By Ilona Bryan, a West Midlands Community artist who worked on projects in many mediums before being introduced to Mosaic.
Having been invited to write an article for this website, I’ll share how I got “hooked”.
I never thought of trying mosaic, not widely regarded as an art form twenty years ago, and initially declined an offer to attend a short course. As a community artist working with a wide age range of people, many with disabilities, I already covered too many varied activities, and wanted no more. After being told that the course was absolutely free of charge, I found myself pasting glass tiles upside down on brown paper and nipping away with other equally bemused/confused artists. Our tutor was an excellent mosaicist, but I didn’t have much idea of what I was doing as we produced sample panels using an indirect method, and covered theory with note taking.
My personal work in those days was becoming more sculptural, and I had discovered the joys of carving with proper woodcarving tools, so the last thing I wanted was to be messing about with tiling adhesives and snipping tiles. An idle thought occurred. Could broken crockery fragments often found in gardens be used instead of tessarae? I was assured they could, but would need a more direct method of application. Hmmm – was there any way you could make mosaic sculpture? Now my tutor began talking my language, outlining a method using carved polystyrene as a base.
I followed instructions precisely, working like a demon over the next few months. I had to produce work for an international exhibition at Dudley Castle, “Art in Ruins”, Phase 2. In Phase One I had exhibited a small fibreglass woman crawling out from the past. This time I would depict a timeless woman on her way home to care for her family at the end of a hard day in the castle kitchens.
With a block of “new virgin bead” polystyrene, I began carving and shaping. After trying a variety of tools, I found kitchen knives and a surformer worked best. Highly charged polystyrene beads flew everywhere. My studio became a white out zone and I resembled a snow man. It was great fun, and nothing that could not be vacuumed up! Once satisfied with the form, it was sealed with emulsion paint, and covered with wire mesh. I made long wire staples like hairpins to hold it on as tightly as possible. Next it was rendered with mortar, providing a concrete base for mosaic. When the sculpture was finished, apparently I could melt out the polystyrene from below with petrol, leaving a shell to be filled with concrete. That was a step too far, and I have yet to come across anyone who has tried it! I collected unwanted crockery, visiting charity shops, begging from stores for damaged items, and raided a Victorian site where refuse had been used to shore up a canal and crockery pieces worked their way to the surface. It seemed appropriate for my subject which I named “(H)earth Woman”
Name forgotten through the passage of time
No record of her living, no heirloom of great worth –
Just some fragments in the soil of the crockery she used.”
She was clad by pressing the pieces directly into rapidest tiling adhesive mixed with admix, then grouted with cream wide angle grout, and attached to a plinth. She moved into the grounds of Dudley Castle, later meeting the Queen when she opened a new visitor’s centre. When visiting the following Spring I had a shock. Initially I thought someone had fired a shotgun, spraying her with shot. On closer inspection, I deduced that some pottery pieces, not originally fired to stoneware temperatures, were affected, but that all were still firmly part of the mosaic. A small circle of glaze in the centre of some had “pinged off” in the frost as pieces contracted in low temperatures. I re-evaluated the use of crockery for outdoor work in the UK and restricted recycling to indoor panels. Later, when visiting Parc Guell in Barcelona, it was comforting to note that some of Gaudi’s circular seating had also been affected by frost. “(H)earth Woman” eventually became part of an oil company’s permanent collection, and they have taken any slight loss of glaze as part of her natural aging process. For work with school and community groups, and public art commissions, I mainly used glass and unglazed ceramic tessare, guaranteed to withstand both freezing and high temperatures. I am now delighted to discover Mosaic Supplies Ltd’s range of first rate products which are only a phone call away.Ilona M. Bryan 6th April 2011