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!

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.


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.


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.


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.

Independence 2015: A Mosaic Symposium


What exactly is a symposium anyway? The Greeks invented it. One definition that I like is: an event that provided liberation from everyday restraints within a carefully regulated environment. These events are where we got the iconic images of men lounging in togas, drinking wine, pontificating and philosophizing. That’s not too far off the mark, actually. The aristocratic, all-male participants drank together, played music, and just generally enjoyed themselves in a convivial but carefully choreographed atmosphere.


The symposiarch, master of ceremonies, was in charge of how much or little water to mix with the wine that filled a large central krater. I can only imagine the power that guy wielded! The sharing of ideas and values was a central element of a successfully run symposium. It really was a brilliant invention when you think of it: control the drinking enough that everyone can still think clearly, play good music, and keep people fed.

One of the great benefits of living in a free society is how easily we can reinvent a traditional or textbook system and turn it to our own uses, without the constraints of dogma or getting stuck into too many rules. Our symposium is open to all peoples, regardless of orientation, aristocracy, or sex. Come one come all! The only requirements I can think of are an open mind and an interest in learning new things about this most ancient and modern of arts: mosaic.

Rachel Sager "Ode to a legacy" mosaic coastline map cartography

For many of you contemporary mosaic makers and enthusiasts out there, the education process can be challenging. Bettering yourself within the medium sometimes involves significant travel, taking a risk on an artist/teacher you may not be familiar with, spending your hard-earned money and time on a week or a day that you hope will pay off for you. The beauty of this weekend event is in its choreographed format that gives you, as a symposiast, the most bang for your buck. Three presenters—Sherri Warner Hunter, Cynthia Fisher, and myself—will be sharing our knowledge, stories, and techniques in a relaxed, fun atmosphere. We work hard to be independent artists and we want to share what we know that works with you. We will be talking about ideas like The Earth as your Shopping Cart, Sculptural Substrates, and Freedom of Choice as a Working Artist. The beautiful campus of Touchstone Center for Crafts will be buzzing with demonstrations, idea-sharing, and cross-pollination. It will be one big, boisterous mosaic party. The wine will certainly flow, although not until the evening hours, and the Touchstone chef will keep you well fed. We will wrap up the busy Saturday with a Pecha Kucha style panel discussion led by the Executive Director of The Society of American Mosaic Artists herself, Dawnmarie Zimmerman. If you have not had the pleasure of attending a Pecha Kucha yet, click here to learn more about this phenomenal new way of communicating ideas and realize what a perfect accompaniment it is to the symposium format. More fun and wine!

As if that isn’t enough to pack into a weekend, we are also hosting the first ever unveiling of The Touchstone Stump, a collaboration that I have worked out with blacksmith Dennis Gilkey.

Dennis Gilkey at the forge, Touchstone Center for Crafts
Dennis hard at work

After watching my students struggle for years trying to finagle an appropriate base for their hardies, I decided that maybe we should create our own and make them available for purchase. Made of sassafras wood from the Touchstone property and encircled with heavy hammered metal to keep them from splitting, the stumps can be cut to fit your body mechanics on site. They even have two hammer holsters. If you are driving to the Symposium, consider this investment for your studio. I am pretty much in love with mine.

The Symposium will be sponsored by the wonderful people at DiMosaico, and Theresa will be there with all manner of hammers and hardies for sale at The Marketplace. I will have various substrate-building materials for sale and Sherri Warner Hunter Studios will be offering the always-in-demand mortar colorants and mesh tape, among other necessities for the independent artist.

I hope to see you up on the mountain on May 22-24!

Touchstone Center for Crafts forest path in autumn

The Ruins Project: A beginning

This is the year, 2015, that I find myself the surprised owner of an abandoned coal mine. And not just a coal mine, but the architectural ruins of coal history. My very own folly. Except that a folly, by definition, is a new construction built to look old. To be exact, a folly is a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose. The aristocracy of the 18th century loved to add them to their gardens. Frivolity in all of its excess.

My folly, on the contrary, was built for work. Each room was created for a particular job. I know some basic facts about the structure and the property on which it sits. Banning #2 was mined for the high quality bituminous coal that Southwestern Pennsylvania was so famous for back around the turn of the century. That’s the turn from the 19th to the 20th century for those young’uns out there. I know that coal was mined, sorted, cleaned, and moved around in an organized fashion here in my Ruins. There was a forge, a rail track, a tipple, and an office. Most of the structures are camouflaged into the landscape now.

River house - detail 14When I made the decision to buy my house, which was built as the office for the coal company, I knew there was something interesting on the other side of the creek, but because everything was covered in blankets of snow, I really didn’t grasp the enormity of what I was buying with my ten acres.

River HouseIt’s the sitting in time that has made them a work of beauty. Time has had its way with the stone and brick. Moss covers great swaths of the walls, creating a beautiful decay.

River house - detail 6Rusty metal i-beams run deep into concrete piers. Trees have grown up inside of rooms and on top of rail tracks. Some of it reminds me of the High Line Park in Manhattan.

River house - detail 16 The craftsmanship of the brickwork astounds me daily as I walk through its labyrinth with my morning coffee. I ask myself why the masons would build such flourishes into a structure on the inside of a wall that only a few men working a forge would ever see. The word that keeps bouncing back at me is Pride. Not the kind of pride that makes one cocky or the one listed in the seven sins. But the other one; the one that pushes a man to do his best work. And not for the recognition, but for the simple joy of the doing of it. As I walk through my ruins, I find myself compelled to make connections. Am I up to the task of doing my best work here? Have I been presented with a place that will challenge me as an artist and possibly ask more of me than I have yet to be asked?

River house - windows As I get to know my Ruins, they are revealing a distinct personality; strength, pride, and a gravity that both excites and soothes everyone who visits them. The mosaicking hasn’t started in earnest yet. This getting to know the place is a part of the process for me and the longer it goes on, the more I realize this getting to know time spent with The Ruins before it becomes The Ruins Project is crucial and shouldn’t be rushed.

River house - detail 1 As an artist who works in mosaic, I am seeing the walls as a canvas. In my first glances, I was thinking of them as blank slates waiting for my brand of mosaic. I could see immediately that as a forager mosaicist who uses native stone, I can respect the history of the place and make use of my sandstone, limestone, slate, and coal as material. There will be very little flashy bling on these walls. But as I look more closely at them, I am seeing them as not blank at all. They are full of personality; cracks, fissures, cubby holes, angles, burns, imperfections…wabi sabi in all of its glory.

River house - detail 15River house - detail 2River house - detail 3










I believe in approaching a piece of art from many fronts. It’s not just the substrate, but how the substrate is built. It’s not just using the material, but actually making the material or foraging for it and transforming it. It’s the same with The Ruins. It won’t be simply working on the walls. We will be listening to the birds, feeling the rich dirt, observing the woods that have grown up around everything, acting as archaeologists when we find the leavings of industry beneath our feet.

River house - rusty tools 1

River house - detail 11It will be an experience. When I bring the students in for the The Ruins Project School, they will be encouraged to see all of this personality and work with it and around and through it. In this precious time of getting to know my Ruins, I am crafting what will be a singular mosaic experience. As a student coming here to study in the future, you will not be taking your work home, you will be leaving your mark behind. Stay tuned for coming details and dates on the first Ruins Project School.