A Collaboration 30 Years in the Making
About a year ago, I was visiting some friends, Laurie and Dan, and we were talking about mosaics.
Dan showed me a couple of mosaics made by his father, Seymour Zukergood, who was a Junior High Ceramics Teacher in Flushing, Queens back in the 70’s. Here is one of those pieces, about 8″ x 10″, made with beautiful, carefully cut ceramic tiles, all fitting together tightly, with precision.
I admired it, and then was even more interested in the next mosaic Dan brought out from a closet. Seymour had begun a replica of a famous painting. He had been working on this shortly before he died in 1976 and it was unfinished. I recognized it as being based on a painting from the Mexican Revolution, but didn’t know who the artist was. We discussed the possibility of me finishing the mosaic.
I took it home that night to see if I could figure out what painting it was based on. I posted the above photo on Facebook and tagged some artist and art historian friends of mine to see what came up. Within a few hours, my friend and former drawing teacher Christy had identified it as a painting from 1931 by Jose Clemente Orozco called Zapatistas Marching:
Orozco was known as one of ‘los tres grandes’ (the big three) Mexican muralists, along with Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Each of their styles differed a lot but contained similar content: they depicted Emiliano Zapata, the main leader of the peasant revolution, who had been killed in battle in 1919. This particular painting depicts Zapata’s followers, known as Zapatistas, marching to their death. There is a somber darkness and heaviness to the piece, with a lot of black and red.
So, I began the search for tiles that were similar in thickness, color and texture to the ones Seymour had used to begin the piece. Laurie even searched the attic of Dan’s mother’s house to see if he had stored away the rest of those tiles, but did not find any. I visited with the good people at Arrow Tile, the local specialty tile store, to see if they could help. We did not find anything suitable in ceramic tile, mostly because the tiles he used were extremely thin.
I decided to use glass to finish the job because the thickness matched perfectly and the colors were pretty close. The daunting part for me was getting the pieces to fit together with as much precision as Seymour had. His cuts were beautifully shaped and the rendering of the figures in the bottom was beautiful. He had left me with a couple of large faces to complete, which are the hardest subject matter for me in a mosaic.
I worked to the best of my ability and finished this piece in time for Laurie to surprise Dan with it for Christmas this year. While working on it, I imagined Seymour and his incredible technical skill, patiently piecing together the crowd of peasants marching, wondering what his particular interest was in that subject. I thought of my own grandfather, Edward Sussmann, who, during that same time in the 1970’s, was teaching art at a high school in Forest Hills, less than 5 miles away. Something about the smell of the wood reminded me of my grandfather’s paintings, which are all I have to know him by, because he died when I was only 3 years old. He had spent years in his earlier life hitchhiking and painting his way across the country, his paintings in a large trunk. I’m now imagining that he and Seymour knew each other, though I will never know.
My work as an artist has always made me feel connected to my grandfather and I felt so happy that, in some way, he showed up for me in this project. I am happy to share the outcome of this collaboration, 30 years in the making, and I am grateful to Dan and Laurie for the chance to bring this work up out of the closet to where it now hangs on the wall in the main entryway of their home.