For the past six weeks, I have been working almost non-stop on a project that I am very proud of. I’m excited to finally be able to share some pictures and the story of how it all came together. This post is long, because many people have asked me about my working methods and where my ideas come from, so I thought I’d explain that here. For those that just want to see pictures of the finished mosaics, here they are:
It all started in early October when my friend Joycelin, who works at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, called to tell me that their campus ministry department was creating a new “multifaith prayer space” on campus, and that they were interested in having me design and create mosaic murals to be installed on the walls.
The goal for this space is to be welcoming to people of all faiths as a place to pray or meditate, so they didn’t want any imagery that is specifically religious or even too literal. They had already installed a Muslim foot wash station and were planning on building cabinets and a closet to store chairs, floor mats and various other items. In late October, I visited the space and met with Joycelin as well as the head of Campus Ministry and the head of the Physical Plant to discuss the plan for installation as well as the design goals and color scheme. The design was to be abstract and inspired by nature, and the colors would be mostly blues, greens, and purples.
We decided that I would create two separate mosaics- one would be about 3’ x 4 ‘ and would be installed above the foot wash station. The other would be 2’ x 10’ and go along the opposite wall.
The mosaics would need to be installed in such a way that they could be removable, in case this space someday needed to be relocated. Together we came up with a plan for me to create the mosaics on fiberglass mesh in my studio, cut them up into pieces small enough to transport, and then install and grout them on a cement board substrate. Then, their crew would attach the mosaics to the walls. They created moulding with a slight overlap over the edge of the mosaic which they would screw into the studs in the walls to hold the whole thing up.
So my next step was to create the designs for these mosaics. I drew small line drawings to scale, including mountains, sky and rivers. For the piece to hang above the foot wash station, I included rivers running down a mountain and into the bath below it. For the larger piece, my goal was to create a feeling of flowing water that evoked movement and energy but also repetition and peacefulness
Once the drawings were revised a few times and agreed upon, I enlarged them by drawing grid lines on the small drawing and grid lines to scale on my large paper and the design within each small square got blown up to fit the corresponding larger square. This is a method I learned in art class in elementary school, and which we practiced by cutting up and enlarging a New Kids on the Block poster. Back in 1991, I had no idea how useful a skill that would prove to be!
During the time I was working on the design, I was also working on acquiring the right materials- glass and ceramic in lots of shades of blue, green and purple, some special accent pieces- natural stones and pieces of glass that I had fused myself, along with some broken blue & white china.
Because of space limitations in my studio, I could only work on one mosaic at a time. I started with the smaller of the two- the 3’x 4’ mountain scene. With my drawing underneath, followed by a layer of thin clear plastic and then the fiberglass mesh, I could see through to my drawing as a guide. First I loosely placed different colors all around the composition to figure out what shades of each color should go in which areas, and to estimate how much of each color and material I would need
Then I carefully cut laid out the pieces in sections
As I went, I used a dot of white glue to temporarily stick each piece to the mesh (the plastic underneath prevented me from gluing this whole thing to the table!) The glue that would eventually hold it all in place is a cement based thin-set mortar, so I just needed the pieces to stick to the mesh long enough to make it to the install, and I wanted to use the minimum amount of white glue so as not to have it act as a barrier, preventing the mortar from making direct contact with the back of the tiles.
Once I finished laying all the tesserae, or tiles (which took about 2 weeks), I carefully cut the mesh between the tiles so that the whole mosaic was in about 20 large pieces, that would fit back together only one way, similar to the way a puzzle for young children works. Each of these pieces needed to be sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard and carefully flipped over so I could peel the plastic off the back and allow the glue to dry completely
Once the glue dried, I packed stacked the pieces between cardboard and but them in a box and cleared the studio out to set up the next mosaic.
For this mosaic, I followed the same process, which also took about 2 weeks. Here are some pictures of that piece as it came together. For this larger mosaic, I created blends of colors to fill in the areas- a blend of light blue, medium blue, greenish blue, and dark blue. This helped me stay organized and ensure that each area would have enough contrast from the colors surrounding.
Then it was time to pack the car and head to St. Anslem College for the installation.
When I got there I unpacked my mosaics and put them back together in preparation for attaching them to the substrates. The carpentry staff at the college assembled the cement board substrates to be exactly the right size for the mosaics. Using my cordless drill with a mixing attachment, I mixed up the mortar.
Working in one section at a time, I spread it on the board, and put grooves in it using my notched trowel. I had to test each section to make sure the thickness of the mortar was just right: enough that it would hold the mosaic in place but not so much that it would squish up too much between the pieces and make a mess. This test is done by pressing a sample tile of similar thickness in a few different spots to see how much “squish” you get. It takes a lot of work, and it’s messy, but it’s such an important step. Once the bed of mortar is the right thickness for the section of mosaic, I take that section of mosaic all stuck to the mesh, and push it in, embedding the mesh and push each piece of glass or ceramic to make sure it’s adequately set in the mortar
At this point, if mortar squishes up so much that it fills the gaps between the tiles and/or gets on the surface, it’s time to clean/sponge it away so it doesn’t dry on the surface, and so that there’s room between the tiles for at least a skim coating of grout to fit. On mosaics this large, the cleaning feels endless!
After the mortar set overnight, it was time to grout. I chose a light grey colored grout for both of these mosaics, as that was the color that most successfully unified the design without being overpowering. It also coordinated with the colors of the foot wash station and the walls. By the time it was grouting day, I was the only one on campus because everyone had left for the Christmas break. Security had to let me in the building. Luckily, my husband Bill was with me to help with the endless process of wiping the tiles clean, as well as to go out and get us lunch!
I spent four days installing the mosaics and was so relieved when it was all done. Although it was a little anti-climactic at that point since nobody was around to see, I am excited to go back after the physical plant crew puts them up on the wall and I can get far enough away from each of them to get better photos. They have a ceremony planned for the end of January, which I plan to go back for. After that I’ll have more finished photos to post.
This project gave me many rewards and challenges and it was a chance to push myself in so many ways- technically, creatively, physically and even spiritually.
Creatively, this project gave me some great challenges as it was my largest mosaic yet. I learned a lot about taking care of myself physically and emotionally and how much that pays off- when I’m at my best, it really shows up in my work. I developed a spiritual connection with this mosaic- often picturing people looking at it before, during or after praying. I wanted it to be infused with a prayerful energy. I thought a lot about the beauty of people of all different spiritual and religious backgrounds coming into the prayer space and felt honored that my work could be something of a connector, and an element of inclusivity. I let my own meditation practice guide me through the creation of this project. I also felt a strong connection to the element of water depicted in the work. I felt it’s power and energy and there were times when I felt a distinct sense that all I needed to do was stay in the flow and that the work came from a place other than my own head. That was exciting!
I learned a lot about working with a large institution as a client, and it was a great experience that I’d like to do a lot more of. I am so happy to have this in my portfolio to apply for future large scale projects.