Mosaic Aesthetics: Tesselation & Composition
by Olivia Gude and Juan Chávez
   

 

Tessellation

Olivia: Today we’re going to talk about mosaic composition and tessellation. We did our first project together in 1994 so in some ways this conversation will revisit our personal development in making mosaics and our pleasure in observing the different moves in mosaic making of our friends and colleagues in Chicago Public Art Group.

Juan: According to the American Heritage Dictionary “to tessellate is to form into a mosaic pattern using small squares of stone or glass.”

Olivia: In a regular tessellation tiles evenly and completely cover a plane with a pattern, such as a floor covered by squares, by hexagons, or by interlocking octagons and squares. One can also think of the incredibly complex geometric tessellations in Arab cultures.

Tessellation can also refer to the various asymmetrical designs or patterns that mosaic artists use to create interest in their work. Tesserae is the Latin word for the squarish glass or stone chunks used to make traditional mosaics. These tiny tiles were often arranged in flowing patterns to add beauty or interest to the work. There are well-established classical styles of tessellating. We’re going to look at how contemporary Chicago mosaic artists have studied, played with, and evolved these traditional practices.

In the mosaic Butterfly’s Journey: Transforming Community, made by Kristal Pacheco and neighborhood youth, the regular tessellation of squares is an effective contrast to the free-form tile work.

Juan: We’ll talk about two related, but different contemporary practices—working in glass tile and working in ceramic tile—what we often call “broken ceramic tile” or “cracked tile” mosaics. The community-based mosaic artists in Chicago use over-the-counter commercial grade tile whether glass or ceramic, it’s actually manufactured to use for such things as floors, bathroom walls, or swimming pools.

Olivia: Though it’s commercial tile, some of it is still relatively expensive—brightly colored glass tile can cost over $20 a square foot. Even ceramic tile can be pricey. One way to enhance one’s work as a community mosaic artist is to find good deals on suitable tiles at outlet stores or through donations, though sadly donations are often beige, beige, beige, and white.

Juan: Glass tile because it’s hard and doesn’t absorb water can be used outdoors as well as indoors. When working with ceramic tile one must be sure that only fully vitrified tile is used outdoors. Vitrified tile is fired to a degree of hardness that prevents it from absorbing moisture and then cracking during freeze and thaw cycles. (See Techniques of Community Mosaics chapter for more information about how to determine vitrification.)

Olivia: A mosaic surface is composed of two things—the tiles and the spaces between the tiles. These are called grout lines. The grout lines are a source of visual interest and excitement. A major theme of this conversation will be looking at the innovations of how people have used grout lines in their mosaics.

Juan: There are different ways to use grout lines. Sometimes they create pattern based on geometric shapes. Other times the grout lines are used graphically—drawn lines that create a sense of form and space.














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Glass Tile Tessellation

Olivia: We’re going to separate out talking about glass tile and ceramic tile because the style of handling these tend to be quite different. The glass tiles that we use are mostly 20-centimeter (3/4”) squares. They are relatively thin—5/32”. Even though we cut many of the tiles to shape, a viewer is still aware of seeing many small squares. It’s a basic unit that affects the overall look of the piece. It can look busy or fascinating depending on how it is utilized.

Juan: The other thing that can happen with the many small squares is that, especially with a grout of a similar value, the lines can disappear and it is possible to get a much flatter, more even plane.

Olivia: Let’s look at some of the work we did with neighborhood teens at Lowell Elementary School. We worked there twice—once in 1994 and then again in 1998. We framed the four entranceways through which the students enter the school.

You can see a number of different strategies of working with glass tile in these pieces.

Here’s the very first piece we “put on the table” and worked on together. The mosaic was designed to fit into the unattractive bricked-in space where there was once a window. We re-created a sense of openness with a view from outer space towards earth in this window and a view into a landscape of the ancient past in the other.

Juan: This was your second mosaic project and my first so we were learning the possibilities and limitations of the medium. Before this project and your work at Steinmetz Academic Centre, there hadn’t been much work done with students or volunteers making glass tile mosaic.

Olivia: The conventional wisdom was that it was too difficult a medium for volunteers so we took on the task of figuring out how we could teach unskilled teens to do the exacting tessellation patterns of closely fit glass tile work. Our greatest teaching innovation was having students learn to fit tile by practicing with paper squares.

Juan: As a new mosaicist, it was important that we took the time on the full-scale drawing to plan areas and mark the flow lines that showed how the tile should be laid down. The lines were used in various ways.

In this window, we used a classical approach to tile design when we created an outline in the same color as the background around each object in order to sharply delineate the forms. (Look at the orange on the windowsill.) Look at the curtains—the flow lines of the tile separate value areas and give a feeling for the form of the drapery. We also created “hidden” images with grout lines in the sky.

Juan: The background is composed of tiles laid in a straight line. See how the tiles are offset in each row—we call this “bricking” as opposed to leaving tiles in a “tile grid.” The diagonally set tiles in the fingernail are also “bricked.”


 

 




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Drawing with Tile

Olivia: We did this panel later in the project—saving the highest part for last. Now I’ve learned that when doing mosaics with volunteers you should do the upper part first because people can’t actually see mosaic mistakes when they are 10 or 12 feet off the ground. Do the work at eye level at the end of the project when the volunteers have gotten really good.

You can see in this piece that the face is created in a way that is very similar to classic mosaics. The tile work is done in flowing cross-contour lines, describing the planes or curving shapes of the face. It creates a sense of volume. Notice that the tile along the curves is bricked—if you are trying to create a flowing horizontal line, don’t compete by creating accidental vertical lines by lining up edges that are not artistically significant to the drawing. 

Sometimes you see people doing mosaics and they try to just patch the color areas into the face. When the grout lines are strong, this has a tendency to break up the illusion of form, rather than to reinforce it.

The other thing worth noting here is that the curving lines of the hair are done in “half-tile style.”

Juan: Yes, when you clip a tile in half, unless you are careful, one side will often be slightly larger than the other—you’ll create a wedge shape. When you put the wider edge of the wedge on the outer, larger edge of the curve, you can very quickly create nice flowing curves while retaining tightly spaced grout lines.

Olivia: I remember one of the other CPAG mosaic artists saying, “Why bother to do all that half-tile cutting? One can lay whole tiles on a curve and just angle the tile edges when necessary to maintain the curve.” This does work and a professional mosaic artist could work just as fast or even faster doing it that way, but when people are first learning mosaics, half-tile style is an easy and stress free technique to create curves. I also like the energy of all the small rectangle-like shapes in contrast to areas with whole tiles.

Olivia: We did this mosaic work before we developed the practice of carefully drawing out the planned mosaic lines. When the section was finished, I remember looking at the white area around the “L” and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what happened? It’s so irregular and unclassical! It’s filled in such a chaotic way.” Now I think of this differently.

Juan: It is important to have the grout lines be equal and have consistency of width, but sometimes you can just break loose from an established pattern. Look at these bizarre innovative patterns. Each tile follows the angle of a previous cut rather than following the flow dictated by the shape.

Olivia: It’s good that you mention that under most circumstances, you still will want to maintain width consistency in your grout lines. Mosaics have a beautiful shiny fully saturated color surface. The tiles create this effect. If you do very loose mosaic work –wide grout lines and lots of gap and spaces—the colorfulness and gloss of the mosaic will be noticeably diminished from a distance.


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Juan: On this same panel, we created a fraction of a face—a large eye, peeking out from behind the placard with the initial of the school. In composing this, we were deliberately playing against the classical fit of the mosaic to the architecture.

This was our first attempt at creating very realistic images in glass tile. It’s got very classically drawn lines to reinforce form and utilizes a number of flesh tones, lavenders, and whites to create highlights and receding areas.

Olivia: When creating faces, it’s best to break down the face into a number of planes, each as its own distinct color area. Think of how paint-by-numbers paintings break up space into many carefully shaped small flat spaces…that same way of breaking things down works for mosaics.

Juan: The other thing you can see here is the use of outlines. We often use very dark thin outlines to define things when we paint murals. From a distance, one doesn’t consciously notice them. It’s important when planning color to have a sense of how things will look from a distance. Mosaics are not like painting where you can always go back and add in a dark line to emphasize something--it really pays to study murals and mosaics close up and far away before you begin mosaic projects so you can understand how color and value read from a distance.

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Exploring Effects & Styles in Glass Tile

Juan: Here’s a panel from one of the Lowell doorways from 1998. On intervening projects, we’d achieved a very high degree of technical facility and we were interested in being more playful in our tile work.

Olivia: I love this panel where we made the text from pieces cut from magazines. We took the very fast and temporary medium of collage and translated it into a very permanent, ancient medium. 

Juan: The design doesn’t rely on flowing lines. We filled in the letters and background areas in very, flat geometric ways. It looks good and it was easier for the students as they were learning to cut and fit the tile.

Olivia: On the other doorway, we made that year we placed figures in large flat areas of burnt sienna colored tile. It creates a Japanese effect to use so much negative space. The composition of many mosaics tends to be very crowded, very patterned — beautiful and busy. We wanted to make a piece that was elegant and still.

Juan: Normally, one tries to create a contrast between the mosaic colors and the building; here we deliberately echoed the color and some of the decorative motifs in the brickwork.

When you come close up to the piece, you notice that the background ground is not made up of a regular grid of square tiles. There are many spontaneous designs made up of cut tiles. We maintained the overall grid, but allowed the students to invent designs to incorporate into the background.

Olivia: We also continued our experimentation with photorealistic images on this entranceway. We’ve always chosen not to break the tile down into many smaller tesserae. One could do that—nip every 3/4” tile into 4 pieces in order to have smaller tiles so that the scale would be more like that of a classical tesserae in relation to the overall scale of the mosaic.

In classic mosaics, the tiles are smaller, the mosaics are often seen from farther away, and are often larger so it’s relatively easy for the tile lines to fade away and for the illusion to emerge. Here there’s a tension between our awareness of the tile and the realistic image. The pixel does not disappear. One is always conscious of the 3/4” square and yet the skillful choice of color creates the 3D illusion. It’s a tricky grout line to walk.

Juan: Looking at the Lowell project has given us an overview of some of the basic issues in glass tile tessellation. Let’s talk about some other forms of tessellating that we’ve enjoyed in our own projects and in the work of our colleagues.

Let’s start with 71st Street—The Houseposts of Two Artist Row.

Olivia: This was one of Nina Cain’s first glass tile mosaics. You can see that she utilized the tile in a very geometric way—the size of a full tile is the basic unit out of which a design was made. The artists and teens developed a design with the tile—when it was decided that a design was “working,” it was “contact papered.” This fragment was put on a Xerox machine and several copies were made. In this way, the mosaic team had exact patterns on which to make repeat designs for the band that would encircle the column. They laid the completed bands out on the floor, then arranged and re-arranged them until they got a pleasing balance for the two columns.



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Watermarks Tessellation Experimentation

Olivia: The Watermarks mosaic installation is the one of the largest community arts projects ever created. It combines handmade ceramic elements and glass tile. The tile work was done in the CPAG studios by the lead artists (Olivia Gude, Kiela Songhay Smith, Cynthia Weiss, Mirtes Zwierzynski) and 16 apprentice artists—young professionals and talented teens. The project developed a new generation of community mosaic artists for Chicago. It was a long project—the mosaic studio functioned for 4 months in the spring of 1996 and then again for 4 months in the fall of 1997.

This was the first project that combined handmade ceramic elements with glass tile. Hundreds of volunteer children and adults produced figures, leaves, fish, and tiles in ceramics.

Juan: It was tricky getting a close fit between the handmade ceramics pieces and the glass tile. The installation of the ceramics in conjunction with the glass tile was difficult because of the varying thicknesses of the material. We should mention that it is possible to use tiles of different thicknesses in adjacent areas, but that this creates extra problems in installation and grouting.

Juan: Here instead of flow lines we used concentric circles to suggest water in the canal.

Olivia: This fossil section has very difficult mosaic work. The flow lines keep changing directions—they are based on the geological fault lines of the area. We figure glass mosaics take 2 to 5 hours a square foot. I think that this section took closer to 7 hours a square foot.

Juan: In this panel, Cindy Weiss and I used small patches of tiles in different shades to suggest the planes of building in a picture of old-time Chicago.

Olivia: In the map section, we used grout lines to represent the cement streets; the tiles represent the individual lots and buildings as laid out on a Chicago urban planning map.

Olivia: Notice the color scheme in each panel. Here in the prairie section, we used muted shades—browns, beiges, olive greens, soft lavenders. I think that there is a tendency to overuse color in mosaics because it’s so much fun to have and use all the different colors of tile. Consider that the aesthetic impact of a mosaic may be diminished without a well thought out, limited color scheme.

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Classical and Free-form Styles of Tessellation

Juan: Let’s look at the benches at the park adjacent to Lake View High School. Julia Sowles was the lead mosaicist on this project. Julia first learned mosaics as an apprentice on CPAG’s Watermarks project and then was accepted into an international apprentice program at the Spilimbergo Mosaic School in Italy. There she learned the age-old tradition of making smalti tile mosaic in which the “tiles” are actually small chunks of glass cut off a pre-formed bar of glass with a small chisel.

Olivia: The mosaics on the Lake View benches are created with the commercial grade glass tile that we use here in Chicago, but the way Julia handled the tessellation was influenced by her work in Italy.

Juan: Look at the background here. See how she covered the plane by irregularly interlocking triangles.

Olivia: Here the background is made up of overlapping “shell” shapes. Notice the way the artists interspersed several colors into the ground. This can add beauty and interest in a mosaic, but be careful—if the color contrasts are too great, a multi-colored background can compete with and obscure the foreground images.

Also, let’s take a minute to look at a technical flaw in this great piece. See the white mark in the grout line in the green balloon. That is the cement used to set the piece showing through. After pulling the adhesive film, it’s important to use a screwdriver or knife to clean out any cement that oozes up between the tiles before grouting. Otherwise, you’ll get this uneven effect, which can be quite unattractive when there is a strong contrast between the grout color and the underlying cement or mastic.


Orozco Mosaics by Francisco Mendoza and students. Created in summer workshops beginning in 1991. Sponsored by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and Gallery 37.

Olivia: In the category of “there is no single answer,” here’s a picture of mosaic work  led by the artist and middle school art teacher Francisco Mendoza. Francisco worked with teens over a period of years to cover the façade of the old Orozco Middle School. Each year, new students participate in the summer program and Francisco is very free with letting the youth artists choose the way in which each area will be filled.

Juan: Some passages are a little rough. The tile work is loose. In many places, it’s very effective and expressive.

Juan: This project that you did for a plaza on the riverfront in Covington, Kentucky has some of the most complicated tile work that I’ve seen.

Olivia: This is a view of the “back” one of the seating forms. The forms will eventually be installed on a grid pattern on the plaza. The mosaics and ceramics were made by me, two assistants, and over a hundred volunteers—teens and adults--in a mosaic workshop we set up in an old hardware store. You can see the two major design styles of this piece—panels with text exploring community interactions and folk art-like cityscapes.

The volunteers on this project were quite skilled and dedicated. As we began work on a background shape or letter, we’d discuss possible tessellation patterns. We tried to create interesting juxtapositions between flowing tiles areas, geometric designs, and cracked tile glass.

Olivia: Having a large group of adults who were interested in craft and who had a lot of personal creativity gave us the opportunity to push the edges of the possible in terms of detail and tessellation design--flagstone walks, various trees and plants in the yards, a spring clean-up curbside trash pick up, a tiny cemetery. Some details were planned in the drawings; others were spontaneously added as we completed the mosaic work.

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Composing and Siting Mosaics

Juan: In surveying the CPAG mosaic work for this conversation, one can see the range of places, the artists have used mosaics—columns, insets on benches or on complex seating installations, planters, doorways….

Olivia: Artists often choose the entranceway because it is a good place to get people’s attention as they enter the building. The mosaics have a symbolic meaning about what’s in the place.

Olivia: We’ve noticed a number of different design strategies for applying mosaics to the architecture of a building. In the Lowell School projects, the mosaics are fit into the pre-existing pediment and side panels around the doors. Sunrise of Enlightenment at Nobel School was completed in two phases. In the first phase, the door was framed with three rectangular panels. In a later phase, the artists enlivened the entranceway by creating shaped “wings” of mosaic in adjacent, spatially uninteresting rectangles.

Juan: Mosaics are labor intensive and are usually much smaller than murals—often only a tenth of the size or less than a painted mural that could be done in the same period. We try to avoid just making a rectangle of mosaic and sticking it on the wall like a painting. The trick is always to figure out how to get aesthetic impact with comparatively small areas of color and design.

Olivia:When confronted with a large blank wall and no obvious architectural elements to shape the design, consider creating a dramatic shape.

We’ll see how this issue of composition and fit to the wall becomes increasingly intertwined with the subject of tessellation as our conversation continues.

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Ceramic Tile Mosaics

Juan: Let’s begin with a brief introduction about making mosaics out of ceramic tile—“cracked tile” or “broken tile” ceramics. We call it that because we begin by placing tiles on the table or floor, covering them with a towel or rag, and hitting them with a hammer—creating a stash of each color that is already broken into medium size bits. As we work, we look for pieces that spontaneously cracked into approximately the shape, size, or curve that is needed and then refine the shape with our nippers.

Juan: In glass tile, you have a large range of colors to choose from, in ceramic tile you don’t. The ceramic tiles that are generally available don’t give you a full range of hues and values. The tile has a more “common” look and the colors are more common.

Olivia: Yes, white, black, bright pure colors, pastels, and lots of variations on beige. It helps to combine tiles from various companies to get more subtle contrasts.

Juan: Ceramic tiles are generally much larger than glass tiles. 2 to 6-inch squares, sometimes even 12-inch squares. You can also get tiles with patterns that can add interest to the compositions. Don’t forget that the choice of tiles is often dictated by the need to get frost proof tiles for outside. (See Mosaic Techniques chapter.)
























Olivia: The Nobel School mosaic, completed in 1987 and 1995, is a lively and cheerful piece for an elementary school entranceway. It “works” because of the well-chosen color contrasts and a nice clean design.

Juan: If you look closely, you can see that the tile work doesn’t make regular grout lines. As we said with doing glass tile—it’s important to try for even grout lines and to try to avoid gaps by shaping the tiles correctly.

Olivia: It was probably hard for the students to do perfect tile fitting, especially when they were first learning, because outdoor ceramic tile is much harder than indoor quality ceramic tile. It takes a lot of strength to nip and nibble to create perfect shapes.

Juan: Notice the use of the edge of the tile. The “factory edge” of the tile is used to outline any place where the color area ends. It’s very effective to create a solid and defined line between colors. I don’t use this technique myself.

Olivia: Yes, but some people really stand by this technique. Especially if you are working with kids and some of the work isn’t very tight. If you are “skimping” on the quality of tile work, still be very sure to make the edges straight or flowing. From a distance, many internal mistakes will disappear, but rough edges are noticeable from quite far away.

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Contrasting Textures: Tiles and Wall

Juan: Road to Wisdom is by Mirtes Zwierzynski and Risegun Olomidun, working with high school students. Notice the way in which the artists left blank spaces where one can see the wall brick inside the rectangular shape of the mosaic—it make the mosaic relate more closely with the architecture.

Olivia: It also plays up the texture contrast between the tile areas and the brick wall. The tessellation in this piece is just beautiful. Everything is very carefully fit. The grout lines are all even. Notice that it’s not tessellated in the same way throughout the piece. Some sections have more of a squarish grid. Other sections are fit as a series of diagonals. There are different energies. Some sections have much smaller tile pieces; some sections the tiles are larger. That’s all part of making a beautifully tessellated piece.

Olivia: This is the first mosaic that made use of Fiddlesticks, a line of small, rectangular tiles. This shape is helpful for defining lines, for drawing forms, and for filling in areas with interesting pattern.

Juan: The cost per square foot of these tiles is high, but unlike using irregularly shaped cracked ceramic tile, one can use almost every square inch—so they are worth it.

Olivia: Jensen was the first mosaic in which you were the lead artist. You did some exciting things in terms of composition, use of grout, and tessellation.

You’ve composed the design out of a number of rectangles, similar to the way John Weber has done mural designs. I think this caused a lot of us to re-think how we could structure mosaic compositions. The multi-shape format allowed you to create a wall with strong impact, while retaining a sense of architectural solidity and maintaining a visual connection to the overall building. In mosaics, one doesn’t usually want to “dematerialize” the wall.

Juan: I tried to do the most with what I had. Open designs are visually interesting and save labor.

Juan: Time was limited. I tried to use a lot of tile right off the sheets without cutting. I also used flat areas of colored grout as part of the design and even painted areas.

I’d lay down a whole sheet of tile as it comes out of the box--attached on the back with plastic mesh to form a grid. I’d take a few off the edge of the large square this formed and then begin filling in with cracked tile. It looks like the sheet exploded.

Juan: I created this section of the tessellation myself…it was challenging to make an exact re-creation of a child’s drawing in mosaic. You think it would be easy, but it’s not—so many cuts and turns. Every line and curve had to have 47 cuts!

Olivia: Yes, it’s important to distinguish between the difficulty of creating replicas of children’s drawings in mosaic and using the mosaic tile in a way in which younger children can participate in actually making the mosaic. Both are valid strategies, but are used for different artistic and aesthetic purposes. In this bench by Cynthia Weiss and Phil Schuster, “pre-broken” pieces of tile were used by the children to create whimsical “tile-collage” figures.

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Drawing with Tile
Improv Tile Style at Children’s Place

Olivia: Juan, I think that when you and Chris Silva did Children’s Place, you really pushed our thinking about tessellation and composition in ceramic tile into a whole other realm. Can you talk about some of the innovations and challenges of that piece?

Juan: Chris and I have always had good collaborations because we can understand each other and see our ideas before they are even made. We’d done broken ceramic tile mosaics ourselves and assisted other artists in doing so and in this one we thought, “Let’s try to do something completely new and different.” We wanted to do something that captivated us. We had a limited amount of resources to spend on tile. This project is a good example of covering a large amount of space with a limited amount of tile. This wall was 500 square feet and we “claimed” the space visually with only 150 square feet of tile.

Juan: In many other mosaics that we had seen, there was a very conscious fit within the structure of the architecture. We felt that has been a limiting thing. In this case, we had three areas of wall—we wanted to use them all.

We drew a large figure with a very thin line of tile. We used colored grout (cement) and filled in large areas of the figure (5 to 8 feet tall) to distinguish it from the background of brick. These areas of colored grout compose the entire wall; they set off the mosaic work.

Olivia: I should interject here one of those “be careful if you try this at home, kids” warnings. I know that you and Chris spent tons of time very carefully masking with tape any part of the wall that you didn’t want to get stained with grout. Masking on a project can be done by volunteers or students.

Juan: One might think that this project would take 6 or 8 weeks, but it actually took 8 or 10 weeks because of the masking. The masking was not just one-step masking. We’re talking about masking three or four different times when you use different color grouts.

Olivia: How did you make the tile lines?

Juan: We used an overhead projector to project our drawing onto the wall. We traced the drawing with vine charcoal and then used the direct method of applying tiles—shaping and cementing each tile into place—one at a time. Later we had to mask around these lines so that we could grout the spaces and created a small, sloped edge to the wall.

Olivia: I am so interested in the tessellation style on this piece. It seems that you pushed the tile work in two contradictory directions.

Juan: We tried to minimize the time and to create a different aesthetic. In many areas, we used whole tiles or a whole grid of tile and then broke away from it.

Olivia: Sometimes you use a whole tile right in the middle of a cracked tile area. It’s jarring and amusing. So on one hand, your tessellating advocates for a less elegant, funkier style. On the other hand, I think that you and Chris pushed the use of internal lines (the grout lines) in a color plane to create a sense of form.

In most of the cracked tile mosaic work that I have seen, the tiles are used to fill in flat color shapes. The tile lines aren’t used to sculpt form as in our glass tile work or traditional mosaics. You pushed into another way of working with ceramics, using grout lines to draw forms. The paradoxical element is that you’d use these arbitrary whole tiles in places, but you also created very careful internal contours to define the shape of an eye socket or toe.

Olivia:  I love the lamb; you made use of some of the weirdest old-fashioned, donated beige tile we had in the CPAG storeroom. Here these fussy octagons look like puffs of wool.

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Drawing with Grout Lines in Ceramic Tile Mosaic

Olivia: There’s been a real explosion of interest in grout lines. Some beautiful work has been done by Nina Cain and John Weber out at Bethel New Life in the Austin community and through their Artists & Communities: America Creates for the Millennium project in Iowa.

Juan: Here you can see an example of some nice design work they did. The students designed in a Jacob Lawrence-like style, using cut paper. The mosaic combines individual designs based on family photos into an overall composition

Olivia: Notice the way there is a concentration of energy in the center, surrounded by petal-like panels. The overall composition echoes the sunflowers in the top area. It’s very difficult to get a sense of this piece in a photograph because it’s installed on the wall of two different buildings so one is actually surrounded by the piece as one passes through it.

Olivia: Here you can see a lovely example of using internal grout lines to form the hand. The panel also shows the use of full tiles to create the geometry of a quilt. Some of the most exciting mosaics use contrasting styles to create visual interest.

Olivia: Look at the rhythmic and careful fit of the tile work, executed by Nina and John and many adult community volunteers. Note the words created with tile shapes in the arms—making an image uniquely suited to the medium.

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Rethinking Architectural Fit

Juan: Let’s close with Burr School. The assignment here for Chris and the kids was to make mosaics for these bricked in windows so they wouldn’t look and feel like bricked in windows. That’s something we’ve done before—work within defined spaces. However, we have to be continually creative. I think that Chris always had a hard time being confined to these smaller spaces.

Olivia: Maybe because he got his start in public art as a graffiti artist…

Juan: In this piece, Chris figured out a way to let the kids do mosaic work in a more free form way. He created piles of mixed tiles and said to the kids, “Go ahead. Do what you want in those areas. Fill it in.” The kids used a lot of whole pieces of tile, fitting them together in various ways.

It sounds chaotic. What makes it work are the thick graphic outlines of grout. The tiles are very colorful and bright—attention grabbing. Initially, they jump to the surface, but they are so busy, they sink back in contrast to the wide grout lines and the value of the simple tile work inside the figures.

Olivia: Look at how Chris gets outside the niches and takes responsibility for the whole wall. He lets some brick show within the frames. The designs also escape the frame, floating free on the wall or clinging to the edges of the niches.

Juan: He uses tile and grout lines to continue the landscape between the windows and around the corner.

Olivia: I’d like to see what he’ll come up with next—what everybody will come up with next.

Juan: The more you work in this form, the more you learn about what the materials can do. What we’ve seen today is that there are endless possibilities for laying tile and for composing mosaics as well as endless ways to involve the community

Olivia: When you and I started doing mosaics, we were introduced to an over 10-year tradition of community artists in Chicago and around the country doing collaborative mosaics. We were able to look at what they had done, admire it, and decide what we wanted to emulate and how we wanted to push the boundaries of what has been done. Many of these mosaic artists are still working so they in turn responded—developing new styles and innovations. 

We’ve been blessed to have Chicago Public Art Group’s support for so many projects. Many of our projects are collaborations with other artists as well as with community members. As Mirtes Zwierzynski once said, “ We are a collaborative project.”

The mosaic artists of Chicago have delighted each other and challenged each other. We hope in writing this article, we’ve shared this evolving tradition with people around the country. We hope that they’ll join us in this collegial competition and play—that they’ll join the tessellation conversation.

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