creative process. I’m working on a mosaic commission as well as several pieces for two group shows in March.
“Art Lives!” is a statewide collaborative project pairing women artists to work together to make art about the theme art lives. The project was conceived by Rachel Epp Buller, an artist and professor at Bethel College in N. Newton, Kansas, as a response to the condition of arts funding in Kansas; Governor Sam Brownback vetoed funding for the Kansas Arts Commission making Kansas the only state without an arts agency.
I am working on a couple of pieces for this exhibit. I am most excited to be working collaboratively with artist Erika Nelson of Lucas, Kansas, known for her “Worlds largest collection of the world’s smallest versions of the world’s largest things.” I still haven’t met Erika in person, but I have enjoyed talking with her on the phone and through Facebook and email. We’ve decided to begin two collaborative pieces, one that is “political” about the state of the arts in Kansas, and one focused more loosely on the theme art lives. We are passing the two pieces back and forth in the mail, and by now have each had a chance to add to what the other has done. It’s a fun process and we’re thinking of it as a dialogue.
I am also beginning to work on a piece of my own for this exhibit. I am imagining art lives as a depiction of a theatrical scene with dancers and actors springing forth and even flying through the space. I’m imagining this “play” as including subtle references to the Occupy movement because that movement has highlighted how publicly-funded programs like the Kansas Arts Commission are being taken over by wealthy corporate interests. I am excited to try a more process-oriented approach with this piece, so the final product might be very different from my first thoughts.
The exhibit “Art Lives!” will be on display at City Arts in Wichita, Kansas, from March 28 – April 21, 2012, with a Final Friday reception on March 30.
I am also planning a piece for an exhibit called “This Green Space” at the Percolator in Lawrence, Kansas. For this exhibit artists are invited to share their visions for imagining and re-imagining the green space at the corner of 9th and New Hampshire in Lawrence, a space that may become a large hotel — just across the alley from the Percolator. Alternately, artists are invited to exhibit work that tells the story of how they have re-imagined “green spaces” of their own.
The green space that I am imagining at 9th and New Hampshire is a fantasy playground. What I hope to convey in my finished scratchboard piece is a feeling of joy and play, focused on the needs and interests of children. I have quickly sketched out some ideas, made a more detailed plan, and am now in the process of rendering the piece in scratchboard.
“This Green Space” will be on exhibit March 3 – 25, 2012, at the Lawrence Percolator, and will be open for a reception during the March “Final Friday” event.
And as I move forward with the above new projects, I am also in the process of finishing a mosaic commission that I have been working on since December with a tree-theme.
I’m pleased to have recently finished this commissioned mosaic. The theme is prairie grasses, and the piece is 12″ x 12″. I used recovered dishes and pottery to make the piece. When I make mosaics, I use a tile nipper to shape the ceramic pieces to fit, then glue them to a plywood backing before applying the grout.
Once I made a collage time-line of sorts for a client who gave me important photos, memorabilia, and documents from his life to incorporate. It was scary working with such precious things, among them a copy of his birth certificate, weathered and encased in fragments of plastic. He was someone I didn’t know and he didn’t want to influence my design or working process at all — total trust. And that was nerve-wracking. Would he like it? In the end I think he did, or at least he said he did.
Once a friend commissioned a piece of art for her wedding; two nesting doves portrayed in scratchboard. The original black and white image was reproduced in purple for the wedding invitations, programs, and t-shirts. Ten years later my friend’s parents commissioned another piece, now for my friend’s tenth anniversary. I used mixed-media collage for this one, again in purple. And now the doves have kids.
Today I am in the process of making a small commissioned piece in mosaic. The design phase is over, and for me that’s the hardest part of the creative process and also the most satisfying. The finished piece will be a gift commemorating new beginnings in a story that only my client could tell. I’ve enjoyed gathering some of the details of the lives that this piece will honor. I’ve worked alongside my client to find the right symbol and design: blowing prairie grasses. I am using broken shards of recycled dishes to make the mosaic. In addition, I’m incorporating small pieces of colored glass, special to my client who picked them up around her farm. I’ll know whether or not the mosaic will come together as a whole only after I grout it and it dries. Grout is the unifier. Grout is good.