I remember the first time I toyed with the idea of delving into the world of mosaic arts. I was living in Oakland, California at a live/work studio compound called Ford Street Studios in a neighborhood fondly known as “Jingle Town.” Mosaic Artist, Laurel True was also living at Ford Street Studios. A painter friend of mine who lived in a nearby studio told me about Laurel True’s studio, which was next to her studio. It so happened that Laurel was teaching small classes out of her studio, and after having seen some of her work, I knew I had to take a class. Little did I know, this would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship…with mosaics.
Laurel True went on to start the Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA) right next to the Ford Street Studios and she has since sold it and moved to New Orleans where she continues to teach and make incredibly gorgeous mosaics. I continued my journey in mosaics as well, taking countless classes and workshops at IMA, ranging from tabletops, concrete structures, installations, and portraiture to name a few. Though I love creating larger scale mosaics, I found that my passion lies with creating micro mosaics. I never thought in a million years that this would interest me, and I can’t really explain why it does and why, truthfully, I’m kind of obsessed with micro mosaics; mosaic jewelry in particular. Perhaps it’s the process. The gratification of making something in one sitting? The challenge of working small scale? Being able to wear my art? All of the above? I don’t know. I just know that when I’m making a piece, I’m in total bliss and 200% focused on my work…which, by the way, is not work at all. It’s play! Great play I might add!
In terms of my artistic process these days, now that I live in Portland rather than San Francisco (recent transplant), I’d say I’ve found my process to be more laid back and more in tune with the natural world around me as a source of inspiration. Now that I have an actual studio rather than taking over the living room (special thanks to my partner for putting up with that for a few years!), I’m even more engrossed in the process. I tend to dream about designs (literally) or think about patterns and colors, especially when I’m out in nature. I don’t, however, plan anything out. I take those inspirations and then sit at my space and let the patterns in my head spill out organically. I’ve tried to draw out designs but I find that too restricting and would much rather let things unfold as I go.
Other sources of inspiration include my travels to Costa Rica. I love the Southern Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and especially love the phenomenally gorgeous colors and textures found in the jungles. I plan on taking my materials with me on my next trip (another plus of working micro; the materials are compact!) and creating pieces solely inspired by the sea and the jungle. I foresee creations inspired by the iridescent blue morpho butterfly and the brilliant scarlet macaw. I hope to host a week-long Mosaic Art Jewelry Workshop in Costa Rica one day soon. In the meantime, I am planning on hosting a workshop at Artistic Portland so that I can share my passion and techniques with others.
I am thrilled to be part of Artistic Portland, selling my line of mosaic jewelry called Moth & Twig. I am genuinely in awe of the talent of my colleagues and I am proud to be part of such a great group of folks. I feel inspired by the beautiful works I see every time I walk into the shop that has positively contributed to my own process.
How long have you been a part of Artistic Portland, and what appealed to you about joining the Co-op?
I’ve been a member of Artistic Portland since we opened in 2013. I wanted to sell not only my own, but other people’s art, as well. When I saw the opportunity to join the co-op, it seemed like the perfect way to fulfill this desire.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Tigard, Oregon and moved down the road to SE Portland in 1992.
What is your background?
I’ve worked in fast food, big box retail, and as an office assistant. I’m a bit of an underachiever. I don’t have a college degree and I have always worked jobs solely to support myself, not to follow a career path. My mother is an artist, so we painted and colored all the time at home. I took a ceramics class my senior year in high school and wanted to have my own studio some day. I’ve been seriously exploring making my living as an artist in the last two years.
What prompted you to start making ceramic pods?
I took a hand building class at Georgies, the local pottery supply company, and we learned to make hollow forms by attaching two pinch pots together. I experimented with this for years, trying to figure out what to do with this form and pods were born. Originally, pods were garden ornaments on a stake. They felt too precious to leave out in the yard, so they came into the house and mounted themselves on walls, so the cats couldn’t break them.
How has your practice changed over time?
I started by making wheel-thrown mugs and bowls in 1999 out in the garage. Other than making a room in my house my studio, I feel like my practice hasn’t changed. I’ve been making pods in my home studio for about ten years now and I don’t know where to go next. I’m ready for a change and some growth.
What do you love about working with clay?
The best thing about clay is the endless opportunity for design. It is an earthy, raw material that you can use to form your intentions. I like the many steps in the process – designing different forms, forming wet clay, adding details after it firms up, drying it, firing it, glazing it, and the many steps involved in selling it. After I make pods, I have to find out how to get rid of them, so I can make more and hopefully make a living. I also love the fragile nature of clay. It can break at any step, so I need to be able to let it go when it’s time.
What frustrates you about working with clay?
I do get frustrated with my lack of time management when I can’t get into the studio to finish something before it dries out. The other thing I have problems with is my messy studio. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but my work area is always a disaster. I try to be neat, but I get sucked into the process and then I have to stop for something and boom! There’s a mess. I can’t blame the clay for either of those problems, though. I would probably be a slob no matter what art I was making.
What inspires you?
Nature is my entire inspiration. I love observing the lush gardens of Portland through the four seasons. Taking trips to the coast at low tide is my favorite, where you can see tide pools full of sea stars, sea anemones, chitons, barnacles and snails. The last time I was there, I saw an amazing tiny cave full of baby anemones. There was also a bright purple sea star, a color I’d never seen before.
What do you like to do when you’re not creating?
I like to make people laugh, listen to music and take walks.
What is one thing that you’ve never tried, but would like to??
If you couldn’t be an artist, what would you do instead?
I would be a barista or a succulent farmer. I would probably be a successful accountant if I hadn’t been distracted by art since birth.
Tell us a fun fact about yourself
I took a belly dance class a few years ago and I love to shimmy.
A few weeks ago local artist Colleen Patricia Williams educated us about the rich history of her artistic medium--mosaics. This week she dives back in with with more about the history of smalti tiles.
Glass tile has a long history in art; it is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to create glass and to use that glass as decorative art. Art historians believe that the use of glass tiles, that lead to smalti, came to Italy from the ancient Egyptians, from the conquests of the Roman Empire. In time, these glass tiles came to be made famous by Byzantium.
In the Byzantine era, mosaics that had traditionally been done with ceramic tiles, came to be done with a new type of tile, called “smalti”. Smalti tiles were, and still are, made of glass with various minerals added to create different “recipes”, that create different types of glass tile. In the Byzantine style, the smalti tiles were carefully set at the best angle to catch the light; to this end, smalti tiles were not grouted, to allow for proper light refraction.
Smalti typically includes air bubbles, as well as often infusions of gold and silver, to create the distinctive look of smalti. Smalti recipes are jealously guarded by the manufacturers of these tiles; this has always been the case with smalti production, because of the fierce competition amongst mosaic artists. Sadly, the peak of historical mosaic work was in the Byzantine Empire and the empire’s fortunes declined in the march of history, so did the art of mosaics and smalti production.
In the 19th century, the art of mosaics experienced a revival that has continued to this day. In the 19th century, the art and designs of Byzantium became popular again, as seen by the mosaic decoration of Westminster Cathedral, in London and in the Sacre Couer in Paris.
With the advent of the 20th century and the Art Nouveau movement, mosaics moved from just decoration into large, sculptural pieces, like those of Antoni Gaudi and Josep Maria Jujol. These pioneers saw the use of waste tile as well as tiles made especially for the purpose of large scale work. Guadi is justly famous for his architecture which often incorporated mosaics. Smalti tiles became an important part of the art world again, experiencing a great resurgence that has continued to this day.
In the 21st century, mosaics have resurged as a fine art form, both in representational works and in the abstract. Mosaics are now sculptural, they are composed of found objects as well as purpose made tiles, like modern smalti. Mosaics are created from small decorative wall pieces, to the large, sculptural pieces on forms created out of substrates from concrete, to plexiglass to shoes, have become fine art with the help of smalti.
At one time, an artist had to go through an apprenticeship process to create a master artist; there are now plenty of classes to teach the budding mosaic artist how to use these tiles, which are now sold to a global market. Mosaic art has come a long way since 4000 BC with the use of rocks and shells to create loose designs, to the magic and beauty of smalti and art glass tiles.
Smalti tiles are still manufactured with the infusions of gold and silver, with secret recipes and with the famous air bubbles. In the manufacture of smalti tiles, molten glass is poured out onto a flat surface into a large pancake then broken by hand into the glass tiles that make up smalti. The breaking process involves not just a glass cutter, but also tile cutters that are able to nip the tiles into the small squares that are used to paint with glass and light.
Stop by Artistic Portland to view and purchase Colleen's own beautifully handcrafted illuminated mosaics.