The Fishers of Men: A mosaic adventure in trust, place, dialogue, and balance

I have just returned from what will likely prove to be one of the most important and formative experiences in my mosaic career. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be part of a five-woman team with the daunting yet exciting challenge of creating a significant mosaic presence to be incorporated into a meditation / sacred space or sanctuary (not really sure what the official term is) in what felt like an enchanted forest in Cong, Ireland.

Cong Woods. You really couldn’t pick a dreamier outdoor studio location.

Before delving into the experience of it all (which is what is most significant, in my opinion), let’s get the boilerplate details out of the way.

What: A site-specific sacred space (official title: “The Fishers of Men”) built out of stone, steel, and glass as a tribute to / meditation on both pagan and Christian traditions. (For a short 360o video of the interior, go here.)

Where: Cong Woods (Cong, Ireland), surrounded by towering moss- and ivy-covered trees where the sounds of the river and the wind meet.

Who (structure): Designed by US architect Travis Price and a group of students from Catholic University of America (and a few other institutions) as part of a growing body of “Spirit of Place” installations, built by those same students alongside a small but mighty crew of Irish tradesmen.

The structure in varying states of (in)completeness

Who (mosaic): An incredibly high-functioning, well-balanced team of five kick-ass mosaic artists (Rachel Sager, Meghan Walsh, Deb Englebaugh, Lee-Ann Taylor, and me). Rachel Sager picked the team and did a phenomenal job. Seriously, we had all the personalities and skills we needed in spades: we had enablers, advocates, organizers, big-picture thinkers, detail-oriented people, work horses, quality assurers, troubleshooters, entertainers, those who could work in glass, those who lived for stone, and every other strength you can imagine. The fact that we spent 12 hours a day working together (and then more time together after hours) for 9 days straight and are still friends speaks volumes.

When: 9 long days in July 2017

Why: Because we’re crazy. Ha, kidding. But really, that’s a bigger question, and for the answer (and other excellent musings) I will direct you to Rachel Sager’s beautiful blog post about the whole undertaking.

For those who want to nerd out over the more technical mosaic details: The mosaics were designed to be an integral part of the structure from the start; they were not merely add-ons, decoration, or an after-thought. All bands running around the inner perimeter of the structure (312 individual pieces, to be exact) were made on mesh and then installed during the 9 days, with an additional 78 individual mosaics made in place in the lowest and narrowest band. They were made from US stained glass (Youghiogheny Glass), Irish limestone and sandstone, Pennsylvania and Ontario limestone, a few plates sourced from local Cong establishments, and a small amount of smalti—all cut by hand on site. The concept was to move from dark to light as your eye moves up toward the ceiling, mimicking an emerging from the depths. (Again, Rachel’s blog post has a much better and more in-depth description of all of this.) Below are a few process shots (click to embiggen).

The group of 6: Abby Dos Santos (our newest convert), Lee-Ann Taylor, Meghan Walsh, Julie Sperling, Rachel Sager, Deb Englebaugh

The heart of it all: The emergence of a shared mosaic language

So those are the facts, but there’s a story here that I think is even more interesting, and that’s how five very different mosaic artists came together to create a cohesive product, pretty much on the fly. Naturally we all “speak mosaic”, but we have our own styles, our own andamenti, our own personal dialects, that we needed to merge into a shared language.

At the start of the trip, I jokingly termed our yet-to-be-created collective language “congdamento,” but a few days in I realized that it wasn’t actually a joke. We really were creating congdamento: a specific andamento created by the navigation and convergence of five different styles of mosaic in response to each other, our materials, and our surroundings. Congdamento is both a thing and an action. It is a thing in that it is the product of our work (it’s the lines we built; it’s what you see). But it is also an action in that it is the act or process of negotiating and creating that shared mosaic language, which has a hugely performative aspect (like a dance or improv of any kind) and also a major social aspect (it is all about relationships). Because of this dual nature, congdamento exists in a specific place and a specific moment in time and will never be repeated or recreated. No single one of us could reproduce congdamento, and I would also argue that you could even get the five of us together again, but it would inevitably be under different circumstances (a different place, different materials, different points in our artistic and/or life journeys). Although we would certainly be able to create a shared language again, it would not be congdamento.

Congdamento: a specific andamento created by the navigation and convergence of five different styles of mosaic in response to each other, our materials, and our surroundings

The crew hard at work (clockwise from front left: Deb Englebaugh, me, Lee-Ann Taylor, Meghan Walsh, Rachel Sager)
Photo credit: Abby Dos Santos

So let’s focus on congdamento as an action—a dance, maybe?—since that’s really what makes this so incredibly unique. The starting place for this dialogue and dance was a few ground rules (size range of tesserae, ratio of stone to glass in each band, etc.), though those faded into the background as we became immersed in our making. To help us blend our styles, we decided to set a timer—45 minutes—and rotate the pieces we were working on, so it was rare that one person ever completed a whole section. This involved a huge element of trust.

We had to trust that the artist before us would leave us with something interesting to riff off of and that we would be able to do the same for the person following us. We had to trust that we would do justice to what had been started and that what we had started would be respected, listened to, and made better. Trust and letting go, those were constants.

A “cityscape” made of eramosa marble by Rachel Sager that I got the pleasure of playing with

We also really had to trust that our instincts would kick in and that we could listen to our guts more than our brains, which was a very big shift for many of us, but absolutely essential when working so quickly and also so collaboratively. I think it’s easier for gut feelings to converge than it is for things that have been over-thought or second-guessed. It is really comforting to know that those fundamental skills and instincts are solidly there to fall back on and that even at our most rushed and exhausted, we can still produce good work. One of our keywords for the whole endeavour was “ish”, meaning that things didn’t have to be perfect or to the same exacting standards to which we all hold ourselves in our respective studio practices. This was not studio andamento, this was congdamento and congdamento was heavy on the “ish”. The pace, scale, and collaborative nature of the project demanded it. With respect to the latter, I believe it’s much easier to blend a Julie-ish andamento into the mix than it is to blend a pure Julie andamento. Embracing that “ish” was quite freeing and I’m actually hoping that this approach will filter its way, in some form, into my studio practice.

We also had to be open and responsive. Open to possibility and to different ways of doing things and responsive to what came before us (mosaic), what surrounded us (place), and what was at hand (materials). Being open and responsive is probably where so much of the learning, at least for me, came from. I consider it a great privilege to have been able to observe how my teammates were working—to get inside their heads a little, see how they approach their work, and interact so intimately with their andamento—and I know that even though I can’t quite articulate it right now, this will influence my own work going forward.

That yellow line is one of the few where I can definitively say “I did that!!”

The further we got into the project, the more fluent we became in the language we were collectively creating, and the easier it was to let go and also the harder it was to go back and identify your own work. Sometimes it was easy if you had used a particular material in a particular way or had included a single special tessera. There are definitely parts where I can say unequivocally, “I did that!” But there are far more instances where it’s more like “Did I do that…?” or, even closer to the truth, “We did that!!” Being unable to definitively say whether or not I made something was an unusual experience, especially for mosaicists, whose artistic identity is so rooted in our own personal pathways of expression.

WE did that!!!

Congdamento involved striking a balance between the self and the collective. We all allowed ourselves moments of getting lost in our own andamento, of lingering in the sheer pleasure of a line or two, of letting our identities shine through just a wee bit. That was necessary to keep our sanity. But it was also about checking your ego and blending in. There is a certain generosity and selflessness that is inherent in something like congdamento.

Just look at that beautiful curl of Youghiogheny glass!

I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this adventure. Even at the airport, I still didn’t fully grasp what I was about to do. Yes, it was difficult both mentally and physically and was certainly an exercise in endurance and resilience, but I expected that part. I actually joked with R that I would be coming home broken in body and maybe spirit. Lee-Ann, the wise one of our group, turned this on its head and said, “We’re not coming home broken, we’re coming home broken open.” Writing this blog post has helped me realize just how true that is. When you consider everything that went into the project—the trust, the openness, the generosity, the push and pull, the observation—and the beautiful dialogue and dance that created our shared language (that singular andamento experience anchored in place and time), you realize just how powerful this experience was. How could this not leave its mark on me? How could it not break me open? I don’t know what the result of this being broken open will be, but I have faith that it will be good and that it will have been one of the biggest gifts that I could have given to my artistic self and that I could have received from those with whom I shared this experience.

An intense feeling of satisfaction seeing it all done

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14 Responses to The Fishers of Men: A mosaic adventure in trust, place, dialogue, and balance

  1. Bonnie Fitzgerald August 2, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    I received Rachel’s blog post which lead me you yours – thank you for even more descriptive about the project. You guys rocked it! Visiting the job sight is one of my fondest memories of my time in Ireland. Rachel had told me where to walk (cut through the cemetery, go over the bridge….), but it was the sound of an active construction site that drew me through the woods. To come upon the amazing structure in such a breathtaking environment, and seeing the bee hive of yellow hard hats – with some familiar faces among them – just blew me away. I will always remember watching you fitting a mosaic section in place, looking over your shoulder and smiling. “Heck of a place to finally meet you!”. I’ve been a fan of your work of quite sometime, and it was indeed nice to meet you.

    • Julie Sperling August 2, 2017 at 9:17 am #

      Ha! “Heck of a place to finally meet you” indeed! Glad we finally got to meet in person – I have also been a fan of yours for a while now :-) Glad you guys could stop by and see it in full swing (even if it meant we didn’t have much time for visiting).

  2. Rachel Sager August 2, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    It was a pleasure and an honor to work alongside you on this awesome undertaking.

    • Julie Sperling August 2, 2017 at 9:15 am #

      I could say the exact same thing! I’d jump at the chance to work with you again!

  3. Elizabeth August 2, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    August 2, 2017 at 10:29 AM
    I just posted this on Rachel’s blog……I just have no words…….I hope one day to go and actually align my spirit in this place with this most amazing piece of art…….I looked at Rachel’s blog also and from both sets of pictures, upon looking, I couldn’t tell the art work from the background of trees and beauty surrounding……I am awestruck!

    • Julie Sperling August 2, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

      Not being able to tell the artwork from the background of “trees and beauty” is probably one of the nicest compliments I can think of! Thank you!

  4. maria - mjimosaics August 2, 2017 at 10:01 pm #

    What a fascinating experience, certainly broken open by an extremely creative and spiritual experience! I am grateful that you shared it with us. I love the fact that Congdamento is unique and unrepeatable.

    • Julie Sperling August 3, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      Thanks Maria! The fact that congdamento is unique never ceases to blow me away! Feel very fortunate to have been able to contribute to and learn from this experience.

  5. Allan Punton August 3, 2017 at 3:24 am #

    Thank you for sharing the stunningly beautiful work that your group created. The installation is superb. I hope you submit it as an architectural artwork to the next SAMA exhibition.

    • Julie Sperling August 3, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      Thanks Allan! And yes, I do believe we plan on submitting.

  6. denise bavier August 4, 2017 at 11:19 pm #

    I dont know where to begin-ther writing. The art. The process-the congdamento–transforming and inspiring to read-I can on,y imagine the magic of the experience! Thank you for posting and sharing this so beautifully

    • Julie Sperling August 5, 2017 at 10:35 am #

      It was truly transformative on so many levels, Denise! Feel incredibly fortunate to have had this experience. Thanks for reading :-)

  7. Kim Wozniak August 6, 2017 at 12:19 am #

    Through a bit of luck (timing) and perseverance (driving Irish roads). I had the opportunity to visit this place while this talented, exhausted and exhilarated group of talent was making the final push to completion. It’s spectacular, they worked hard in conditions of both nightmares and dreams. Bravo my friends, it is proof that we all can change the world one piece at a time.

    • Julie Sperling August 8, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

      Exhausted and exhilarated pretty much sums it up! So glad you got a chance to stop by, even though there wasn’t much time to visit / play :-)

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