Being the Mortar
My family is Irish. A couple years ago, for the first time, we all converged in Ireland and wended circuitously around the Burren exploring the beauty of this magical stony land and the mystically intense strangeness of its power, spirits and the balancing whimsy of its craic. I learned that the land in this area is coated naturally with a layer of limestone. The millions of miles of stone walls are not only dividers of space, or exercises in learning stone masonry, but are the result of breaking this coat of limestone and stacking the pieces to allow for the cultivation of soil. Through a combination of seaweed and sand, a type of soil could be conjured to allow the growth of some resilient plants - the potato being one. Out of necessity comes invention, and out of stone comes stone masons... and mosaic artists... in time...
I began working in stone with Rachel Sager in 2014, and I have not looked back. Well into my own career as an architect and artist, I'd already been working in mosaic of a sort, for many years up until that point. My architectural design work has had an underlying mosaic quality since its incipience and I’d been doing broken tile mosaic for about 10 years. Mostly because I had no studio space, I'd break tiles on the sidewalk outside my row house in DC and bring them inside to work on the dining room table. I fell in love with stone in my first class with Rachel at Touchstone Center for Crafts in Pennsylvania. Within a month of that class I got my first studio and began working seriously with stone. I work with many materials and I am adamant that there is no material that should be excluded – even blown out tire scrap from highway shoulders. Some materials are harder to work with than others in finding a way to frame and extract their beauty. Stone on the other hand... ahhh.. stone... is not. It sings out stories in every crack and its beauty is infinite – even holy.
Rachel Sager likes to call me the mortar. This is because I see how things and people are and how things and people can be connected and I make that happen. I taught architecture at Catholic University for six years back in the early 2000s. Travis Price, architect and founder of the Spirit of Place studio and a fellow professor at CUA, became a close friend and colleague, sharing ideas about architecture, spirituality, ritual and place. I had my own design/build travel studio in Brazil when we became close friends. For several years I went back and forth to Brazil every 6 weeks connecting the Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions and beliefs of Candomblé, Capoeira Angola and community with architectural design and artistic building projects. Travis has been doing something similar, but with a much larger budget, and all over the world for almost a quarter century now. I'm in awe of the work. This project in Cong was number 25! And the 8th project he and his students have built in Ireland. Since Travis and I are friends, I had a sense that he would get excited about the pairing of mosaics and architecture as much as I do. Art that does not hang on a wall, but that is an integral part of architecture, not just a wall surface treatment, designed from the beginning, one influencing the other as in a dance.
Both of us know and love the work of deceased Italian architect Carlo Scarpa who was known for his work with embedding artisanry into his architectural work, and his own work as a glass artist. Details, and the connections of materials, the texture, the smell, and the spirit of the interaction of minds and materials create in aura in Scarpa's work that is rare for architecture - especially with increasing modern technologies. Hand craft adds a quality that is derived from the soul of the maker, embedding imperfection as exquisite beauty. Travis and I both know the importance of this to the souls of buildings. I have made this a primary focus of my life now in my private studio in Washington, DC. I am drawn to the physical act of making things with my hands. As the world around us today drives at speed, efficiency and elimination of differences, I am drawn to the slowness of mosaic and the perfection in its imperfections. Travis took the idea of mosaics (etymologically from ‘muse’) and embraced me and my mosaic family. And off we went.
Rachel and I visited Travis for hours at a time discussing this marriage of mosaic and architecture. Driving four hours each way, Rachel's sheer energy, passion and love for stone and mosaic brought waves of energy into our kindling idea. Cozied up watching The Quiet Man in Travis's tree house together, the deal was sealed. The element of laughter and silliness, a critical part of our team, was abundant. And Rachel pulled in the rest of the crew - Julie Sperling, Deb Englebaugh and Lee-Ann Taylor knowing that this team of five would be a powerhouse... and indeed it was.
The crew met for the first time in person at the 2017 Society of American Mosaic Artists Conference in Detroit. The chemistry was amazing right from the get-go. These folks are all incredibly intense individuals, including me, but we all share a love of the craic (laughter, fun and jokes as the Irish call it). I have never felt so empowered and supported by a team of people on any project I’ve ever done. When Travis gave me the CAD drawings for me to take and detail into the individual mosaic pieces, I created a spreadsheet to account for all and assist us in developing methods to create a structure for the occurrence of our individual intuitive andamenti that would allow it to melt together and become a seamless whole project. I sent the spreadsheet to this group of artists, expecting to hear crickets in response. Instead, Lee-Ann Taylor and Julie Sperling came back with formula corrections and found important glitches. I was thrilled! Lee-Ann’s IT background and Julie’s data collection self were right there! And then we all converged on Rachel in Whitset, PA to pick our Youghiogheny glass, cut mesh substrates and discuss the methodology and preparation for the trip. Lee-Ann showed up with a full-scale mockup of one of the columns of the proposed architectural project that the students would eventually be building for us, just to make sure we had everything perfect! She drove it five hours in her van! I was so excited I was jumping up and down with relief, excitement and a sense that magic was in the air.
The logistics of making a project like this successful are multifold. I could go on about the details of carting the glass to Ireland and the work-site conditions, and the challenges we faced in dealing with these during our ten-day build. But this blog might turn out to be a novel. I will say that two main things that don't always seem to be important for a mosaic project were extremely helpful for this one. One - this team had a resilient sense of humor, often led by Deb Englebaugh whose only complaint was there were not enough Snickers bars. Whenever we were faced with soul-sucking challenges, Deb rose to the occasion with pragmatism and grace and the occasional show tune. And my friend Abby Dos Santos, a law-librarian who joined our team as an assistant also brought her organizational skills along with a lightness and fierce positivity to cheer us on. Two - my experience as an architect, building buildings and working directly with contractors on job sites over the many years was essential to earning the respect and trust of the stone masons and builders, now friends, which was essential for a successful collaboration and final product. I love communicating with builders because I speak the language and I know how to build a building. I’ve found over the years that the best solutions to complex problems involve listening, brainstorming and resolving things together. When this kind of harmony is established, the end product ends up better than what any one individual would have done on their own.
The physical act of constructing, particularly something that has been carefully and collectively designed, is, I believe, one of the greatest human endeavors for bringing people together of all different backgrounds, ideas and beliefs. I believe it is an underutilized tool for connecting and bridging differences that has great potential to heal human conflict. Mosaics are metaphorically even more concretely a healing, connecting activity - building peace, piece by piece. Peace within one's own heart and soul, and creating beauty out of ugly things.
The Spirit of Place, Fisher’s of Men, Cong, Ireland Project has had a far-reaching impact on me. In a few days, my solo show, Athbheochán: Untranslatable Wisdom, will open. I will blog more about this show in detail, but suffice to say here in this blog, that I hit the ground running when I returned from Ireland. I was overtaken by a muse in those Cong Woods that directed me to create a piece that explores the ocean as separator and connector as well as the container of lost primordial human wisdom that we as human beings need. I am also two classes in to my Irish Gaelic lessons and look forward to being able to use it when I return to the Gaeltacht’s of Ireland.