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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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Looking back on 2013

Different kinds of ‘years’ come and go around me all the time – calendar years, school years, fiscal years…  Even though I set goals for myself last January, it feels weird to be doing a ‘year in review’ post now, a full calendar year later. I actually feel like I should be writing this post next May on the anniversary of the Touchstone workshop, when I truly found my path. It’s almost like time should now be measured Before Sager and After Sager.

But if I look back on the 2013 calendar year, I still managed to accomplish most of the goals I set out for myself, despite not really getting going until halfway through. First of all, I fully transitioned from stained glass to rocks, rocks, and more rocks. In line with that, I shed my “Red Squirrel Mosaics” moniker and started just using my own name. In terms of branding and engagement, I also made an effort to maintain a consistent social media presence – here on my blog, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. I even started a mailing list, although it’s been kind of dormant so far, and I’m experimenting with Tumblr and Instagram (although I’m still unconvinced as to whether Tumblr is worth the effort).

Beyond that, I’ve been slowly acquiring more skills, and not just mosaic ones. Yes, there was Rachel Sager’s course at Touchstone (have I told you how pivotal that was?), but I also attended ARTpreneur and a panel discussion on local business, brushed up on my WordPress skills thanks to Ladies Learning Code, and tried to learn a thing or two about taking better photos of my work.

I had my work in a real brick and mortar store (and the owner even approached me, not the other way around!). Sadly, the store has since closed, so I’ve set up shop over on Etsy again while I explore other options. I even got accepted into my first juried show! To top it off, I started to get noticed in small ways (which were exciting nonetheless). First it was by the guy who designed the software that makes chord diagrams, then it was one of my blog posts that got shared by Mosaic Art Now on its Facebook and Twitter channels.

Total day-maker! That's me! That's ME!!

Total day-maker! That’s me! That’s ME!!

So even though I may have only gotten started in earnest in May, I still feel like I’ve made good headway and I’m excited about 2014. I haven’t set any goals for next year yet, but I think I will – I actually found it to be a useful exercise.

Thanks to all of you who pop by every now and then to keep up with my mosaic adventures – I can’t wait to share both the hiccups and milestones that 2014 has in store for me. And with that, I wish you all a happy New Year … may it be filled with creativity and happiness (and pretty rocks, if you like that sort of thing).

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Sometimes mother does know best

Me and my mom, who, as it turns out, sometimes does know best ;-)

Me and my mom, who, as it turns out, sometimes does know best ;-)

Growing up, I always liked drawing and generally being crafty. I never thought I was very good at drawing or painting (still don’t, actually), so I stopped taking art classes when I got to high school and they weren’t mandatory anymore. Instead, I took science and math (with some language thrown in for balance). Every year, around course selection time, my mom would try to convince me to take art as an elective. One year she even tried to persuade me to take drafting. She never managed to sway me – I stuck to my guns, arguing that I would never use those things ‘in real life’. Not that I had even the slightest idea of what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I was certain that art and drafting weren’t relevant to whatever path I would take.

Flash forward more than a decade: As soon as I got to university, I stopped taking physical sciences. The funny thing is that I didn’t even miss them, despite strongly defining myself as a ‘science person’ in high school. I have also never ever needed to use them in my day job, beyond a basic understanding of general concepts. And now, here I am, finally coming to the realization that I actually want to be an artist ‘when I grow up’. Would my path have been any different if I had taken art in high school? Who knows. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have made me stumble upon mosaic any sooner. But maybe I would have a few more tools in my artistic toolbox as I set out on this journey, which would be awesome because right now I feel like I’ve got a LOT of catching up to do.

Anyway, the moral of the story is: Kids, listen to your mother. Sometimes she does know best.

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What lies beneath our feet: Wayfinding and the road ahead

I think that perhaps by now you’ve gotten a sense that mosaic camp had a pretty profound impact on me. So now it’s time to try to articulate what it all means. It’s actually kind of challenging to find the right words to adequately convey how pivotal and amazing this experience was for me. Over the course of this post, there will likely be ramblings and digressions, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

mosaic hardie in logIt’s hard to explain what this workshop meant to me without first understanding where I was in my relationship with mosaic. My early work with glass got me hooked on mosaic in terms of putting things together to form a cohesive whole. My brain works well that way, so it was natural that I should gravitate to mosaic. But the material and tools just didn’t do it for me. So I explored. I took a few classes and found out I didn’t like tile (neither vitreous nor ceramic), but that I did quite enjoy smalti and stone. Most importantly, I discovered my love for my hammer and hardie. But as I moved into these new materials, it felt like I was still missing a piece of the puzzle. I enjoyed the craftsmanship that went into each piece – I love working with my hands and creating something tangible – but I was still just a wee bit unsatisfied. I think that maybe I found the materials, although lovely, a bit uninspiring and sterile. Everything in neat cubes and rods and squares. It felt restrictive. I think it’s fair to say that prior to the workshop at Touchstone, I was in an uneasy transition period. I was still searching for my niche.

Now, I have long been a fan of Rachel Sager‘s work. It just speaks to me. I love the organic, almost eroded feel to it, and I definitely connect with the subject matter. I had a feeling that I would really enjoy taking a workshop with her, but I had no idea how transformational it would be. Seriously guys, this workshop was a game changer for me. It was the perfect course at the perfect time. The whole weekend I felt both euphoric and at peace. It was such a strange combination of feelings. I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, but now I know it was the result of finally finding my path. My previous restlessness had morphed into a peacefulness, a feeling like all was right with the world. And that made me so incredibly happy.

Maybe it’s my background in geography, but everything about the process we learned made my heart sing: the sense of place and connection, the dialogue with both nature and the materials, and the feeling of adventure and exploration that permeated the whole process. It all spoke to my soul. It was exactly what I had been searching for. Over the course of the weekend, Rachel kept returning to the themes of independence and freedom. I can think of no better way to describe how this workshop and this process made me feel.

I have always been uncomfortable calling myself an artist. I’ve always seen myself more as a maker, craftsperson, or artisan. But, oddly enough, when I was making “Grounded“, I felt (for the first time ever) like maybe I could eventually grow into the label of “artist”. It’ll probably take a while, but I think it’s an indication that I’m on the right path. [Complete aside: two people have already asked me if “Grounded” is for sale. You might think I’m crazy, but I’ve told them it isn’t. It’s just such a pivotal and emotional piece for me – I’m not ready to let it go yet. Maybe not ever. I never feel like this about any of my work. I’m always thrilled when it can go find a new home. But this piece is different.]

It feels exceedingly good to finally have direction. To feel that passion and fire. I was still bouncing off the walls for days after I got home. Poor R tells me I didn’t even look at her for 2 days – that’s how wrapped up in the experience I still was. I want a future (like, a full-time future) in mosaic where stone features prominently. Saying that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I still have a really really long way to go, and I know it isn’t going to happen overnight. But I’ll be patient and play the long game and keep chipping away at developing my skills and my voice. And then maybe one day…!

post-touchstone fb status

Music plays a big part in my life and ties me to moments in space and time. I often deliberately pick a song to act as a soundtrack for big events (like last days on the job, embarking on big trips, etc.). I’ll play it over and over to cement that feeling in my head and heart, and then whenever I hear it I’ll be transported back to that moment. Naturally, I chose a song to remember my experience in Rachel’s class. I hadn’t listened to any music at camp, swapping my ipod for the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees, and the babbling of the stream. When I got back to civilization and began my music-starved hunt for the perfect ‘theme song’, I went directly to Josh Ritter. I think his “Lark” pretty much embodies my experience at mosaic camp. The lightness of the music and some of the lyrics correspond perfectly with how I felt – like there was a “lark in my heartbeat.”

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What lies beneath our feet: Look what I made!

I’m super excited to show you guys what I made at mosaic camp. It is decidedly better than what I used to make at camp – anyone remember gimp bracelets?? Of all the mosaics I’ve made before, this one is the purest and most accurate expression of me. I felt completely connected to this piece as I was making it. Is it perfect? Nope, not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet I love it. It might actually be my favourite piece to date, not because of how it looks, but because I love what it represents (more on that in Post #3).

sandstone mosaic

“Grounded” – made during Rachel Sager’s “What lies beneath our feet” workshop at Touchstone Center for Crafts

So how did this piece come to be? Well, the palette was determined by the rocks I collected. I had no idea what I’d have to work with until we got back to the studio and started breaking them open. A lot of my classmates had quite the range of colours in the rocks they had picked up, but I happened to end up with a bit more of a subtle palette. (Not complaining at all about that – just stating a fact.) I had also brought some stones from home to play with, which I had collected from a pocket park just around the corner from where I work in Gatineau, QC.

There were lots of extra goodies available to use in our mosaics – smalti, shale, coal, tile, etc., but I made the decision early on that I only wanted to work with materials I had gathered myself. This was a workshop about sourcing your own local stone, so I wanted to take that quite literally and really connect with the materials. The other rule I set for myself was that I wanted to use only my hammer and hardie. No nippers.

I had no plan for this mosaic; it was completely an intuitive exploration. All I knew was that I wanted to work on ‘line’. Everything flowed from the focal point I chose – that lovely red stone. I have no idea what kind of stone it is, but I loved it from the instant I found it. I decided there was no point in trying to chop it up because it looked quite layered and was harder than the sandstone (it almost looked clay-like). Definitely wouldn’t break well. So…instant focal point!

I started working down from the red stone, using the slant of its outer edges as my general directional guide but letting the lines split and meander as they wanted to. I was immediately drawn to this greenish-grey stone (that had been particularly unwilling to break open for me), which I paired with a subtle yellow I had found. Of course, other colours worked their way in here and there, not really because of any conscious aesthetic choice, but more to do with the fact that I had previously mixed all my different stones together (oops!). I left the edges uneven and loose (a) because I had never done that before and (b) because I thought it went well with the organic feel that was emerging in the piece.

I had no idea where I was going to go after I finished that initial section. Would I switch directions and add in some horizonal(ish) lines? Have everything just radiate from that red stone? Introduce more focal points? And what about colours? Gah! Too much thinking. I just went with my gut, which was telling me: strip it down, keep it simple. So I just let everything keep running diagonally, but introduced some red at the top (because there were some red/white stones in my pile that I thought were quite beautiful) and black at the bottom, which is the stuff that came from Canada. [Side note: it was neat to feel the difference between the two kinds of stone when I was cutting them. The stuff from home was much harder and had a nice clean (and entirely satisfying) snap to it when it broke, whereas the sandstone was like butter.] There were some very jagged and irregular blue stones with a nice rusty orange-red that I really really wanted to incorporate, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make it work. Anything I tried just felt forced. But fear not, I did bring them home with me (the only ones that made the journey back) and hopefully they’ll make their way into a future piece.

This mosaic was all about simplicity and understatedness. There’s a quietness and calmness about it that I think really reflects both my personality and the meditative space I was in when I was creating it. I felt both rooted and connected while making it, so I’ve decided to title it “Grounded.” Like I said, this is the most ‘me’ piece I have ever made. Expect more things like this from me in the future, because this just felt right.

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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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