These photos of my mosaic process are on display at the Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kansas, through March of 2018. The photos accompany a recently-installed permanent exhibit of 6 mosaics titled, With Nature Sing
Making mosaics is a complicated process with moments of magic. Fitting the tiles in place is like putting together a puzzle, except that I create the puzzle pieces as I go along. Although one can buy tiles for mosaic-making or use all manner of things like paper, macaroni, seeds or rocks, I chip my own tiles from secondhand ceramic plates and other dishes that I find in a range of colors and patterns at thrift stores. I have accumulated many dishes over the years, with occasional gifts from friends and acquaintances who sometimes leave their broken dishes on my front porch.
Because I work with dishes that need to be continually broken and shaped, my tile nipper is always close at hand. But before I cut and shape the tiles with my nipper, I use it to break the dishes first with a good solid whack, dividing each into smaller pieces that I can more easily work with. I look for broken pieces that are the right shape and size to fill spaces, and I also cut and clip them to fit more exactly. By the end of a project my work table and floor are covered with tiny discarded bits from this process.
Before the tiling begins, I develop an idea and then make a plan. I play around with images and ideas by drawing in my sketchbook, often little pictures that would only make sense to me, and then I change and expand on these. When I have played around enough and have settled on a concept, I make larger drawings of the key elements at scale, sometimes using reference pictures from my own photos or ones I find in books or on the internet. The last step in the design process is to map the images and key color choices onto a plywood work surface, also called a backer board, with simple outlined shapes in black marker.
I enjoy the creative process more if I leave some design decisions and color choices to resolve in the making process. I have twenty dishpans in my studio filled with dishes in various stages of brokenness, sorted by color, accompanied by smaller containers of smaller pieces that are sorted too, to choose from. I try to create mosaics where the imagery can be read through distinct color-shape areas, and yet I bring color-variation into these areas too, for added interest. Sometimes I sneak other objects into my mosaics to surprise the viewer, among them fossils, rocks, shells, or specialty tiles. My mosaics have become more sophisticated over the years, and yet I continue to learn more and more through the process of making them.
For small wall mosaics like the ones in this exhibition, I work directly on plywood. I scrape and mar the plywood surface first with a screwdriver, and then seal the surface with watered-down Weldbond glue, the same glue that I use to affix the tiles. (For largescale projects on walls or buildings, one would use different materials such as concrete backer board and mortar.)
The final stage is grouting. After I glue all of the tiles into place and the glue has dried, I vacuum the surface to sweep up bits of dust and debris before I begin to apply the grout, a cement-based material used to fill the cracks between the pieces. I use grey or tan grout which contrasts well with a range of colors, but colored pigments are available to mix into the grout, too. It is hard to judge what a mosaic will look like once grouted, so I usually go into the grouting process with some trepidation – how will it turn out? That said, grouting always brings a sense of unity to the work that is often pleasantly surprising. The grout is like magic that helps transform a pile of broken dishes into a pleasing cohesion.
The grout must be removed from the face-surface of the tiles before it dries. Cleaning the tiles is a tactile process because my use of dishes creates an uneven surface, different from mosaics made from uniform commercial tiles. I use my hands and a rubber spatula to remove the bulk of the excess grout from the tiles before I begin wiping away the grout with a damp sponge and rags. The final stages of cleaning remind me of dental work. In fact, I use old dental tools that a friend gave to me to clean the smallest and shallowest pieces that I can’t wipe by hand. Finally, I buff the tiles with Windex, and then the piece is complete.