Monday, August 27, 2012

Heart and Soul Meets Brain and Hand

Those still wondering where to draw the distinction between craft and art in mosaics need look no further than Terra Incognita: Mosaic Explorations, a small group exhibition of contemporary mosaic art expertly co-curated by Karen Kettering Dimit and Rachel Sager Lynch and presented July 10 through August 26th at The Gallery at Penn College, Pennsylvania College of Technology, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

How grateful I am that I made the drive to central Pennsylvania to see this exceptional exhibition in person. The show provided an in-depth look at the recent work of five artists: JeanAnn Dabb, Karen Kettering Dimit, Cynthia Fisher, Yulia Hanansen, and Rachel Sager Lynch. Five distinct voices, all committed to pursuing their individual investigations of the world in the language of mosaics.

For those who couldn’t make the trip, Nancie Mills Pipgras provides an excellent overview of the show with splendid photos on the website of Mosaic Art Now ( Additional information on the exhibition can be found at

Miss Cucuteni 2011, one of several of Karen Kettering Dimit's Subway Goddesses, 
greets gallery visitors. On the near wall, five mosaics
from her series, NYC Water Towers: A Mosaic "Sketchbook" 
The show was unified by a guiding sensibility in that each artist used the medium of mosaics to explore worlds unknown—whether near (as in a rarely visited tract of forest or an overlooked facet of the urban landscape) or far (as seen in representations of historic or imagined maps, the subterranean earth, undersea environments, and outer space).

Yulia Hanansen explores galaxies, distant stars, and space travel in the language of mosaics.

In these small-format mosaics Hanansen uses rippled and layered glass and signature feather-shaped cuts to convey a cosmos teeming with energy and brilliant color.

Every work in the exhibit had the power of specificity, a meaning that transcended the virtuoso handling of color and texture and referenced a particular time or place or cultural current. The art was brave, original, fully thought out, and deeply expressive. There was plenty of variety in the formats: two- and three-dimensional work, sculpture that used mosaic only in part, interesting use of negative space.  It was fun to read the show for each artist’s self-professed wonky fascination with a topic of interest: archeology and anthropology, geology, geography and cartography, cosmic forces and scientific achievement, urban architecture, ancient vs. pop culture, and the natural environment. Because each mosaicist was invited to display a small body of work, you could see her engagement with a theme over time and get a good sense of what makes her work distinctive and important.

JeanAnn Dabb uses a variety of innovative formats to explore themes of geology and archeology. Her mosaics come alive with dramatic textures, light and shadow.  

Fossils, smalti, and stone were combined to magnificent effect in this Dabb mosaic,
Lower Bridger Formation: Howard's Beach, a detail of which is pictured here. 

 Because mosaic making is so labor-intensive, any piece is the product of thousands upon thousands of individual choices. That these choices can result in a work that is unified in its formal elements, expressive with the hallmarks of an individual style, and resonant with meaning was on full display in this show.

Rachel Sager Lynch's mosaics are rich with exquisitely modulated color and texture, as in
A Color Wheel: From Whitsett to Leiper's Fork. 

Another Sager Lynch mosaic, Light Out for the Territory, was one of several in the show
 that reflects her interest in cartography. Reading from the left, the rugged texture gives the land a wild, uncultivated aspect. Right of the river, an orderly andamento shows evidence of settlement. Here is technique in service of meaning. 
The mosaics were also simply gorgeous—teeming with color and abundant with a rich palette of materials, sensuous, touchable. I was sometimes transfixed by the color or texture of single stone or a single row of tesserae, a testament to the power of a finely made mosaic to draw you close. Traditional mosaic materials like glass, smalti, stone, marble, and ceramic were represented, as well as metals, fossils, shells, gemlike minerals, coal, repurposed industrial parts, and unusual found objects. Everywhere I looked I saw technical prowess as demonstrated by interesting juxtapositions and skillful transitions. And yet despite the ambition of each mosaic, the bold choices, there was also a welcome restraint, a sense of control. No “irrational exuberance” here, and the whole exhibit was better for it.

Cynthia Fisher's Textures, Fall demonstrates her powers of close observation and her ability
to reconstruct her impressions in jazz-inflected, color-infused mosaics that convey the variety and poetic beauty of her Massachusetts landscape.

In My World Fisher orchestrates the elements of landscape and atmosphere in a
stunning mosaic composition that captures a particular moment in time. 
The gallery configuration made for an exceptional viewing experience. The spacious floor plan, the signage, the lighting, even the background music all elevated the show. The gallery welcomed visitors with a brief video presentation narrated by JeanAnn Dabb on the history of mosaics and an overview of materials and techniques. This, along with a printed exhibition guide, helped those new to contemporary mosaics better understand and appreciate the art.

Mosaicists everywhere owe a huge debt to Karen Kettering Dimit for scoping out the opportunity at Penn College and for the thoughtful and sensitive way she and Lynch conceived and curated the show. It all came together in a first-rate slice of what's happening in American mosaics. To my mind, it was the best exhibition of contemporary mosaic art I've ever seen--intelligent, bold, thoroughly American in its scope and interests. I only wish it could be packed up and shipped to several more galleries around the country so more people could see it.

I know that following the 2011 exhibition in Ravenna, there’s been a lot of excitement in the field about the monochromatic textured mosaics that are all the rage in Europe (CaCO3, etc.) I admire these mosaics as well, but I hope that the next MAI exhibition at SAMA's 2013 conference won’t elevate the work of imitators of this style who are following the Europeans' example, herdlike, without the conceptual/philosophical backbone that inspired the original work. It seems to me that the mosaics of the Terra Incognita artists represents an equally valid mode of expression--one based on the power of color + texture + personal passion. The result are mosaics that reflect distinctly American concerns--our cityscapes, our fascination with scientific discovery, our seasonal variation, our history and archeology, our cultural icons, even our environmental disasters.

It’s an idiom equally worthy of celebration.


  1. A most wonderful review zeroing in on many of the aspects that make this exhibit and these artists so worthy of our attention. Great art and great writing - a fabulous combination. I will be sharing on Mosaic Art NOW and hope that others will do the same. Brava, Rhonda!

  2. Thank you, Rhonda, for such a great review! But I must share the credit around with everyone involved with the show. Rachel was my partner in this endeavor, helping to choose the artists and communicate with the gallery staff, and graciously let us broaden and adapt her own "Terra Incognita" artist statement to reflect the whole show. All of the artists took personal responsibility to work directly with the gallery once the proposal was accepted. And the staff of the gallery, Lenore Penfield and Penny Lutz, were an artist's dream team to work with!! Karen

  3. Looks amazing! I would love to do something like that to my tub!
    glass and stone mosaic