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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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What lies beneath our feet: Just the facts

I’ve just come back from participating in Rachel Sager’s inaugural run of her “What lies beneath our feet” workshop and I can say that it was, without a doubt, the most amazing and pivotal experience of my mosaic journey so far. It was a bit overwhelming (in a good way) and I’m still kind of processing, but I have lots to tell you. So much, in fact, that I think I’m going to break it down into three blog posts. This one will focus on the workshop itself – the who, what, where, when, why, and how of it. In the next post I’ll show you what I made and how I approached it. The third post will inevitably be the most challenging to write: I want to tell you about what this experience has meant to me in terms of where I am (a budding mosaic artist just starting out on my journey) and where I’m (hopefully) going.

But for now, let’s talk about the workshop!

SAMA vs. Sager
Since I don’t do mosaics full time, I can only justify about one big mosaic-related hoorah each year. This year, I had my sights set on attending my first SAMA conference. That was the plan. I was determined. But then I saw a posting for Rachel’s workshop on Pam Goode’s Mosaic Art Retreats blog. I immediately knew that this was the class for me and my plans for SAMA flew right out the window. A few months later, as I saw updates and pictures trickling out from SAMA, I got a bit jealous and started wondering if I had made the right decision. I needn’t have worried; it was absolutely the right decision. So my advice to you: If you get a chance to take a workshop with Rachel, do it. Don’t hesitate for even a second. She is a wonderful teacher and you will learn a tonne and grow as an artist.

Logistics
Determined to do this on the cheap, I cashed in some of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles that I had accumulated from three years’ worth of flights between Ottawa and LA. I had originally planned to try carpooling with a local to get from Pittsburgh to Farmington (where Touchstone is located), but I ended up renting a car instead because (1) I was too shy to put myself out there and ask and (2) I really really really didn’t want to miss seeing Fallingwater (a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the area). And boy, am I glad I visited – it was SO cool. My jaw was just hanging open the entire visit. After that I popped over to visit the Laurel Caverns, which was more than slightly disappointing (read: supremely cheesy). I’m kicking myself for choosing that over Kentuck Knob (the other FLW house in the area). Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Touchstone is like the camp you remember from your childhood, only better (especially in terms of the food – sooooo delicious). I chose to stay in a shared quad cabin, but the camp wasn’t full that particular weekend, so I actually didn’t have any cabin mates. I was a bit sad about that – I kept racing back to my cabin periodically during the check-in period to see if other people had arrived, only to be disappointed each time. Part of the reason I wanted other people in my cabin was because I’m painfully shy, so it’s an easy way to meet people. Instant friends! In a cabin on my own, I thought I risked being a hermit. But everything turned out OK, because all my classmates were super open and warm and friendly and we quickly became a tight-knit group and I never lacked people to eat with or sit by the campfire chatting with.

The workshop itself
Our class ran from Friday night to Monday afternoon. On Friday night, we started by putting the finishing touches on the substrates that Rachel had graciously prepped for us so they could dry overnight. And then Saturday morning…we hunted for rocks! WOO!! I totally loved walking through the woods, scanning for potential treasure troves, and getting my hands dirty – pushing aside leaves, rummaging through the stream bed, digging in the soil. So much more satisfying than ordering materials online with the click of a button.

Back in the studio, after a quick hammer and hardie lesson, we got to work cracking the stones open. The bigger / tougher ones were subjected to the blows of a sledgehammer, but the smaller, easier ones were broken down directly with our H&H. It was so neat to see the variations in colour and striation that were revealed once each rock was broken open, because they really looked quite similar from the outside. While others sorted their colours very carefully (as per Rachel’s instructions), I disobeyed. I was too excited to see what was on the inside of each stone I had collected, so I would chop one open, cut a few pieces from it, and then move on to the next one and the next one. Everything went into the same pile and it was a beautiful, disorganized mess. Luckily, I didn’t get scolded :-)

It felt really good to get my hammer swinging for a nice chunk of time and to feel the differences between the stones as they yielded under my hammer. What I found challenging was all the noise – 11 people wailing on rocks with steel hammers is not exactly quiet. A big part of finding the ‘sweet spot’ for me is the sound – like finding a stud in the wall. I had to focus on using my eyes (in addition to muscle memory) a lot more with all the background din. It’s interesting, the cues that you come to rely on.

And then, we created. (More on this in post #2.) It was fascinating to walk around the room and see how radically different people’s approaches and visions were, considering we had all started with the same basic ingredients. Talking about everyone’s piece at the end of the workshop – how they approached it, what others saw in it and responded to in its design – was a valuable and interesting exercise.

Outside of class
I tended to wake up early and would spend the time before breakfast just enjoying the quietness and the early morning sun (and checking my email). I had hooked up R’s old cellphone (from the California days) so I’d be able to communicate with her while I was there, but I ended up having no reception and wifi was only available in the main lodge. The funny thing is, I’m glad it worked out that way. While I really missed hearing her voice every day, it was nice to untether myself to some extent and let myself be completely absorbed in the experience.

And at night…there were campfires. Just sitting around, enjoying the flames and the night air, talking with interesting and creative people. That was one of my favourite parts (other than whacking the crap out of rocks with my hammer, obviously). The residential aspect of the weekend was part of what made it so special. People didn’t scatter back to their various hotels after class. You could really get to know people and continue the interesting discussions that had started during the day.

Four hours in Pittsburgh
The day after the workshop, I found myself with four hours to kill in Pittsburgh before heading to the airport. I decided to prolong the artsy creative high I was riding from the weekend by visiting the Mattress Factory and the Society for Contemporary Craft. Each place had pieces that absolutely blew me away, like Parastou Forouhar’s “Written Room”, Julie Abijanac’s “Disease mapping”, and Eszter Bornemisza’s “Lung of the city”.  I love walking – anywhere, anytime – and I think it’s a great way to experience the city, so instead of hopping the bus to get from MF to SCC, I walked. A long, hot walk (nearly 3.5km – I was sweating!!), but definitely worth it because I got to soak in that incredible Pittsburgh architecture.

And then it was time to go home to R (yay! I had missed her so!) and Dex (who gave me a very enthusiastic-bordering-on-scandalous welcome on the deserted streets of Ottawa at midnight) and my buckwheat hull pillow. I arrived exhausted, but in a good way, with a huge, persistent grin on my face.

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