Monday, April 27, 2015

El Anatsui in Princeton

On April 23 I had the great pleasure of attending a special program at Princeton University where the great contemporary artist El Anatsui (born in Ghana, based since 1975 in Nigeria) was interviewed by Chika Okeke-Agulu, professor of art and archaeology in the African American Studies program at Princeton. The university’s art museum had just acquired one of his stunningly beautiful wall sculptures—one that is particularly mosaic-like—and the artist was in town for the installation and for a brief artist-in-residence visit to engage with students and faculty.  The April 23rd  program was open to the public.  What a thrill for me to ask him a couple of questions from the audience!

The 2014 piece is titled Another Place, and like all his recent work, is made of found aluminum from bottle caps and collars repurposed from used alcoholic beverage containers, the cut/folded/crushed/crumpled pieces joined by copper wire to create a shimmering, softly draped metallic tapestry. The curator describes this particular work as reminiscent of an aerial map of Africa. It hangs in a place of honor as you enter the museum.

After the public program I had an opportunity to meet the artist in person and convey my admiration for his work and the deep resonance I—a mosaic artist—felt with his process. I even mentioned that I had presented a talk and documentary film on his work three years ago at the annual conference of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA).  

How fortunate I feel that from this day forward we in Princeton have an El Anatsui right here in our hometown.

Speaking to El Anatsui at the Princeton University Art Museum.
You can see Another Place (2014) hanging behind him in the top photo. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Allure of Raku

Early this summer, when work on the custom dining table base for Kelly Behun was getting underway, I placed a custom order with WitsEnd Mosaic for some raku-fired porcelain to use in that project.  The tile that arrived was gorgeous—randomly shaped, exquisitely colored, crazed, cracked, scorched, and warped. Ultimately, as the table base project found its design direction, Kelly and Alex decided to limit the materials palette to unglazed porcelain tile in two colors. And so I packed up the raku ceramic for another day.

Some of the raku glazed porcelain supplied by WitsEnd Mosaic. 

But the material called to me. It was simply too beautiful to go unused for long. So not long after Labor Day I unpacked the carton and arranged the tiles on the studio table, expecting inspiration to strike. One exquisite tile--a gift from Leah Zahavi--was key to the plan. Early on I decided to leave the tiles as large as possible, wanting to preserve the ragged edges, uneven contours, and full range of color gradation across each piece. Light and shadow were going to be important elements in this mosaic, and I wanted the material to sit atop the substrate, not be partially submerged in a bed of thinset. 

For a couple of days I shifted the tiles around on a paper template until I settled on a large-format composition into which I could insert some conventionally sized handcut mosaic tile in complementary and accent colors. 

"Sketching" with the actual raku tiles: the design begins to take  shape.
I had recently seen the Terra Incognita show in Pennsylvania (see blog entry of August 27th), where I was transfixed by the dramatic texture effects in many of those mosaics. I decided to create texture from the ground up, as it were. My raku tile seemed to call for a heavily distressed substrate, something that would help suggest a scarred, post-apocalyptic world.

And so I began to prepare a texturized panel of Wedi board for the project. As for process, I made it up as I went along. First I wrapped the exposed edges with fiberglass tape, then applied several coats of thinset slip to cover the tape. Next I by troweled a thicker batch of thinset to the panel and texturized that with a comb. Once dry, I sanded the ridges down a bit, then painted the surface matte gray to complement the scorched edges of the tile. A final coat of tinted thinset applied thinly and unevenly gave me the quality of urban decay I was looking for.    

The prepared substrate before application of mosaic tile. 

I transferred the tiles from the paper template to the textured substrate. I experimented with overlapping and cut some tiles into smaller shapes in order to embed small mosaic accents.  A network of vertical glass strips helped unify the design. There is something a bit unsettling in seeing shards of metallic glass amidst the field of destruction. 

As the mosaic developed I photographed it from above and made adjustments to the design in order to keep all the formal elements in balance. Only when I was fully satisfied with the composition did I start attaching the tile to the panel with premixed tile mastic. I used clear silicone adhesive for the glass.

The resulting mosaic, titled Aftermath, is a dramatic departure from my usual small-scale precision style, yet very much in keeping with my fascination with color and texture and abstract composition.

Aftermath, 43 h x 33.5 w framed, 2012, in raku-fired glazed porcelain tile, unglazed porcelain tile, stained glass, tinted glass.

When Aftermath was complete I immediately began another smaller panel, again using raku tile as my principal material. I combined the surplus tile with a small collection of raku shards I had purchased earlier, these in brighter colors, some with a metallic luster. Alongside this tile I placed large shards of textured opaque stained glass in complementary colors. Some of the glass had random patterning that played nicely off the random markings in the tile. I came up with my design by shifting shapes cut from Kraft paper around on a paper template. Only later did I assign color values to the tiles. 

I came up with my design by shifting shapes cut from Kraft paper around on a paper template. Only later did I assign color values to the tiles. 
In this mosaic I was trying to establish a visual rhythm that suggested a theme-and-variation march across time and space. Once again, I created the mosaic against a heavily textured substrate created in the manner described earlier. 

Progression IV, a single-panel abstract, 21 h x 37 w framed, 2012, in raku-fired glazed porcelain tile, unglazed porcelain tile, stained glass.

Progression IV, detail shot from side, showing heavily textured surface. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Big and Beautiful in Black and White

Sometimes mysterious forces align and my artistic life takes an unexpected and interesting turn. This happened late in May 2012 when I was contacted by NYC interior designer Kelly Behun and commissioned to create a black-and-white mosaic on a massive sculptural form that would become the base for a custom dining table. The table would be part of a collection of limited-edition, high-end contemporary furniture designed by Kelly and her assistant Alex P. White for Kelly Behun Studio (KBS). The collection as a whole would be inspired by designs evocative of noted 20th century artists and designers and each piece would represent a collaboration between Kelly and Alex and one or more contemporary artists/artisans sourced by KBS.

For a look into the stylish world of Kelly Behun Studio, see

The mosaic project was on a fast track, less than 12 weeks from initial contact to delivery. Detailed planning began at once. At a meeting in NYC, I spread out a range of materials and textures in the color palette we had discussed. Kelly and Alex were familiar with contemporary mosaics and had a good sense of how they wanted the mosaic surface to look, though for a short time we considered combining the unglazed porcelain tile they favored with handmade ceramic elements and/or raku-fired tile in a complementary palette. I worked up some sample boards showing how these materials could be combined. In the end, however, as we saw photos of the sculpture-in-progress, Kelly and Alex zeroed in on an undulating, sinuous design for the mosaic, and it became clear that the bold graphic pattern would read best if we restricted the colors to black and an off-white and kept the materials palette free of distracting elements.

The undulating mosaic pattern in this plaza was a jumping-off point for our design.
The table base was delivered to my Skillman, NJ studio on June 15th. It had been sculpted in two massive pieces of solid cork (very heavy!) by Robert Brou of Naturalism Furniture in Atlanta, GA to resemble a pair of soft-edged tree stumps leaning toward each other. Ultimately, the two parts would be joined across a “bridge” designed to support an oversized tabletop fabricated in rare Macassar ebony (the top also created by Robert Brou). 

Each section of the base was set up on a pair of sturdy modular tables that allowed me to work at a comfortable height and have 360-degree access around the sculpture. Resting the bases on paint cans meant I could mosaic all the way down to the bottom edge of each form. 

In order to fine-tune the design before committing it to the substrate, I created a form-fitting paper pattern and pinned it to the curvy forms. This allowed me to sketch the pattern against the contours of the sculpture, refining the wavy bands of black and white to achieve the optimal color balance and sense of movement.  Kelly and Alex came out to my studio at this point and we collaborated on the final patterning in an all-day work session. 

The final design was a true collaboration.

My next step was to seal/waterproof the cork surface with a combination of adhesive fiberglass tape and a skim coat of thinset to create a proper substrate for mosaic work.  It took a full day to transfer the design from the paper pattern to the substrate, and another day to get a head start on cutting mosaic tile (I used a wet saw) from the 2 x 2 squares of unglazed porcelain.

I transferred the pattern to the prepared surface with chalk. 

The first of three wet saws used to cut the 2 x 2 unglazed porcelain tile into mosaic-sized pieces. After cutting, the tiles were rinsed, dried, and sealed. 

I started creating the mosaic on June 24th. I isolated a section of the design (the flatter sections measured approximately 14 inches x 18 inches, the concave or convex sections were much smaller), created a paper pattern for that section, taped the pattern to a piece of cardboard, and overlaid the pattern with a piece of sticky mosaic film cut to match. This allowed me to make the mosaic face-up on the film (direct method) from a sitting position and work relatively quickly, without using adhesives, making adjustments along the way. When the section was complete, I overlaid it with a second piece of film (sticky side down), creating a mosaic “sandwich” that I trimmed to shape and pinned to the base. I then moved on to the next adjacent section. I had approximately 58 square feet of mosaic to create before beginning the installation phase, which required keeping a pace of 2 to 3 square feet of mosaic a day, 6 to 7 days a week.  This pace wouldn’t have been possible without assistance from my teenage neighbor Akshay Kadhiresan, who had some free time over summer break and helped me cut and prep the tile.

I created the mosaic on adhesive film over a pattern traced from a section of the design. When the section was complete, a second sheet of film was laid over it, creating a mosaic "sandwich."

Here and there I left gaps in the mosaic to be filled in just before grouting. This would allow me to minimize the appearance of seams between sections and permit precise fitting of the tile around steep curves. 

Precision cutting and fitting was the key to keeping the design uniform and minimizing installation problems.

Each day I photographed my progress and sent images to Kelly and Alex. We all were excited to see the mosaic grow as the tile snaked its way around the curvy forms. 

The sequence above shows the mosaic taking shape on the larger of the two bases while the smaller base, almost complete, can be seen in the background. 

Signature tiles were incorporated into the mosaic. 

By July 30th, the mosaic-making phase was complete and I began attaching the sections to the base with a thinset made of Laticrete 1500 sanded grout and Laticrete 4237 latex additive, a mixture that guaranteed a solid installation. This is always a messy, labor-intensive process that proceeds on its own timetable, a function of hard-to-control factors like humidity, drying time, ease of cleanup, etc.

I began with the smaller of the two bases, moving around the form section by small section, preparing the surface with a thin bed of the setting material, combing over this layer with a notched trowel, then pressing each back-buttered section into position, securing it with thin nails between the tiles to prevent slippage. Once each side of the sculpture was installed, I went back over it to fill in any missing tiles, then applied fresh grout to fill in any gaps.  My assistant on this phase was Spring Paul, a student on break from Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. Spring was great to work with: careful, conscientious, and indefatigable. Having an extra pair of hands for four long days of grouting and rinsing and wipe-down and finishing kept the project on track.

The photo sequence below shows some steps in the installation process. 

Here I have peeled away one sheet of mosaic film to back-butter the underside of the mosaic, pushing the thinset-grout mixture between the tiles. 

The section, still held together with a top layer of mosaic film, is lined up carefully against the pattern and pressed firmly into place. 

The first few sections of tile installed on the smaller base. Gaps and missing tiles would be filled in before final grouting. 

Bases ready for pickup.

All finishing work was complete by August 8th, just one day before the mosaic was scheduled for pickup.  A carpenter temporarily removed a studio door to allow safe passage of the two bases, now considerably heavier with the addition of tile and grout. Each base required four men to carry it out and to the waiting truck. 

After a short stop at a luxury beachside residence in the Hamptons to be united with its tabletop and photographed with other furniture in the new collection, the Loggia Mosaic Table was trucked to New York City's R 20th Century Gallery in Tribeca for the Kelly Behun Studio show, “After,” running September 20th­–October 27th. 

The Loggia Table, now retitled "After Burle" for the gallery show, shown here with its freeform Macassar ebony top. 
To see other KBS custom limited-edition furniture created for the collection, check out the very cool video featuring SKOTE, filmed at the gallery.

The KBS “After” furniture line received enthusiastic press coverage in the New York Times (September 19), in the online edition of the Wall Street Journal (September 20), in Manhattan Modern Luxury magazine (October), in Dwell (October), and in numerous design blogs. For the mosaics community, the SKOTE video made in connection with the show was featured on Mosaic Art Now online.

Here is the table as photographed for Elle Decor in a feature on the designer's spectacular Hamptons home.