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Mosaics: art for all ages

Kids and adults from thousands of years ago up through today have admired the hands-on artistry of mosaics.

By Sue Wunder / November 20, 2007



Have you ever thought about being an artist? Did you know that you don't have to be able to draw or paint to create amazing art? It's true! And Cappi Phillips learned this lesson early.

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When she was in the fifth or sixth grade, Ms. Phillips thought you did have to be able to draw or paint to be an artist. She felt frustrated because she wasn't very good at either activity.

But she had a ball when her art teacher had the class cut up construction paper and use the pieces to make a picture called a mosaic. Ms. Phillips doesn't remember what she made, but she clearly remembers the fun she had arranging the bits of paper into something whole and artistic.

That's what mosaics are all about: making a complete object or picture out of lots of smaller pieces of material.

Today the mosaics Ms. Phillips makes in her home studio in Bloomington, Ind., are more complex and sophisticated. So are the tools she uses.

Still, many of her works embody a whimsical and often wacky humor that appeals to kids – and grown-ups who are kids at heart! With her husband, Bud, who helps out in the studio, Ms. Phillips sells handcrafted mosaic animals at art and craft shows around the Midwest.

The mosaic is an art form dating back thousands of years. A mosaic is made by fitting pieces of various materials together into a pattern or picture. Just about any material can be used. Historically, mosaic artists have used pebbles, shells, and small pieces of marble, glass, or tile.

Ms. Phillips uses some of these and a variety of modern objects – including toys – in her mosaic animals. Some of her most popular pieces are turtles. Have you ever noticed that the bony plates of a real turtle's shell make a kind of mosaic?

Ms. Phillips's mosaic animals are purely decorative, but she also makes functional mosaic pieces such as tables, plant stands, clocks, vases, birdbaths, and even mailboxes.

Mosaics are multicultural in origin. They are important elements of Greek, Roman, Christian, Islamic, Latin, Russian, and Near Eastern cultures.

One of the earliest known examples of a mosaic is about 4,500 years old. "The Royal Standard of Ur" (on display in London's British Museum) was found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The artwork is made with shells, red limestone, and lapis lazuli (a bluish gemstone) glued onto a wooden box. It depicts a battle scene on one side and a peaceful banquet scene on the other.

The Greeks and Romans created entire walls as well as flooring and pavements with marble and stone mosaics. These were beautiful, functional, and durable works of art.

Some mosaics from the Roman period were so tough that they survived a giant volcanic eruption! In AD 79, Mt. Vesuvius erupted and rained ashes down on the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The ash hid – and preserved – these villages for many centuries. When they were rediscovered, excavators found stunning, colorful mosaics among the ruins.

The "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii is a mural showing ancient Greek ruler Alexander the Great in battle. Archaeologists found glass paste and shell mosaics applied to columns, niches, entranceways, and fountains in the Pompeii ruins.

During the Christian-Byzantine era, this art form flourished. Artists used a new material, glass "smalti" (melted and cooled glass) to produce more colorful and reflective mosaics. Many great churches and mosques were richly adorned with these works of art.

Mosaics declined in importance during the Italian Renaissance as painting and other art forms came to be more highly valued. This decline continued through the 1700s. But mosaic art saw a comeback in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Today, mosaics continue to be used extensively in the architecture of homes and other buildings around the world. And individual artists over the past century have used the mosaic as an expressive art form in its own right. They have experimented with mosaic sculptures and free-standing mosaics, using all kinds of materials, including scrap metal.

Ms. Phillips combines her own inventive spirit with a good dose of playfulness, evident in the name of her studio, Moe's Ache, and in the one-of-a-kind mosaics she creates. Can you think of a mosaic design you'd like to make?

If you're interested in experimenting with mosaics, here are a few tips.

• Start building a mosaic on a flat surface such as an old plate, board, or piece of cardboard – you can use bits of almost anything to create a pattern. Try pebbles, small toy pieces, or even little pieces of construction paper or tissue paper.

• Use strong glue. Elmer's glue will do for paper mosaics. Craft glue may work for heavier, bulkier mosaic pieces.

• You can draw a picture on the surface first, but you can also make up the pattern as you go along.

• Remember, you can't really make a mistake. A mosaic is a personal creation, and there are no rights or wrongs to your own design.

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