Six days with a mosaic maestro: Verdiano Marzi workshop

I recently had the great privilege of taking a six-day workshop with master mosaicist Verdiano Marzi at the Chicago Mosaic School. It was a humbling experience to learn from such a generous, warm-hearted, genuine—oh, and ridiculously talented—artist and teacher.

It was amazing to listen to him talk about everything from his relationship with his tools and materials to the importance of sketching (he even let us leaf through one of his sketchbooks, *swoon*) to more philosophical musings about art. Personally, I adored his reverence for and wonder at the worlds that are revealed when a stone is cut open. We shared some ooohs and ahhhs as we took a closer look at the marble I was working with, and it was really neat to see that he gets the same twinkle in his eye as I do when exploring the landscape contained in a single tessera.

It was also such a pleasure to watch him work. He works with such joy and does everything with purpose and confidence. There is no hesitation as he cuts, selects, and places the tesserae, which is undoubtedly the product of both innate talent and decades of hard work and dedication. Several of us were quite taken with the way his fingers would caress the tops of the tesserae to tuck them into their mortar bed and get the surface just the way he wanted.

I had heard from other mosaic artists who have studied under Verdiano that he has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where a student is on his/her artistic path and how to get them to take that next step. So going into this class, I just kind of put my faith in Verdiano, that he would guide me in whatever direction I needed to be guided, and I went in without a plan: no sketch (or even a general idea) and none of my own tools or materials. I wanted to be open to whatever learning opportunities presented themselves, rather than boxing myself in with a predetermined game plan. I didn’t even have any specific learning objectives for the course: my only goal was to be a sponge and soak up whatever knowledge and insight was offered.

While I did miss my tools a lot, it was a valuable experience to be forced to use ones that were foreign to me. How else would I have known that those sweet little Japanese hammers cut smalti like a dream? And I’m glad I didn’t bring any materials from home, because there was certainly no lack of choice at the school. I got to play with lots of new goodies, including travertine, shale, desert rose, and my favourite new obsession: flint. I am now officially on the hunt for a local flintknapper (don’t worry, I had to google that when I first heard it too)…

To kick things off, Verdiano had an initial chat with each of us to get a sense of where we were as mosaic artists. During our chat, he offered me a really great piece of constructive criticism, which I decided to focus on with my class piece. I’m also convinced that he made a mental note of a few other areas where he could push me, but kept those to himself (perhaps so as not to overwhelm me right at the outset?) and ever-so-subtly made me work on those other areas over the course of the six days.

After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on my palette and started to push pieces around on my board. When I was finally more or less happy with my idea for the central element, Verdiano came past, gave it his blessing (saying there was something poetic about it) and told me to start sticking stuff down. Near the end of that first day, I had surrounded the three central stones about one third of the way around with the flint. Verdiano came by again, took one look, and offered a suggestion: fill the interstices with bits of shale to add density. Genius.

Absolutely captivated by the master at work

Absolutely captivated by the master at work (Photo courtesy of Deb Englebaugh)

Over the next few days, my mosaic evolved slowly, as mosaics tend to do. Once I got into the background section surrounding that central explosion, I kind of fell into a groove, just doing my thing, building lines. Maybe too much of a groove though, because when I stepped back at the end of Day 3 to look at what I had done, my heart sunk a bit. It just seemed to me like I was doing what I had always done and had parked myself firmly in my comfort zone. Where was the growth, the risk, the experimentation? It’s true that Verdiano had shown me how to add a bit of undulation to the substrate (pretty sure that was one of the mental notes he made during our initial chat), so yes, I had learned that, but my lines were still what I had been doing before.

The shale and flint getting cozy

The shale and flint getting cozy

One of the ideas that Verdiano and I had discussed on the first day was integrating some runs of larger pieces toward the outer edges (again, probably another of his mental notes), but when I got onto my roll, I kind of missed the boat on that one. Not without a fair bit of regret, I said goodbye to the learning opportunity that could have been, and decided to just keep going with what I was doing. By the end of Day 4, I had the whole upper right side of the mosaic done and was still feeling ambivalent about it and just a wee bit frustrated. Verdiano, in his gentle way, (again) raised the issue of incorporating some bigger pieces. I was a bit resistant to the idea, because I thought I had already gone too far down the path I was on and it was too late to course-correct. I was afraid it would unbalance the piece. I don’t know why that mattered to me. It was a class piece, after all—I was free to explore and play and make a mess if I wanted. And yet I was still hung up on making something that looked nice. Something else to work on: loosening up and giving up control.

Back at the ranch (well, the airbnb house where 7 of us from class were staying), I hit my low point. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been pushing myself harder and I was worried that there were only two days left and I still hadn’t had a watershed moment. I barely slept a wink that night, fretting and trying to figure out how to turn things around. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, my sleep-deprived brain and I hatched a plan: I would do that chunky section that Verdiano kept advocating for, and I would counter it with a lighter, wispier section opposite it.

The next day, I was determined. I started playing around with some bigger pieces and when Verdiano came by to check in, he offered to do a line or two for me. By all means, maestro, go ahead! (He even humoured me and incorporated a combination of 3 tesserae that I had set out on my board and quite liked together.) The lines that he did are very obviously not mine. As someone said during the critique: “There’s one line in there that doesn’t look like the others…” I didn’t try to mimic his style as I carried on with what he had started—Verdiano Marzi I am not—but I tried to let his lines influence me.

"Poïesis" (14" x 14") -- marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

“Poïesis” (14″ x 14″) — marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

Reflecting on the six days, I realize just how much I learned and how skilfully I was led through the process. Verdiano guides you so gently that you can almost convince yourself that any breakthroughs and aha moments are your own doing, but no, that’s just Verdiano’s skill as a teacher shining through: not spoon-feeding you, making you do the work, but giving you enough nudges so that you come to those realizations yourself. He knows where you’re going before you do, but he lets you get there at your own pace, and the learning is all the deeper and richer for it (no matter how much angst and frustration you have to wade through before you get there).

I’m still not entirely convinced that I was ready for Verdiano. Part of me thinks I would have gotten more out of it had I waited until I was a bit more mature, artistically speaking. That said, I do think my art will be better for having had this experience at this particular point in my journey, and I am immensely grateful for it. I love that I can very clearly see both the old me and the new me in what I made during class. It’s hard to articulate, but when I look at the two more dramatic sections—the undulating chunky and wispy corners—I get this feeling of potential and possibility. This very fleeting glimpse of the artist I could be. And that’s pretty darn exciting.

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better

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9 Responses to Six days with a mosaic maestro: Verdiano Marzi workshop

  1. Helen Miles Mosaics September 18, 2014 at 3:16 am #

    What a pleasure to read. My main reaction is intense jealousy and scheming to work out how to have a few glorious days with the maestro myself but clearly that’s not going to happen so I will have to enjoy your experience vicariously. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out which is the line he made and I think I’ve found it! I loved reading about your enthusiasm as well as your frustrations and ambivalence – you really capture the creative process and its highs and lows. Do you mind giving a bit more detail about making an undulating substrate please? I like the sound of that.

    • jmsperling September 18, 2014 at 7:12 am #

      Oh Helen, I really hope you can figure out a way to study with Verdiano. It would definitely be worth all the scheming! He is based on Paris and teaches at the Louvre…maybe that would mean a little less scheming than making your way all the way over to Chicago?

      Thanks for your comment. Truth be told, there was far more angst and insecurity than I let on in my post. Definitely some very high highs and low lows, which I am beginning to realize is just all par for the course.

      I’d be happy to share what I learned about adding the undulations to the substrate. I’ll follow up via email for that.

      • Rob Berra October 21, 2014 at 8:40 pm #

        I’m sure the rest of your readers wouldljke to hear about the undulating substrate too. Perhaps a separate post?

        • Julie Sperling October 22, 2014 at 9:15 am #

          Having only done it once, I’m not sure I’m well positioned to write a whole blog post about it, Rob. I’m still kind of in trial and error / fly by the seat of my pants phase and don’t think I could speak authoritatively about the process. I wouldn’t want to mislead anyone.

  2. Jane Wright October 8, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    This was wonderful to read. I recently purchased hi “Studio Secrets” book and was looking for additional information about him and came across your article. It must have been a fantastic experience. I do have to ask about the Japanese hammers. Can you tell me more about them and where to obtain one? Thank you so much!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] down, five to go. I’m definitely starting to feel the fatigue. I’ve recovered from the Verdiano Marzi workshop, but now I’m elbows deep in prepping for my next climate change mosaic, so I can feel my […]

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    […] This piece is so full of different materials that I had a hard time coming up with a list! There are stones, of course: shale, limestone, sandstone, coal, and Eramosa marble (and probably others that I can’t identify). There are two roundish red rocks I picked up along the banks of the St. Lawrence while out for a sunny Thanksgiving stroll. There are concretions given to me by friends in Edmonton and Pennsylvania. There’s cement parging fallen from various walls around my neighbourhood—always in ample supply in the spring. There’s a variety of floor tiles (some even salvaged from my parents’ recent renovation, which my feet and my family’s feet have walked over a thousand times), brick that the Ottawa winter kindly liberated from a neighbouring house, and one of my favourite plates from my university days. And there is Italian smalti and hints of vintage 24-karat gold smalti (a splurge when I was in Chicago). […]

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