The individual pieces that make up a mosaic are called tesserae, and making a topography of tesserae is restorative to my soul. Especially in orange. Sometimes I get this longing to make something without knowing how it will turn out. My artist self can be very astute and wise in the studio, in ways that are much more difficult for me when out of the studio.
Out of the studio, I expect myself to know how things will turn out, in advance, in omniscience, in complete certainty. Then I notice the impossibility of this, and often have sharp words for myself about being perfectionistic, and then if I am paying attention, I will notice this as well, and grant myself a moment of grace.
There are ways in which this patchwork trivet is imperfect. It is bumpy, with crooked edges, and scratches, gaps in the grout, and unevenness of color in the finish of the frame. Perhaps you catch yourself thinking, “But I like that it looks like it was made by hand instead of a machine” or maybe you see the whole rather than the individual tesserae. This is when my wise artist self says, “You like this and if it has to meet some imaginary idea of perfect, you won’t make any art at all. So what shall you choose?”
Grout is the mysterious element of making mosaics. Grout can unite the pieces or make them stand apart. The word Grout may come from the Old English “gruta” meaning coarse meal, a kind of porridge. Grout fills in the spaces, as if a sustaining porridge, yet has no adhesive quality in and of itself. Grout obscures the surface when applied, but then helps reveal the ultimate beauty of the glass. Grout is why I spend so much time in hardware stores. Grout is the fuel of my friend Joanne, The Grout Monster, who loves to grout as a healing process of playing in the mud. Joanne is in the middle of her 2012 Poet Laureate of Montgomery County program, and for the month of April, National Poetry Month, I give a shout out to Joanne Leva, Grout Monster and poet extraordinaire.
When I wrote earlier about my Fruit of the Spirit Mobile that I painstakingly stitched from polyester double knit, my mother emailed this photo to me, as she has it hanging in her dining room. I had forgotten how pleased I was with the pineapple of Goodness, and the plaid on a diagonal for texture! Self-Control is emblazoned a banana, my least favorite fruit, but I still enjoyed the curve. I may have had a jumper made of the pale peach of Self-Control, and the vibrant orange of Kindness is where my eye goes to now. Seeing it all in the flesh(fruit-flesh that is), brings back the tactile sense of making the stitches, lining up the fabric. This part of the root system that led to my life now as an artist, and my new manifestation of the Fruit of the Spirit via the commission from Suzanne Halstead. On Wednesday, Suzanne and I grouted Faithfulness and Kindness. The scale is much larger than my mobile, as is my excitement in seeing it all bear fruit! More photos to come as the process continues.
LIFE magazine has posted an archive of millions of photos on Google Images, and of course I was searching “mosaic” and found a set of photos from 1955 of a woman making a mosaic coffee table, taken by Andreas Feininger. Idly searching on who Feininger was, I discovered he was a well-respected photographer, originally an architect from Germany, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1936, and started as a staff photographer for LIFE. He went on to write many textbooks of photography.
In an interview with Feininger and the ASMP in 1990 he said he was not a people photographer, and one of the few times he photographed a person, it was a mosaic(unnamed)artist, sort of the Donna Reed of the mosaic world. I can’t imagine mosaicking in bangle bracelets, and a flared skirt! I particularly like the can of “Miracle” cement. In other ways though, I feel a kinship with this anonymous woman, as she unpacks the box of tile sheets. And the close-up of her hands laying tile is even more familiar, with the timelessness of the human hand creating something.
There’s a quote in Feininger’s book, The Roots of Art: “Everything made by human hands, and most things conceived by the human mind, have their prototypes in nature.” Grouting is our way of making rocks or fossils–the latter being the sturdiest of mosaics! Conglomerate is a rock consisting of individual stones that have become cemented together with pressure and dissolved minerals.
I wonder who this woman was. Did she keep making mosaics? I am fascinated by the picture of her grouting with her bare hands(it appears she did take off the bangles). In case I didn’t mention it in my previous post, this is not recommended! Grout is very alkaline and leaches all the moisture from your skin, and can cause contact dermatitis with repeated exposure. Did she go on with her tin of Miracle, and keep creating with her hands?
Wipe away the grout too soon and it all comes out of the gaps, degrouting your mosaic. It’s a balance of removing the excess before it hardens, without undoing the grouting.
And then the magic of the color emerging! This is the point of hope and relief and transformation. The color reasserts itself, comes glowing through the haze. I can scrub harder with a microfiber cloth, and dislodge the sandy residue. The process is much easier to handle if I just accept the studio will look like a herd of muddy cats came skittering through. I was fortunate to read some helpful advice on the Mosaic Artists Online Group about “dry grouting.” Some books suggest a slightly damp sponge for cleaning off grout, but that rejuvenates the muddy nature of the grout and can be very frustrating. Instead, the gentle friction of the microfiber cloth removes most of the haze.
I remove the green masking, and let the grout fully set for 48 hours, before sealing with Tile Lab Penetrating Sealer. I apply a coat with a paintbrush, and it soak in for 5-10 minutes, before polishing with a clean cloth, and repeating. The grout drinks up the sealer, and the sealer loosens the stubborn bits of haze from the tiles. Any remaining haze can usually be removed with a cotton swab lightly dipped in vinegar(I dab the swab on a paper towel after dipping). Vinegar is the nemesis of grout–acid to its alkaline, but small amounts applied just to the tiles for cleaning is very effective. I use a dental pick to dig out any buried areas, and excess glue–the scrubbies remove most of the glue, but some remains. The center orange glass tile has pinholes, and these require more effort with the dental pick. The red outer tiles are made of recycled bottles, with a smooth iridescent finish, and are a delight to clean. It’s as if they want to be cleaned, and shed the grout gracefully.
Then my husband takes a glowing picture of the final incarnation, and comes up with the cool caption of “Remove Grout, Add Light.”