Mosaic is a medium
Mosaic is a medium that can utilize so much that is undervalued or thrown away in our society. The wonderful patterns created by repetition of rubbish-tip items reminds us of elegant ethnic decoration. A simple spoon, key or cup handle repeated acquires a magic, hypnotic musical rhythm. Once people start to play in this simple way, they spot opportunities everywhere. I hope this book can help to free the inner artist in you so you can find joy in expression
Mosaics first excited my vision a long time ago. All through my early years in California I was aware of mosaic on eccentric structures like Watts Towers in Los Angeles and small examples in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But what impressed me the most in those days were the personal mosaics of an artist friend of my family who covered walls, tables and window sills with keys, bottles, tinselly glass, beads and other unrespected materials.
Zev Harris built his whimsical palace of a house on a sand dune in California in the 1940’s and it contained walls that used coloured wine bottles instead of bricks, and a floor of up-ended blocks of wood in a variety of shapes. Every window sill and counter had mosaics which all complemented his many paintings and drawings. When my parents built a large modern restaurant on Big Sur’s wild California coast, Zev made zany mosaic table tops to brighten up the wood and concrete structure.
When I came to England in 1964 I worked first as a painter, concentrating on still-lifes. As my pieces became more decorative, depicting patterned china on patterned fabrics, my interest in any colourful pattern-work – such as embroidery, patchwork or mosaic – was fully awakened.Then I got well and truly stuck into textile making, first knitting, then needlepoint. More recently I went on to include patchwork in my textile repertoire.
Early on, I had met Candace Bahouth, an American shaking up the British scene with witty, beautifully observed woven portraits. Eventually I visited her studio, an old West Country chapel near Wells, and was delighted to find a kindred personal approach to decorated surfaces.The entire space was dancing with high colour at every angle. It was filled with needlepoint-covered furniture and draped with exotic fabrics and coloured yarns. Best of all were the bathroom, cabinets and shelves studded with mosaic fragments in jewel colours. I was so inspired by the delicious lift mosaic gave to household objects that I rushed home and started covering pots, lamp bases, metal plates and mirror frames.
As Candace branched out into garden urns, benches and best of all a shell grotto, I was impressed by her painstakingly careful placement and punchy sense of colour. Having been inspired by her to mosaic much of my house and garden, I jumped at the chance when she suggested our doing a book together on mosaics. We both have an amused fascination with the naive, extreme decoration of every-day abodes, vehicles, and spaces. We have shared trips together, seeking out decorative art in other parts of the world, and light up at any special bit of design in unexpected places. Flights of fantasy and imagination, no matter how kitsch or bad taste, delight us!
The book project started just as we were both completing our largest mosaic commissions to date. Candace was coming to the end of months of work on her splendid grotto and I was installing my designs for the 1998 Chelsea Flower Show in London after a one-and-a-half-year preparation.
When asked to design the exhibition stand for Hilliers garden centres by Andy McIncloe, my first thought was bronze leafy plants! I’ve always admired how the British use bronze to add an elegant antique note to their garden schemes.To my eye, bronze looks best with deep rich tones, so a dark garden formed in my imagination. Mosaic to frame it would have to be equally dark and jewel-like to underline this dark mood; the usual seaside bright pastel would not do for this mysterious theme.
With deepness of tone in mind, I scoured my local car-boot sales and charity shops. Suddenly, the most hideous 1950’s ochres, moss greens and brown tableware with naff motifs sprang to my attention and begged to be part of the massive columns and flower troughs I was planning. Cobalt blues, maroons, turquoise and black really brought the mood to a rich crescendo. Working in primitive spirals chalked on to columns made from two lengths of clay drainage pipes, I mosaicked contrasting groups of colours in spirals up the tube. I added ochre, followed by cobalt blue, followed by deep reds, being careful not to get too much bright red or any light yellows.
On the other two sets of columns I applied layers of contrasting triangles and a large primitive lattice with bright colours in each diamond shape. I kept these patterns on a large scale so I could do them in dynamic big pieces like saucer bottoms and sides of teacups, et cetera. Round terracotta flowerpots topped off the columns and were planted to branch wonderfully over the sides.
Long troughs at the bottom of the garden were kept mostly blues and greens, and a mirror of blue and turquoises was placed to reflect back light. A waterway down the centre was strewn with broken shards in a rich palette, and the crowning glory was two cement garden swans covered in black mosaic. On both sides of the waterway, Andy Mclndoe added a glorious symphony of dark plants which I separated with a lattice of black coal.
Candace inspired me again with her baroque use of shells. I decided to do a second scene for Hilliers that would appeal to people who might find my dark garden a bit hard to take. We divided the available space into two sections so that the flip side of the dark colonnaded garden was as pale and pearly as wedding cake. I covered three mirrors frames in rows of shells and extended those with primitive, but light-coloured rocks. Pools of water at their base were surrounded with pale green grasses and ferns, and peach and off-white rhododendrons.
The irrepressible urge in some people to decorate their surroundings is a never-ending fascination to me. Like them I am incapable of living in a plain unadorned space for more than a day or two. A postcard, a leaf, a bit of fabric, feathers, soon arrange themselves on my walls and surfaces quickly to be followed by flea market finds and friends’ photos or drawings. Over time the desire for more permanent decoration leads me to paint flowers on cupboards and mosaic shards on window sills or front door steps. This obsession likes company, and I’m drawn to anyone who shows the same tendencies. Fascination with other ‘humble decorators’ (for these people often create with the least expensive means) partly stems from the fact that the rest of the world is so bereft of creative spirit. Quiet, detail-less little white rooms strike fear into my heart. There is no evidence of human potential there.
Mosaic is a medium that can utilize so much that is undervalued or thrown away in our society. The wonderful patterns created by repetition of rubbish-tip items remind us of elegant ethnic decoration. A simple spoon, key or cup handle repeated acquires a magic hypnotic musical rhythm. Once people start to play in this simple way, they spot opportunities everywhere. I hope this book can help to free the inner artist in you so you can find joy in expression.