When the Meadowbrook School of Weston, Massachusetts, called me requesting a commission, I knew it was going to be a very special project—I had worked with the school on my first mosaic 18 years earlier. Michael Rosenfeld of OMR Architects, the architect of the school’s expansion project, invited me to create a centerpiece mosaic for the monumental staircase in the school’s new learning center. The project team suggested I explore the school’s beautiful New England landscape as inspiration for the visual concept. With a good project budget, an ideal site for a great viewing experience, and the proximity of the school to my studio (3 miles door to door), this was my mosaic project dream come true!
Theme and Design
I chose the theme of the four seasons, a classical artistic motif that relates to Vivaldi’s concertos and Monet’s paintings of the Giverny Gardens, as a tribute to Meadowbrook School’s beautiful campus. I imagined the physical journey of walking up the long flight of stairs as a parallel for an artistic journey through the seasons, celebrating the changes that occur in the fields and forests, and the flora and fauna in their local habitats. Metaphorically, this would also be a personal journey through the cycles of life.
I measured the staircase where the mosaic would be located and its five walls, then drafted the dimensions onto tracing paper at the scale of ¾ inch=1 foot. I started drawing the winter scene on the left side, then let the seasons flow naturally, using my mind’s eye to wander through memories of my early childhood immersed in the natural settings of the forests around my home. The first crocuses of March begin the procession through the colorful foliage of the seasons. Next, the fiddlehead ferns of April unroll into summer lace, then the first rhododendrons of May cast shadows on the dancing pink lady slippers in the forest undergrowth.
Fall erupts in the hardwood forest with a fiery blaze of gold, orange, and red leaves in the red and white oaks. An owl hides on his perch as a nuthatch walks upside-down on a tree trunk. The two deer I spotted on the back trail during my first site visit are frozen in a flash at the moment before they sprint away. Finally it’s winter again, and the pristine world of blue shadows makes a circle back to where things started, but now at the opposite end of the staircase.
Model Making and Presentation
My education is a mix of two disciplines; I majored in painting at Yale University (BA Fine Arts, 1978), then studied architecture at Harvard University (Masters in Architecture, 1986). I practiced architecture for three years, receiving my architectural license in 1989, then promptly fell in love with creating murals, which combined both my backgrounds. I started working full time as an artist creating public art, adding the specialization of creating commissioned mosaics shortly after.
My architectural background has taught me that a scale model, which shows the design in the context of the architectural setting, is a versatile tool. I use models to study viewing angles, examine complex joints, understand engineering issues, and plan the scaffolding installation. For this project, I showed my clients the model, helping them see how the composition flows three dimensionally up the stairs and how the cutout style plays off the background.
Ceramic Tile as Mosaic Medium
I selected ceramic tile as tesserae for several reasons. Hand glazing ceramic tiles enables me to create unlimited colors to capture the nuances of nature. Handbuilding clay tiles makes it possible to create thousands of cutout leaf tiles to fill out the trees. Ceramic tile is a perfect mosaic material for exciting changes in scale—small, carefully cut tiles for plant and animal details, and larger tiles for backgrounds. Additionally, I’d recently completed three successful community mosaics murals in Chiang Mai, Thailand, created from ceramic tile. I wanted the chance to use everything I’ve learned working with ceramic tiles and apply this to a challenging mosaic mural, ripe with creative options.
The bulk of the work was made from 4¼-inch-square, bisque-fired white-clay tiles that I glazed by hand. I bought boxes of this unglazed commercial tile from a local ceramics supply store in Boston (12½ square feet of tile per box (roughly 100 tiles)). I used 30 boxes of tiles (about 300 square feet) for the Meadowbrook School project.
I’ve used many different glazes over the last 20 years, and have settled on Amaco’s Teacher’s Palette line for several reasons: the glazes fire to a glossy even finish, are reliably intermixable, and I can visualize what the fired color will be while still in the unfired state (basically, a deeper shade of the dry unfired color).
I started studying ceramics when I was 10 years old, in the lovely garden-facing studio of my neighbor, potter Margaret Hoenig. Margaret introduced me, my brother, and our neighborhood friends to the joys of working with clay, showing us Ceramics Monthly magazine for inspiration! When Margaret passed 8 years ago, her family gave me her kiln, which I rebuilt to use for high firing exterior ceramic mosaic ware. I feel a deep sense of connection to Margaret with every firing. She was the pottery teacher at Meadowbrook School for 20 years, and was my initial link to the school. This mosaic is dedicated to Margaret’s memory.
The kiln is small and can only fire about 100 tiles per firing, which equates to approximately 10 square feet of tile. This amount of tile is one day’s worth of mosaic making. At the end of every day, my assistant Liane Noddin, a gifted artist who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and I review what colors we’ll need for the next day’s work, then I glaze another 100 tiles and fire the batch overnight. By 9am the next day, we have tiles for our day’s work. We created more than 2000 handmade ceramic leaves using real leaves from the Meadowbrook School as our templates. These sculptural tiles create a lyrical counterpoint with tiles cut from square tiles using tile nippers.
Cutting and Placing Tile
Fabricating a ceramic tile mosaic was conceptually simple. We chose tile colors that matched the colors of the design drawing, then cut those tiles with ceramic tile nippers. We placed the tile onto a slightly sticky fiberglass mesh that held the tiles in place while we worked. We followed the Sharpie marker outlines on our full-scale template placed under the mesh, which we created from our scaled drawings that were enlarged with an opaque projector.
I started in the large areas, establishing strong andamento rhythms for the backgrounds. Liane concentrated on the details. Both of us discovered new ways of using our tools to create tile shapes that mimic the items that we were creating. I compare this process to Vincent Van Gogh’s approach to painting, where brushstrokes create dashes, dots, and swirls, playing complementary colors off each other to create lively vibrations.
Installing the Mosaics On Site
When our studio work was done, we installed the mosaics on the walls of the staircase. My son Charles is a skilled mosaic installer and he worked with Liane and me for 5 full weeks on this important phase of the project. We erected scaffolding to access the 20-foot-high×50-foot-long wall. Next, we installed 4×8-foot sheets of Wedi Board (a cementitious tile substrate) using sheet metal screws that we drilled into the sheet metal underlayment behind the drywall, then used Laticrete Platinum 254 Thinset Cement to adhere our mosaics to the Wedi Board. The architect’s structural engineer reviewed the weights of our mosaics vis-à-vis our materials and methods, and confirmed that our installation would indeed be permanent and without need of control joints and requiring no future maintenance. Once the mosaics were installed, we trimmed off the excess Wedi Board with a zip saw, then grouted the mosaics using White Sanded Polyblend grout that we hand tinted with Novacolor acrylics to create thousands of vibrant shades of colored grout. We used paper towels to remove the surface haze, finally revealing the beauty of the shining finished mosaic artwork. This was our Voila! moment.
This undertaking took a year to complete, from first conversations to final installation: 5 weeks for preparation, design, and design review; and 5 weeks for production of enlargements; and then about 40 weeks of physical work for three people.
I’m intrigued by the way that this project plays with the conceptual paradoxes of process, theme, and product. We created a permanent image of the transient, ever changing seasons. Our hundreds of thousands of colored tiles look like brilliant abstractions in the eye, yet reassemble into detailed figural images in the mind. The mosaic is fixed onto the wall yet changes constantly, reflecting ambient light and the movements of passersby. I’ve learned so much from this challenging project, yet realize how much I still need to learn to meet the challenges of future projects and the changing seasons in my life as an artist.
the author Joshua Winer has created more than 100 commissioned mosaics and painted murals nationally and internationally. He works with schools and religious communities as an artist-in-residence, and teaches, lectures, and writes about mosaics, murals, and public art. To see more of his work, visit www.joshuawiner.com, www.schoolmosaics.net, www.jewishmosaics.com, and www.trompeloeilpainting.com.