Blog

To write … or not to write.

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter
Rachel Sager at the ruins project a long tearm mosaic art installation on her property in Perryopolis on Tuesday, August 5, 2017.

I write this in the afterglow of a satisfying Ruins Project week in which the power of the artistic sensibility was tapped. The further I travel through life as a working artist, the clearer it becomes that time, as an element to creativity, is not linear. I have read that it is circular, but as a lover of historical timelines, I’m still thinking on that one. I do know that the artist’s path is a well- beaten path. This well-worn nature does not fool me into believing that it is safe. To the contrary, this path is littered with dead, dying and broken artists. I quote the ideas of Steven Pressfield regularly and his breathing of life into the word Resistance in The War of Art. If you want to walk the walk, read it. And then read it again.

Dynamic, not static.

Beatrice in battle gear

An artist worth the title is always charging forward. On a good day, I imagine myself in full chain mail regalia astride one of those heavy, draft horses with a big smile on my face. Or sometimes a scowl. It depends on the day. Tiptoeing one morning, bulldozing the next. But always a dynamic movement into the things that are outside of the establishment, the known, the way things are or always have been.  The artist’s refusal to live inside of a prescribed outline, gives him extraordinary power. We can imagine things that don’t need definition. We can create things that refuse classification. The Ruins Project stands as the embodiment of the great power of imagination. I often refer to sections of its blank concrete walls as the wild west.

Wild West of The Ruins Project

Artists love to re-purpose things. Who else but an artist would decide to turn an abandoned coal mine into the biggest creator-mosaicist substrate ever? I use the term creator-mosaicist to describe mosaic work that does not copy but comes from the deep kernel of the soul of an artist. Credit, as always​,​ to Maestro Marzi for coining the phrase​.​

The Ruins structures were originally built as the power house of the mine. I’ve always responded strongly to that word; power. Maybe it’s because I understood, even if subconsciously, that creative power is the kind that has no ceiling. It feeds on its own energy and if channeled by a self-aware artist, is limitless. It bursts forth and says, Behold me!

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter
A mosaic title Alchemy by Rachel Sager and Julie Sperling made with red dog, coal, shale, gold and iron ore pellets at the ruins project in Perryopolis on Tuesday, August 5, 2017.

I have come to feel a bit sad when I see artists wanting to define their work using someone else’s language. The pompous artspeak vocabulary that stands today, is a tragic example of the establishment controlling the imaginers. The establishment, as in, those who make the rules that an artist believes she should follow to be successful; museum directors, curators, the people who create grant applications, critics who don’t make art.  This sclerotic dialect works very hard to distance the viewer from genuine intimacy. The human experience of art should be visceral, as in instinctual and seated in the gut. Tortured phrases, like this one that I made up for fun, work hard to separate a person from this direct, earthy connection to art:

“My work, being intuitively process-based, traverses the idea of geographical placement while simultaneously communicating historical texture, the gravity of ancestry and a proletariat mentality. The materiality driven goals are transcended only by a more universal respect for language within the medium. Sometimes the narratives that I construct ask conceptual questions about the human experience of locality. Often, my work challenges preconceived understandings about marginalized groups.”

Where is the humanity in that statement, I ask?

Things that aren’t here anymore.

Now, read the more accessible and, hopefully, clear:

“I build art about places because my place defines who I am.  I come from a beautifully imperfect corner of the world and it has stamped a deep, sometimes bloody mark, into my soul.  I feel pride for the people I come from; coal miners, farmers, steelworkers, people who build things.  I go out into the fields and dig up pieces of history that I transform into lines of mosaicked communication. I tell stories in stone. Sometimes those stories are big and sweeping like geologic time. Sometimes they are small but mighty and speak of forgotten people.”

I know, and of course, understand the process we must go through for show applications, grant proposals and all the things that make a working artist get stuff done.  But when do we, as the ones who do the making and the heavy lifting, grip the reins of our own destinies and turn this giant, plodding monster of word control towards a clearer destination? That destination being those powerful moments in time when a person stands in front of our creation and becomes illuminated. That’s my goal, as the artist. To illuminate. To shine a great light into the cave of shadows that Plato describes in his time- tested allegory.

Celeste Van Kirk/Observer-Reporter
Through an opening in the wall shows a mosaic title Alchemy by Rachel Sager and Julie Sperling made with red dog, coal, shale, gold and iron ore pellets at the ruins project in Perryopolis on Tuesday, August 5, 2017.

2017 was the year I decided to not write another artist statement. Not because I don’t love to write them. I love to write and I love to write about art. But the painful act of reading so much simply bad art writing or the dreaded artspeak has prompted me to ask, “Why are you writing this, Rachel?” Does this piece need words? Do words help to illuminate this image?  I now believe that if your art cannot lift someone up or challenge them on its face, then the story you tell about it may just be a candy coating that covers what’s really important; th​e good stuff with the chocolate center. ​

I write this essay knowing full well that I will write more artist statements. My purpose in claiming to stop is to create a line in time for my dynamic artist self. I will push forward, knowing the pre-2017 art writing happened because I knew each piece needed a statement from me to prove its worth. My post-2017 self understands that the most important thing is the illumination of the spirit, both my own and anyone who chooses to contemplate my art. The words may or may not be necessary. Maybe this small act of rebellion is just one step forward on that well-worn but still dangerous artist path. But, as all the people who understand how things get done, and as my ​great-​grandmother loved to say, “it doesn’t take long, once you get at it”.

 

A storytelling stone

Makin somethin out of nothin…that’s a line I grew up hearing. The women in my family would use it with a quiet pride after cooking up an impressive meal from what seemed like an empty refrigerator. For years I felt a bit disgraced that I had not mastered the skill. Until all of the sudden, I had. Just not with food. I do it with rocks. Or plates. Or any other raw material that I deem mosaic-worthy. In fact, I’ve built my reputation on it. I love teaching students the miracle of skipping the middle man by foraging for their own material and using the hammer and hardie to turn one man’s junk into another woman’s tesserae.

Now that I am leading all walks of students and appreciators through The Ruins Project, I am finding myself wanting to introduce a material that is quintessential junk to most anyone. Red Dog. Ever heard of it? If you aren’t from deep or slope mine coal country, then you probably have not. I skinned my knees on it racing from creek bed to creek bed as a wild, barefoot child. This irregular, reddish stone was so prevalent that our driveways and back roads were built with it. Red dog was everywhere.

Common, humble, and good for nothing but fill. As I sit here writing, I am trying to unearth memories of how I felt about it back then. I remember appreciating its redness; from afar as it snaked a path through a green field; and up close, with its chaos of ochre, brick, oxblood, terra cotta, copper, and wine.

I remember appreciating and enjoying it. But I never once wondered what exactly it was. It took me becoming an artist to learn about all kinds of practical facts. Like the specific order of layers of stratigraphy in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Or the meaning of my dear Youghiogheny River, Algonquin for river that flows in a contrary direction.

I now know that red dog (I use the colloquial term because I’ve never heard it called anything else) is a by-product of 19th and 20th century coal extraction. To put it simply, it’s cooked slate. Coal seams often lay nestled tight against slate walls in the geology of a mine. One of the heartbreaking realities of a day in the life of a miner was that they got paid per ton of coal they got onto a railcar. They had to get the slate out too, but they didn’t get paid for it. I can imagine the cursing and animosity a man would have for that particular hard material.

You can still see the remnants of slate dumps, sometimes called gob piles, along the river here. These piles, when mixed with coal, would combust and catch on fire. The reddish colors come from the burning. A little piece of “hell with the lid off” as it was sometimes described.

Cindy Swanson installation
Maria Jose Iribarne installation

Why would all these bits of history mean anything to a contemporary artist? Because I care about the nature of any given hunk of rock. I build relationships with raw material. Getting to the inside of these building blocks, both metaphorically and physically, matters to me.

Rachel Sager and Julie Sperling installation

And maybe more to the point, red dog, as it turns out, is a highly expressive stone for the mosaicist. But it’s not well-behaved. Its irregular angles and fault lines do not follow the rules of hammer and hardie cutting. You won’t get any cube-like shapes. What you will get is serendipity, in both color and form. I give credit to Lynn Donihe of Virginia for being the first Ruins Project student to embrace, exploit, and transform red dog into Art. Her red dog flowers continue to be a highlight of the entrance wall with their sensitive faceting and whimsical nature.

Lynn Donihe’s flowers

Who would ever think to equate the word whimsical into the leavings of a coal by-product? That’s what every artist searches for…that element of surprise that can be elevated through technique.

Following Lynn’s lead, many other Ruins Project artists are embracing this strange material and breathing creative life into it.

Rona Pietzrak installation

Watching the outside world learn to turn this nothing into something rare and even exceptional is one of my great pleasures. I am waiting for someone to come and decide that it’s a good idea to build a red dog out of red dog.

As I continue down this path of letting The Ruins talk to me, a mission statement is finally emerging. It’s not complete, but I’m not sure it needs to be. Like The Ruins themselves, everything they touch asks to be in a beautiful state of possibility. Using the red dog as a colorful messenger, The Ruins is telling me that there is a bond being built between the coal miner of yesterday and the artist of today. It speaks of bridging a wide gap between Labor and Art. It moves with ease through centuries. Turns out, this humble, forgotten red material has its own story to tell. And its not content to fade into the quiet goodnight.

Rachel Sager (left) and Julie Sperling (right) contributions to the Pulaski Polka Dot Project

Congdamento: Another lesson in what mosaic can be…

I have recently returned from what was possibly the hardest vacation I have ever had the good fortune to survive. It wasn’t really a vacation at all. The little village of Cong, Ireland, witnessed nine days of breakneck stone and glass work by a crack team of mosaicists this summer. It all started with an innocent conversation about limestone. Note: any mosaicist who works in stone knows that there are no innocent conversations about limestone.

This way to Cong

Two summers ago, Meghan Walsh, architect and dynamic mosaic student, crashed into one of my workshops on building relationships with stone. Meghan doesn’t do small projects. With fire in her eyes, she told me I must go to Ireland to work with her friend Travis Price and the Irish limestone. So, we worked for the next two years to make it happen.

Travis Price

Travis Price, one of the most influential architects of our time, works with Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture to lead design/build expeditions for students. In addition to research, design, and hands-on building, the project associates itself with anthropology, archeology, philosophy, environment, and the arts. Turns out, this year, we were the Arts. Myself and Meghan, along with Deb Englebaugh, Julie Sperling, and Lee-Ann Taylor immersed ourselves in the storyline of the 2017 Spirit of Place. We learned about Manannan Mac Lir, god of the Irish Otherworld, and his solar boats that rise and fall into the depths of the sea to create the light and the dark. We learned about St. Matthew and The Fishers of Men casting their nets into the waters. These pre- and post-Christian stories inspired both the student-built structure and the mosaics themselves.

From the start, our goal was to create mosaic that was so integrated into this piece of architecture that it wouldn’t make any sense without it. As thoughtful mosaicists in our world often posit: why mosaic? Creating mosaic that cannot be replicated or even imagined into another medium has become a challenge for many of us. We achieved this in two key ways. First, by being a part of the design and research from day one. I traveled twice to visit with Travis and Meghan in DC for preliminary talks. I remember telling Travis passionately that our mosaic would not be mere decoration. After the team of five was assembled, I gave a presentation to the students about the miracles of mosaic and worked to illuminate them on what mosaic can be.

Our site in the woods

In response to every challenge, our team exceeded expectations. Lee-Ann showed up at a studio meeting with a full-scale mock-up of one pillar in cardboard. This proved to be invaluable on multiple occasions; the most memorable being when Meghan bravely stood her ground as the general contractor cast doubts on our understanding of easements on the returns. We understood every millimeter and every inch (metric system pun intended).

Haute Couture of Spirit of Place Mosaic Team

The second way we transcended being merely the decoration at the end was by building relationships with the material. We traveled to Youghiogheny Glass factory in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, and hand-picked every slab of every shade of glass. We packed up our hammers and hardies and carried them to Ireland. If you caught a glimpse of us as we worked, it’s quite obvious that the tools made the cut and the clothes got left at home.

I must say the most thrilling moment of this adventure was when I finally got my hands around a chunk of the famed Irish limestone. The cracking sounds as our hammers got to work in the damp quiet of the woods was mosaicista music. I was the lucky emissary to jump in the work truck for the short drive to the quarry for stone collecting. Amidst the green fields of the Irish landscape, the giant limestone operation was like the Mordor of Middle Earth. I’ve visited many a heavy machinery job site; this one dwarfed them all. As the days progressed, we kept watchful eyes out for any geology that would enrich our lines.

Sandstone!

A lucky find of a sandstone pile, which is rare for the area, turned out to be a blessing. We knew the limestone would be our anchoring material, in keeping with the building itself, but having the easy cutting and familiarity of sandstone gave us confidence that we would be able to cut in high enough volumes to finish the job. I remember looking to that pile of sandstone in relief, knowing that it may end up being our salvation.

Kilkenny black limestone

Turns out, as is often the case in a foraging atmosphere, another stone came along later in the week to surprise us. The contractors had shipped a beautiful black Kilkenny limestone for the floor of the structure. It was creamy, smooth, and cut like very hard butter (that description may only make sense to a hammer and hardie artist?).

More sandstone!

Once we got it in our grubby, mortar-covered hands, we couldn’t stop cutting. I believe we cut twice as much as could be used for the job. All five of us were overweight with limestone-filled suitcases coming home. No Irish linen or Waterford crystal for us. Just as much Kilkenny limestone as our tired backs can carry, please!

A first: riding the hardie log (credit to J. Sperling for photo)

In keeping with the musical terms, as is proper, since andamento is a musical term, I describe our work for that nine days in July as a calculated symphony and a spontaneous polyphony. What is a polyphony you wonder? It’s a musical composition made up of several simultaneous but independent melodic lines. I use this exact definition to help students define andamento in my workshops, so it is beautifully appropriate that now I get to attach it to a wholly new and unique word that was born that week: congdamento. Here is my best shot at defining a word that deserves more than one definition: Collective, intuitive line-building into the structure of a very narrow time frame. Origination, Irish.

Credit to Julie Sperling for coining this new and exciting word. For a complementary blog, please go to Julie’s writing to round out your understanding of this experience.

What does this definition leave out? It leaves out the magic of relationships, the mystery of old stories influencing fresh ones, and the courage of five strong artists who chose to humble their separate voices in order to create one mosaic concert.

Six strong

As a team, we planned ahead to forego the ego of any one person and create an anonymity in our work. A last minute addition appeared like a fairy in the woods in the form of Abby Dos Santos. Now we were six strong.

Spirit of Place Sanctuary Mosaic taking shape in The Cong Wood, County Mayo, Ireland.

We laid the stone and glass on mesh that had been cut to size months before and packed into suitcases. During our full tilt tesserae laying days in the woods, we switched off every 45 minutes to someone else’s work. This helped us avoid getting too emotionally attached to any one section but also kept our voices harmonized. It worked like a charm. I can identify some of my own work in the greater composition, but for the most part, the whole is a beautifully, fuzzy net of all of us. In some ways, it was more fun to identify Deb’s elegant lines than my own. Or to be surprised at remembering a specific unicorn that Meghan had enjoyed (unicorn was our term for a strikingly shaped tesserae that could not be categorized).

We ended with 390 separate mosaics on mesh installed into a sanctuary built to accommodate them. Broken down, that could conceivably add up to 30,000 pieces of tesserae, foraged, cut, and laid in what amounted to less than five days. A staggering amount of work.

The view from inside the sanctuary

We went into the woods and came out the other side carrying what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s treasure. The hero’s journey has many steps.

A partial list of these archetypal steps are; the call to adventure, a departure, meeting the mentor, trials, allies and enemies, a crisis, a treasure, and finally the return to the ordinary world. I like to think that, as the heroes of this little story, we gifted the treasure to the people of Cong. I didn’t get nearly enough time to sit in our Mosaic Sanctuary and contemplate what we had done. It helps to imagine the people of County Mayo and County Galway doing that for us.

Spirit of Place Sanctuary Mosaic taking shape in The Cong Wood, County Mayo, Ireland.

Things I learned in Ireland:

How to raise and lower a tarp very quickly and without drama.

Ask for ridiculously more than you expect to get in terms of infrastructure and materials. It sets a precedent and makes the people in charge slightly afraid of you.

I am capable of working harder than I ever thought possible.

Being a small part of a talented team is a very satisfying thing.

Even though you plan and measure and are prepared, events will arise over which you have no control. Adapt.

Guinness is good for you.

Guinness is good for you!

I will never work for free again.

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man

Many thanks to Youghiogheny Glass, The Hungry Monk Cafe’, Pat Cohen’s Pub, and Ryan’s Hotel (the latter three each donated a blue and white plate to the sanctuary mosaics).

Pre-SAMA pondering

As I prepare my words and my rocks for the city of Detroit next week, I find that my thoughts shift towards sweeping, big picture kind of thinking. The annual conference for the Society of American Mosaic Artists is a mix of sensory overload, high-spirited debate, and a general messiness that I look forward to with a kind of paradoxical anticipation. I genuinely love the event, but I always find myself crawling into a hole to hibernate for a few weeks after it’s over. Spoken like a true introvert who experiences short moments of illuminated storytelling.

But back to the big picture thinking. My artistic life is becoming ever more defined by the The Ruins Project and its evolution. I am honored to be telling the stories of its first year as a featured presenter on Saturday May 6th at 1pm. One of the best lessons I have learned about the act of speaking is that it forces you to figure out just exactly who you are. In order to be genuine and honest with others, one must first understand the substrate, pun intended, of oneself. The Ruins is bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. I look forward to sharing with you how it can be many things to all of us.

If you are looking to slow down and soak in some high-quality reading with a quiet cup of coffee this pre-SAMA week, check out Laura Paull’s article about her experience at The Ruins Project last year. It’s a gem.

See you in Detroit!
Rachel

Walking the line…online

​I hate to travel. It wasn’t always this way. My family loves to locate all of my red dots on the map over the years. Ireland, China, most of Western Europe, Czech Republic, The Canary Islands, Argentina… ​no need to keep listing. The point is, I’ve fallen in love with my own little corner of the world and don’t like to leave its comfort unless tempted with the good carrots. Note to Scotland: If you invite me, I will come!


I may hate to travel, but I love to teach. This presents challenges to both me and my future students. Not everyone can get themselves to my studio at The Ruins Project in Pennsylvania.  Happily, Tami Macala of the Santa Barbara School of Mosaic Art has invited me to be a contributor to her very exciting new niche learning venue, Mosaic Arts Online.

With Tami’s expert help, I have built a very particular tutorial titled “Intuitive Andamento“. It works as a condensed but focused example of my in-person teaching style. In just under an hour, a student of mosaic will learn about the nuance that is crucial for building lines that express parts of yourself.


Andamento can be so much more than simply getting from point A to point B. Those little adventures within the line itself are where the real fun stuff happens. If you want to be introduced to what mosaic can be, if you want to push your style into new territory, in short, if you want to build lines with personality, then this just under an hour tutorial may be what you are looking for. The risk versus investment is low compared to getting yourself through an airport and booking a hotel room.

I am proud of this workshop and look forward to hearing feedback if you take the leap into purchasing it.

Keep walking that line,
Rachel Sager, The Forager Mosaicist

What is possible in mosaic?

The easy answer is everything.

Some artists who work in this medium choose to not identify as mosaic artists, probably for a few reasons. Firstly, choosing a label in this global world can be limiting. Secondly, some avoid the very word mosaic because of its reputation as a copying or derivative medium.

Bad mosaic (yes, it’s everywhere) is clunky, unwieldy, and awkward. For those who work within the miracle of the line, experiencing the mosaic that does not respect andamento leaves us cold. We work in pieces, not paint. Tesserae, not clay. The inherent heaviness in these pieces of things provides us with the challenge of creating the illusion of lightness. There is no one solution to this challenge. The beauty of the problem lies in the unending ways an artist can create that lightness and elegance of line. I will spend the rest of my life chasing the idea of perfection in the line.  I will achieve whispers of it at odd moments and feel the artist high from them. They will fade but I will keep working, with the knowledge that the next one will sneak up on me when I least expect it. It is a tightly held secret of the artist that these snippets of brilliance are why we choose a life of uncertainty and unbalanced risk. I choose these moments of illumination over a lifetime of safety. Or should I say, I don’t choose this path.

The path chooses me.

I have committed to my medium without apology for its perceived imperfections. I have no shame calling myself a mosaicist. A respected colleague once compared our medium to the Rodney Dangerfield of the art world. “We don’t get no respect”. I understand the analogy but I choose to never appear sheepish as I explain to the uneducated what mosaic can be. References to TJmaxx tabletops and stepping stones included.

Some days I feel my job is simply to make the best art I can today. Then there are days like this, when I feel it’s important to dig deeper; to put into words what happens in those moments of ephemeral perfection.

Others in our medium feel it’s an important role to reject the rules of andamento. Artists, by nature, are meant to redefine boundaries and push others into uncomfortably new places, right? I agree. For me, pushing into new places works best when I am working within the line. My hands, brain, my heart and soul do their best when building a line that starts with one piece and re-invents itself with every piece that follows. I experience an absolute individual liberty within the confines of the line. I don’t know what’s coming around the next bend and that’s the whole point. Sandstone square, smalti sliver, marble rectangle, limestone circle. Jumping into the rabbit hole of sdoppiomento, possibly never to come out again!   As some may feel confined by following the rules of what makes andamento work, I experience complete liberation. When looking at the details of my work, you are seeing a human being tapping into a communication style that works better than speech or text for her.  Its pure expression tempered through technique.

I have taken to calling it intuitive andamento. The word intuition is literally defined as the understanding of something through instinct or feeling rather than proof. A mother’s intuition is a powerful example. Let me propose that if more of us working within these pieces of things would dive deep into the mysteries of what is possible within the line itself, the world would sit up straighter and start to see what all of us already know; that mosaic is a medium deserving of respect.

What does one piece of tesserae represent?  It’s one moment. It’s one choice. How do you, as the arbitrator, open yourself to that freedom of choice?  This is an important question. If you can tap into the power of making that first choice with your own brand of very personal intuitive confidence, then you will have harnessed a power of which any artist would envy. For me, mosaic can do everything because through it I am expressing the very nature of my lot as a human being; the tragedy, the joy, the fear, the love. And the line is my marvellous conduit.

Time and tide wait for no man…or woman

I find myself racing to keep up with the momentum that is 2016 at Rachel Sager Mosaics.

Some days I can only sit back in wonder at the heady mix of renovation, visiting travelers, studio work, and teaching that are all parts of a vision taking shape. The Ruins Project has begun in earnest now. Major contributions by Deb Englebaugh, Kelley Knickerbocker, Erin Pankratz, and Meghan Walsh have begun what I expect to become a tradition of far flung visiting artists making their signature marks on the walls. Julie Sperling comes in October! The first Ruins Project Experience students left wonderful work behind in May and the next group will arrive in September to explore what is possible in intuitive andamento, a new phrase I am using to describe what is possible within the line. The magic of The Ruins attracts people from all walks of life.

Deb Englebaugh hard at work on her clock
Deb Englebaugh hard at work on her clock

One of my favorite surprises has been the receptivity of local Fayette County residents. So many of us here come from coal. Our fathers, uncles, brothers, and grandfathers mined coal and left behind legacies of loyalty to an industry that was terribly hard on a family unit. I am humbled daily by people who share their stories of what Banning #2 coal mine meant to them. Some of them have taken the leap to learning my particular brand of mosaic and are becoming important contributors.

Erin Pankratz working the line
Erin Pankratz working the line

As an artist who feels deeply rooted to her place, I am being challenged to travel the world as a teacher. This fall will be my first international gig at the Jaton Mosaic School in Buenos Aires. I look forward to meeting the mosaicists of Argentina! Other destinations include Camp Bella Soul in Maine, Blue Heron Studio, San Diego, and the Santa Barbara School of Mosaic Art, California. A future collaborative project in Ireland is also in the works.

Now that the studio is operational, the work is flowing like a river again. Keep an eye out for new images in the portfolio section. Sincere gratitude to the patrons who play such a vital role in keeping me working. Buying the art continues to be the most direct supporting role in keeping the wolf from the door and the roof over my head. All that translates into more art.

"Life thus far" work in progress
“Life thus far” work in progress

As a future student of Rachel Sager Mosaics, whether at The Ruins or across the world, know that I take great care in creating an atmosphere that combines fun, rigorous technique, and philosophical inspiration. I want to convince you that, yes, the line can make you a better person. With every class I lead, I see that teaching you to walk the line in mosaic is one of my great joys in life.

Lynn Donihe making her garden out of red dog
Lynn Donihe making her garden out of red dog

On the nature of shape

phi-geometry-triangleI got a D in geometry when I was in the 11th grade. Being a moderately bright, well-meaning student, this black spot carried some serious shock value for both me and my parents. I wasn’t in the valedictorian pool of competitive study but I generally always tried to check all the right boxes. With a little focus and work, I could maintain a 3.5 grade average. Something was quite obviously wrong. It was like there were bridges that only spanned halfway across rivers, leaving me stranded and confused. Geometry is literally a 3-dimensional field of study and I was struggling to understand it from a very 2-dimensional perspective. It never improved for me and I must say, once I lost my confidence in math, it was all downhill from there. To this day, my brain seizes up when faced with even simple math problems; a classic Achilles heel. I realize that my phobia-like reaction is a common problem, especially for the newer generations going through schooling now. Maybe it’s a common core failure, but that’s not my focus here.

I want to talk about the fullness of shape. Like the fullness of time, it will become clear when it’s good and ready and not a moment earlier. Shape can mean a condition: “I’m so out of shape.” Shape can be a verb: “You must shape the dough into round balls.” For the thinking mosaicist, shape will take on many meanings along the way. If you cut your tesserae with a hammer, and I will never apologize for saying that you should, shaping becomes a meaning-filled first act in the mosaic-making play.

The sacred act of cutting raw material down into pieces of things is inextricably linked to shape and how that shape will help your lines to communicate. Today I choose to cut piles and piles of cube-like shapes for a particular, classical andamento. Tomorrow I will be cutting narrow, irregular slivers for some modern exuberant expression. Later in the week, I have planned to cut almost perfect circles to build an Indiana Jones style line on a map. Every shape can do a job for you. Sometimes mixing all the shapes together and building lines out of all of them can be a particular challenge if you want to stretch yourself or push a boundary.

Allegory of Free Will - head detail

Lately, I have become more comfortable labeling myself a line-builder than a mosaicist. It’s a dorky distinction; kind of like how a Star Wars fan will separate their love of the original stories from the 90s prequels. I’m a die-hard Boba Fett fan, but I simply cannot abide Jar Jar Binks. In both cases, these idiosyncrasies are lost on the general public. This conversation is for the line-building techies out there.

Boba-Fett

Over the years, I have narrowed down the shapes that help my lines and the shapes that hurt my lines. The cube-like shape is, of course, the comfortable, go-to contour for line-building. A large collection of these cut into beautifully irregular squares will create that essential anonymity of tesserae that has become the hallmark of the classical mosaic style. When you are learning to cut with the hammer, this is the shape you practice cutting…over and over and over in meditative bliss. The keystone is a beautiful version of the cube-like shape and is an old stand-by for turning corners with elegance. The vertical rectangle is another helpful shape. This is in contrast to the horizontally placed rectangle, which, if placed end to end too many times, creates the dreaded box car train effect. The vertical rectangle gives you a flexibility in that it can be easier to turn corners and create a contemporary movement. I get a kick out of acknowledging that these two shapes are identical; it’s simply by adjusting their position that makes one work and the other not. The sliver is similar to the rectangle, just more narrow and irregular. This is one of my favorite ways to insert personality into the line. The sliver is unexpected. It can be subtle or dramatic, depending on how you place it. It’s flexible in that you can situate it in almost any direction and make it work.

tess and anvil

I find the parallelogram to be the most unhelpful of the shapes. The two sides that sit parallel to each other, always, without fail, will send your line into awkward territory. I have become vigilant at keeping this shape out of my tesserae stockpiles, because even slight introductions of them will catch my eye later. If you have spent time in one of my classrooms, you know that I can spot a parallelogram from across the room.

parallelogram

down by the river - detail The last two shapes I will mention are the wild cards. They aren’t traditional mosaic shapes and are often used as highlights or focal points. The circle and the triangle attract attention. In a field of cube-like shapes they draw the eye. I have been experimenting lately with embedding the circle into a line of squares and enjoying the effect its roundness has in the interstices of the straight edges. There is a fullness to the circular shape that I find comforting. Or maybe I just like nipping material into an almost, but not quite, perfect circle. That not quite perfect distinction works as a common ground for all of the shapes. A perfect shape loses its personality. Or maybe I should say its imperfection represents a distinctly human element. And that repetitive humanness in any mosaic is the hook that draws us in and makes us want more.

Light out for the territory - river detail And now to the dreaded triangle. I was taught early on to reject this shape. Its three sharp sides have a way of standing out like sore thumbs, especially when used as default choices: “That’s what fits in the space I have left!” I will happily argue with you as to why this is never a good reason to use a triangle. But rules are meant to be broken. I keep a hawk’s eye out for artists who break the rules of andamento in ways that surprise and delight me.

Finally, back to the geometry…I had the good fortune to be invited to act as the visiting/teaching artist for a pilot program called Craft Integration at a local, rural high school a few years ago. The theory was that by introducing authentic hands-on craft to non-art classrooms, the students could learn about their given subject in a deeper, more authentic way. I worked with environmental science, history, language, and literature and found ways to weave mosaic philosophy into all of them. Mosaic can do everything, right?

andamento mathBut it is, of course, the geometry class that I want to mention here. I realized the connections I could make between the shapes of tesserae and the equations on their papers and computer screens. We could hold the tesserae in our hands and talk about the six sides, feeling the roughness or smoothness of stone and glass. We talked about how, in a mosaic, we think we see just one side, the top side. But in reality, all six sides do their parts to make the whole work. The four sides interact with the four sides of the pieces next to them, above them and below them. Some sides create shadow and dimension. The underside is important too in how it’s angled into the mortar and of course how well it sticks determines the lasting quality of the mosaic itself. This simple introduction of physical, tactile tesserae in their own hands helped geometry students to see shape in a unique way. After having this wonderful experience, I certainly looked back at my own, stressful introduction to that odious math field and wished I could have had a mosaicist teaching me geometry!

prague cobblestone

This post originally appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Society of American Mosaic Artists‘ publication, “Groutline”.

Can the line make you a better person?

Rachel Sager "Cape of the Cod" mosaic - map cartographyWhat’s the big deal about this word that we mosaicists seem to endlessly obsess over? Andamento. Look it up and you will find lots of oblique definitions that lead you to other, similarly muddy descriptions. Pathways, courses, movement, flow. Some very complex musical terms that fall short in conveying this intimate act of building a line with pieces of things. None of them really hit the nail on the head for me. They lack a descriptiveness that is crucial for this very specialized language that I speak. Conversations about the line with like-minded artists animate me more than politics or the newest iPhone or food trucks. Simply put: the line fires me up. Give me the cube-like shape and interstices and the inherent superiority of a vertically placed rectangle over one placed horizontally. Watch my eyes light up when someone says the word sdoppiamento. I have steeped myself in the value of the line. I believe, in my medium, it matters more than color, texture, or composition. The line is supreme.

Patricia Thomas @ The Ruins
Patricia Thomas @ The Ruins

In the beginning, I was consumed with answering the unanswerable question: how many different kinds of andamento are there? I was fortunate enough to be sitting with Maestro Verdiano Marzi when I asked this question and, more to the point, was ready to hear his answer: “There are as many andamenti, Rachelle, as there are artists to create them.” I can transport myself back to that moment, at will, to re-live the relief and exhilaration.

Verdiano Marzi
Verdiano Marzi

I call it an unanswerable question because there is no limit to what a mosaicist can express with her lines. Her lines are her. If you are doing it right, your lines become an extension of your personality, your philosophy, dare I say it? Yes, I do…your soul. If you accept my argument that your lines can reflect a part of your soul, you must also accept that your lines must be unique in the world. Hence, there are as many andamenti as there are artists to create them.

Rachel Sager @ The Ruins
Rachel Sager @ The Ruins
Rachel Sager @ The Ruins
Rachel Sager @ The Ruins

But, how does one get to this mysterious place of building lines that express those deepest parts of what make us tick? The pool of contemporary artists working in this medium today and successfully building lines that are uniquely their very own is small.

Jo Braun
Jo Braun

I will admit, with some trepidation, that once I learned the rules, my lines began to flow from me like a river. After the initial awkwardness of the first year, building lines became second nature. And after that, the act became enjoyable to the point of  contentment. I choose the word contentment over, say, euphoria because feeling content is a more fleeting, slippery experience than most any other emotion. In life, I lean towards anxiety and worry. When I am building lines my brain switches to another frequency. I experience a peace that is missing in my other life. When I look for that next square of stone, there are no doubts and no second guessing. I am sure of my choice. And then I am sure of my next choice. I choose with confidence whether to set a keystone, a cube-like shape, a sliver, a rectangle, a circle, or even a triangle. I choose, mostly on an intuitive level, how to angle the shape of stone or glass into its bed of thinset.  One way of describing this phenomena is that I put the best of myself into my lines every day. My glaring imperfections in life contrast to the little bits of perfection that I can build onto the substrate. The line makes me a better person.

Rachel Sager "Allegory of Free Will" mosaic

I have often spoken of the difference between the kind of andamento that one uses as a tool to get you from point A to point B and andamento for the sake of itself. The mosaicists who came before us built an impressive infrastructure of rules (guidelines) that enabled them to tell their stories. When we see the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine mosaic work, we are looking at centuries of cultural knowledge that evolved specifically to perfect the image. Whether that image is the human form, a rabbit, or a mountain landscape, the elegant line made them all come alive. It was a means to an end. I call that point A to point B andamento. When I am being critical, I sometimes call it filling in the space andamento, although I usually reserve that term for poorly executed work and not the wonderful classical examples.

So, how would I define the other kind, the andamento for the sake of itself? That’s a longer conversation. I see them as pathways of expression. The line builder is expressing herself within the line. She may be working in the confines of some boundaries but those are secondary to her total immersion in building lines that stand on their own; lines that speak for themselves. Nothing makes me happier than making all those hundreds and thousands of choices, knowing that with each one I am all at once expressing actions that are deeply intimate and universally common. Those of us working in these decades of the creator mosaicist (credit again to Maestro Marzi for his beautiful phrase) have inherited valuable knowledge from the past, but we are unburdened by the dogma and tradition that can sometimes work to stifle creativity. We have the luxury of freedom that the contemporary art world values so much. We can choose to make up our own odd little rules that help us to innovate new lines. These are heady, singular times we creator mosaicists live in.

Anabella Wewer
Anabella Wewer

We can compare line building to architecture. Creating little communities of tesserae that can theoretically be never-ending  cities of communication. From a single tessera house to a collection of tesserae villages, onward towards cityscapes, patchwork fields, layered landscapes, or even global swaths of expression. Some mosaicists compare the line to writing. One word builds on the next. Each word should work to make the one before and after it stronger, or if not stronger, then at least more interesting. Every word (tessera) matters to the overall story (composition).

Julie Sperling
Julie Sperling

I watch students struggle with all those choices. When you invite the fear into your lines, you will be faced with a dreaded, creeping doubt that moves you away from the divine pursuit of what it’s all about: the miracle of that repetitive freedom of choice. If I were speaking to a student now, I would say, “Don’t let the line smell your fear. Like a horse, you must come to it with a calm mind and a confident hand.” Today, as I struggle through the doubts and fears of an imperfect life, I am consoled with the knowledge that the line is out there, waiting for me to return.

Groundbreakers and good books

A reader knows she’s read a good book when it leads her to another book. That little shiver of surprise that she feels when an author or a character refers to another writer or another book; that’s one of the perks of immersive reading. I say immersive because so much of our reading has devolved into those clipped, abbreviated snippets of information. Slow, leisurely reading has become the exception.

Sometimes it’s just a name drop. I can be deep in the middle of an historical fiction novel and a character will quote Marcus Aurelius or make fun of Mark Twain. The fuzzy nature of those little hints at all that more are such a turn on. Sometimes they sit sleepily in the back of my brain until I come upon that as yet undiscovered author in the book store (I will hang on to the physical book in my hands for as long as they let me). Sometimes I am compelled to go out and find a copy of this new discovery post haste. E.M. Forster led me to Dante. Jefferson gave the nod to Montaigne, who, it turns out, is one of the most readable and accessible philosophers I’ve had the pleasure to read. He just happens to be from fifteenth-century France. When I experience these bookish connections I feel like I’m a fly on the wall of the conversations between great minds that can span not just centuries, but millennia.

As I plod through my River House renovation, some days feeling like we are moving backwards and not forwards, I keep thinking of the character in Frances Mays’ Under the Tuscan Sun as she struggles through her very Italian adventure of fixing up a dilapidated villa. I have my own cast of quirky and colorful characters who show up every day to work. I often get so mired in the dirt and the mess and the general slowness of this giant undertaking that I simply cannot go on. But then I do. Go on. Funny how a book I read decades ago can help me see the comedy of my current living arrangement. A good book will do that for you; it leads you somewhere else. Or helps you see a picture that is bigger than your own melodrama.

Art will do that too. As the creator of the art, I have learned to sit up and pay attention to the pieces that change me or push me into new territory. These pieces don’t need to be good. I don’t even have to particularly like them. But when I look back, I can spot them clearly and say, oh… that’s where I changed.

Let’s call them groundbreakers. Sharing them here in this venue is an exercise in humility. They are not my best work. I am sharing each of them for the specific ways that they changed me.

Canadienne (2008)

"Canadienne" mosaic by Rachel Sager
“Canadienne” (2008), 12″ x 12″, marble, granite, Blenko glass, slate, jasper, desert rose

Created in Sophie Drouin’s Ontario studio, this little piece of awkwardness represents one of my more painful groundbreakers. After working in the medium for at least a decade, I had come to the horrifying realization that, like John Snow, I knew nothing. My materials were complex and inspired; I had a handle on design and composition. But I was still ignorant of that most basic of mosaic elements: language. My lines were static and often unwieldy. My friend, colleague and force of nature, Sophie Drouin, whipped me into shape over a week of immersive andamento training. When I look at this piece, I see my uncomfortableness. I am just dipping my toe into the water of what would soon become my obsession, the elegant line. To a sensitive mosaic eye, especially in the top half, the lines look technically correct, but they lack that naturalness that is necessary for elegance. Students take note, one must make lines like this to get to lines like this:

Rachel Sager "Paradox of the Coastline #2" mosaic - map cartography coastline
“Paradox of the Coastline #2” detail

Deep Well (2010)

Rachel Sager "Deep Well" mosaic - Marcellus drilling and geology
“Deep Well” (2010), 26″ x 10″, Slate, Pennsylvania fieldstone, galena, pyrite, sandstone, marble, Italian smalti

I come from a family of coal miners. To read about my fossil fuel family history click here. My bad memory is one of my biggest downfalls, but some moments simply stick. A particular favorite is the day I experienced the light bulb of illumination about stratigraphy in mosaic. It came at me all at once, like a barreling train. I could build the layers of earth out of the earth itself. I had been working in my native stone for less than a year but understood instinctively that I had a lot to say with it. The natural gas industry was just getting started in my part of the country, but my father was keenly aware of what was coming. We were googling and learning about fracking years before most people had even heard the word. The image of the drill cutting deep into the earth attracted me immediately. Those spaces where nature and industry meet have always been a trigger for my imagination. Now that the Marcellus series has taken on a life of its own and become one of my most successful ventures, I can look back at the simplicity and primitive design of Deep Well and remember. I remember that day when I called my dad to ask him to list the layers of earth under our farm. He rattled them off…topsoil, clay, sandstone, Freeport coal seam, limestone, Pittsburgh coal seam, sandstone, aquifer, and on until we reach the Marcellus shale at 8,000 feet. I rushed to scrawl them onto my studio table with a sharpie. That was a beginning.

Driveway (2012)

Rachel Sager "Driveway" mosaic
“Driveway” (2012), 15″ x 11″, #2B limestone gravel, metal flower frog, 24-karat gold, vintage key, Italian smalti

As I traveled deeper into my andamento work, the perfection of the line became more and more crucial. Driveway is me turning the corner into purist territory. In order to separate the line from everything else that distracts me as an artist; color, composition, material, I distilled this piece down to brass tacks. Or maybe I should say I distilled it down to gray gravel. The field tile is made up entirely of #2B limestone from my driveway. With a casual glance, the gravel looks uniformly gray and pretty unremarkable.

gravel

But with a discerning eye and focused time spent with the hammer and hardie, turns out this stone has all kinds of color nuance going on. Notice, however, that even when I try to separate andamento from any other element, color insists on making an appearance. Even subtle color can be powerful. But that’s getting off point. The point of this groundbreaker is that it taught me that the power of the line is absolute in mosaic. It matters more than anything else. Period.

Printlandia (2012)

Rachel Sager "Printlandia" mosaic
“Printlandia” (2012), 19″ x 24″, 100% printer—plastic, metal, and glass on hand-built substrate

Mosaic artists are always wrestling with Material. That’s Material with a capital M.

We don’t just think in stone; we go deeper and think marble, sandstone, granite, machine-cut or natural edge. We don’t just talk about glass; we talk smalti, stained, dichroic, vitreous and gold. I can make lists of material till the cows come home. But I also believe that material can be a trap for us. I see examples of well-meaning artists getting caught up in the excitement of all that bling. I see artists depending too heavily on either the novelty or the flash of a given material. Novelty as in, who knew that feathers could be used for mosaic?! Or flashy, as in all gold or beads or dichroic and not enough technique or restraint.

The experience of Printlandia taught me the lesson that authenticity in material is essential (for me). My authentic story with this groundbreaker began back when it was my actual printer. It stopped working when I really needed it to work. I was able to turn my rage at its malfunction into inspiration and success. I clearly remember plopping on the couch and saying to my husband, I’m gonna turn that thing into a mosaic. That mind opening moment changed me forever. I can see a clear line of demarcation between pre-printlandia and post-printlandia. When I realized that I had the power to transform any material into mosaic –worthy tesserae, the game had changed. I now had an incredible independence at my fingertips. I believe this was the year that I quit shopping for material. Today, I rarely purchase tesserae. I don’t need to. I have my nippers, my hammers, and my tin snips. So watch out!

I look forward to the next groundbreaker with a mixture of humility and an edge of my seat excitement. If I have learned anything about the creative process, it is that the unexpected is a sure thing. It’s my job to keep my eyes open so I can spot it as it makes itself known.