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Living with a Mosaic Masterwork

by Rhonda Heisler

From the moment I saw it, I coveted it. Even before I had a chance to stand in person before Matteo Randi’s Acqua at Mosaic Arts International (MAI) 2008, SAMA’s annual juried exhibition in Miami, I had seen a photo of the mosaic on the SAMA website, and it spoke powerfully to me. More than merely beautiful and finely made, this mosaic struck me as intellectually demanding, mysterious, subversive. In my mind, with this one piece, Matteo had challenged all of us who work in mosaic to take our art seriously if we wished to be thought of as serious artists.

Watching and Waiting
I had become acquainted with Matteo Randi in the course of attending several SAMA conferences, and at the Mesa conference I participated in his hammer and hardie workshop. There’s a lot to be said for learning one’s technical skills from a master, and Matteo certainly qualifies as one. He learned his craft and perfected his skills as a boy in Ravenna and in fact still wields the hammer he’s used since the age of nine.

I had been an admirer of Matteo’s contemporary mosaics since he first exhibited The Midnight Oil, a small gem, in SAMA’s 2005 annual exhibition at The Ellipse Art Center in Arlington, VA. In an exhibit of mostly splashy mosaics and big statements, his piece was of modest dimensions, delicately colored, technically elegant, suggestive and evocative. It commanded attention and respect by speaking calmly and softly, drawing me close to study its surface, read its finely articulated details, and listen to its music.

I watched as Matteo’s work grew more complex and more expressive:
Gemme in the 2006 SAMA exhibition at High Risk Gallery in Chicago, and City Limits in our 2007 exhibition at Mesa Contemporary Arts in Mesa, Arizona.

Now with Acqua Matteo had taken what I recognized as a significant leap—creating a rippling, multilayered, subtly shaded surface studded with tiny tesserae: marble, pebbles, smalti, and mosaic gold. Embedded throughout were tiny bits of bone and fossil and cross-sections of shells that once housed marine animals, all collected by the artist along the shore of Lake Erie, Thin cuts of aluminum organized the surface, creating an irregular grid that bulged and split, suggesting powerful seismic forces below. Edges were pried up and small panels were moved aside to reveal glimpses of an underlying metallic honeycomb, in this case an Aerolam skeleton. The contrast between the ancient remains of the lake bed and the space-age material set up a tension that was part of the mystery of the piece. What’s going on here? I thought. The image on the website drew me back again and again.

The Inquiry
And so I placed a call to Matteo in the winter of 2008 to inquire about the work. Was it for sale? The price? A figure was spoken, justifiable to be sure, but out of my league. No way to hide that in the household budget! There was only one way that I might be able to afford it: if a big commission I was bidding on came through. What were the chances of that happening? Totally unknown at that point, but I made a vow to myself that if this project was green-lighted at the fee I had proposed, I would take a portion of my earnings and pour it back into mosaic art. Matteo’s Acqua would be mine—or maybe not. I resolved to let the months pass and live with the uncertainty. As my daughter advised me with New Age wisdom, don’t waste time becoming anxiety-ridden over something you cannot control. Just put it out in the Universe, and if it’s meant to be…

Seeing Acqua in person at the Miami exhibition was both thrilling and excruciating. It had been awarded the best-in-show prize for 2-D mosaic, confirming its importance, and it was generating a lot of buzz in the gallery. I circled the mosaic cagily, keeping one eye on it as I moved through the exhibition. What if someone else snatched it up? Great for Matteo, but not so great for me. By this time I was getting positive signals from the design firm on my possible commission, but even if the project came through there were now other more urgent calls for that money. I exercised self-discipline. It would be shortsighted and selfish of me to spend so much on art in the face of genuine family need.

Spring came and went. Happily, the commission had come through. I had received my design advance and the first payment would be coming shortly. I saw Matteo in Chicago in May when he was teaching a week-long class at the Chicago Mosaic School. Again we spoke of the mosaic. He showed me some new work, also exquisite but equally expensive. And still Acqua messed with my head and tugged at my heart.

Three more months passed. I was now deeply into the commission and my husband and I were about to celebrate an important wedding anniversary. I made the case to Jim that no matter what our other financial commitments, I was determined to take a chunk of project earnings and buy this mosaic. Amazingly, it was still available, and I was sure this was only the case because it was my destiny to own it. We had plans to visit friends in Washington, DC for the weekend. I suggested making an appointment at Matteo’s studio in nearly Arlington, VA to see the piece in person. I was convinced that once Jim saw it firsthand, he too would be a goner.

The Purchase
Matteo and his wife Simona greeted us on a hot Sunday afternoon in August. The studio was spotless, the walls hung with many fine samples of Matteo’s work, both classic and contemporary. Simona was radiant, in the last week of pregnancy. Their first child, Valentina, would be born a few days later. They both looked excited, deliriously happy—and I like to think it had everything to do with incipient parenthood and nothing to do with the prospect of making a sale. But at this point whom was I kidding? Did I really think I could walk away from Acqua yet again? How long before someone else snatched it up?

Jim and I spent some moments in front of the mosaic. A few words passed between us, and we were sure. Simona attended to the details of the transaction, and we loaded the mosaic into the car and drove back to New Jersey. I was trembling with excitement, not quite believing my good fortune. I felt like I had just scored the winning bid at a Sothbey’s auction—I actually owned a Matteo Randi mosaic. Now I could gaze deeply into this piece and ponder its meaning till the end of my days.

The Satisfaction
Several months later, I’m happy to report that the mosaic is living up to its promise. I love it for its own sake—it is, after all, simply exquisite—and it brings me pleasure every day. But it also reminds me how lucky I am to have rediscovered mosaics and be part of an artist community after a long career in non-art pursuits, and it inspires me to meet my own challenges in the studio with energy and a seriousness of purpose.
Acqua has a place of honor in our home, hanging on a short wall that I pass countless times each day. I get to enjoy its beauty at all times of the day and night. The surface is particularly gorgeous in the clear, fine light of early morning when the greens and browns seem more prominent, and in the golden glow of late afternoon when the bits of mosaic gold sparkle with special intensity. The amount of variety and complexity packed into each square inch of Acqua is astounding. Often I stop in my tracks, seizing on a small detail I hadn’t noticed before. Only by owning and living with a piece of mosaic art can one experience this never-ending stream of “discovery” moments.

Matteo Randi creates classical and contemporary mosaics and teaches classes from his home studio in Arlington, VA. See more of his work at www.matteorandimosaics.com

Rhonda Heisler, SAMA vice-president, creates mosaic fine art mainly in handcut opaque stained glass from her studio in Skillman, NJ. www.rhondaheislermosaicart.com

Artists Who Collect and Are Collected
By Rhonda Heisler

Many SAMA mosaicists have produced works that have found their way into private collections. And a growing number of SAMA members are experiencing the pride and pleasure that comes from commissioning and collecting works by SAMA colleagues.

Former SAMA president Susan Jeffreys and husband Mike Jeffreys are avid collectors, each year purchasing a piece from the annual MAI exhibition. The couple own mosaics by Karen Ami, Sophie Drouin, Sonia King, Julie Richey, Lucy Lytle, Paula McLeod, and Hillary Chisholm Sloate. Susan’s favorite is an anamorphic mosaic portrait of herself commissioned of George Fishman. What delights her most about this purposely distorted mosaic that resolves into a readable portrait only when viewed from a particular perspective, “is that almost no one understands what they are looking at when they first see it.” She continues, “I always tour our guests around the mosaics and they are consistently surprised by the versatility, artistry, and craftsmanship. It’s an eye opener for them and they start recognizing mosaics in their lives and tell me about what they have seen.”

So what turns an admirer—even a practitioner—of mosaic art into a collector? What deep need does it satisfy? And what insights does it reveal to the artist who is striving toward creative and professional growth?

Mosaicist Lynne Chinn, MAI 2009 best-in-show winner, has purchased two mosaics, traded one of her own mosaics for three others, and exchanged design skills, production, and installation time for yet another work. “For me,” she explains, “collecting fine mosaic artworks began as part of my learning process. Being a self-taught mosaicist, the only way I knew to progress in my art, other than with books, was to befriend the mosaic artists whose work I admired and learn techniques from them….It was soon clear that technique could be shared and learned, but that mosaic style was as individual to artists as the way they dressed. In fact, it wasn’t anything that they ever thought about…it just was an extension of the artists’ personalities. If I liked an artist and liked their personality, then I usually loved the work they did. And so I began to simply want to own their beautiful artwork because it was of them.”

The importance of personal ties between artist and collector is a two-way street. Lynne has also sold many of her own mosaics and has noticed “each time, whether they are aware of it or not, it’s been important to the buyer to get to know me personally—What am I like? What was my motivation for creating this piece? How will I develop my artwork after this?” The personal connection can help the artist make the sale.

SAMA past-president Sonia King, also collected and herself a collector, has given a lot of thought to why patrons report they never tire of looking at her mosaics. “Living with mosaic allows them to notice new things each time they look at the work. Sometimes a change in lighting or viewpoint contributes to this, enhancing different relationships between pieces. But I also think it’s a characteristic intrinsic to mosaic: a viewer sees the mosaic as a whole but, at the same time, every tessera retains its own individuality, maintaining a unique interdependence to the pieces around it.”

In terms of selling her own mosaics, Sonia reports that “developing long-term relationships with collectors has given me new insights about my work. I know why I create the work . . . but it is fascinating to me why people choose to buy it and live with it. And often, more than one mosaic.”

Evelyn and Don Silverman met Dallas mosaicist Julie Richey when she helped SAMA colleague Eric Rattan install a mosaic fireplace in their home. They subsequently fell in love with Julie’s work and have since purchased her three-dimensional L’Ambasciatrice, (MAI 2007 Members’ Choice award winner), then commissioned Julie to create a smalti tasting table for their wine cellar and a mosaic “carpet” for their entryway.  Evelyn explains, “My husband and I enjoy art and believe that art is an extension of who we are. It is personal, and every unique piece that we have is special to us. In many cases, we know the artists and are in contact with them. Julie has opened our hearts to mosaics, and I know that we have passed down the love of art and artists to our children.”

In the end, it seems that the most satisfying exchanges come down to the artist and collector connecting on a deep level through the work. Yet for some art patrons whose study of mosaic has led them to appreciate the finer technical points and expressive possibilities of the medium, it is the process of creation—not the finished piece, beautiful as it is—that is the most compelling aspect of the work.

Mosaicist George Fishman tells of a mosaic archway he designed and created for Paul Hampton Crockett, in loving tribute to Paul’s life partner, Scott Gillen, then recently deceased. Crockett worked closely with George on the design process, selecting and refining the imagery that would symbolize ongoing communion. Both artist and patron found this aspect of the project highly meaningful. In the ultimate act of personalization, it was decided that some of the ashes from Scott’s cremation would be mixed into the grout. When complete, the mosaic was permanently installed in the library of the home Paul and Scott had shared. Crockett later wrote, “The idea of the mosaic had satisfied some deep inner thirst. This extraordinary mosaic was now part of my home, seamlessly woven into the fabric of my experience. All else said and done, however, the mosaic was just a mosaic. And Scott was still dead. But the quest for the mosaic, the journey unfolding along the way, had been something far more. The mosaic was in the end only bits of color, glass, stone, sand, and ash, but the longing in which it had found birth partook of the divine.”

Like the well-known environmentalist and author Terry Tempest Williams, whose recent book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World (Pantheon Books, © 2008), speaks of her journey of self-discovery through her exploration of mosaic art, SAMA member Leah Zahavi, daughter of Israeli mosaicist Ilana Shafir, also finds a deep reservoir of meaning in the process of mosaic creation. Leah loves to rummage through her mother’s mosaic supplies—a vast array of broken china, stones, pebbles, ceramic tiles, and handmade pieces. “[Ilana’s] ability to magically transform a chaotic and random display of unrelated and rather useless materials into a pictorial organization fascinates me. My mother’s mosaics are a constant reminder that we can create beauty out of the most humble resources. I see in them a triumphal attempt of creating a whole out of shuttered, displaced, and useless pieces, and a victorious attempt to restore equilibrium and harmony in a world that is, in so many ways, rather chaotic. And this, in turn affirms what I know spiritually—that we have the capacity to be co-creators, capable of rebuilding and making the world a better place.”

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