Canadian Visual Artists: Heather Vollans

Heather Vollans is a mosaic artist specializing in salvaged materials and concrete sculpture. She works and teaches mosaic courses in her studio near Hamilton, Ontario.

Mosaic in red and gray

Red Power was was inspired by a photograph of Chinese labourers painting the exterior of a power plant, hanging on long ropes.
Photo © Heather Vollans.

You’re originally from Australia and you’ve traveled a lot around Europe and the Middle East. How have your experiences in different parts of the world influenced you? Did your travels play a role in you becoming a mosaic artist?

My years of travelling definitely influenced me – especially in terms of use of colour. Being Australian I was already influenced by desert colours and earth tones, but then living in the desert those colours became an even stronger influence. The textures and contours of the sand, the vegetation and shadows also had an effect. And all these years later l see some of those same textures, shadows and contours in the snow!

The textiles of Europe were another big influence. I am drawn to textures wherever I am – and it’s all around us… rusting metals, patterns of dirt and grime on a truck, plastic wrapping materials, old paint peeling, bark, ripples on water… I journeyed through many arts/crafts before finally discovering mosaic about 10 years ago, but all of those influences are part of the place I have come to.

The mosaic on this side of the wall is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, terracotta - all salvaged or taken from nature.

Mission Statement mosaic is composed of stones, driftwood, black glass, travertine, marble, slate tile, slag, and terracotta – all salvaged or taken from nature.
Photo © Heather Vollans

My favorite piece of yours is this amazing four-paneled mosaic wall you’ve built on the property beside your studio, which you describe as your mission statement. It embodies your enthusiasm for making mosaics using natural and salvaged materials, and it represents many of the themes and values central to your art including man’s journey through the ages and his relationship with nature. What was the most important you learned while making it? Does the wall provoke any reaction from passers-by who see it from the road?

The materials were important to me. They symbolised the waste in our world. I wanted to use materials which were just lying around, having been discarded, to make this statement. Much of the ‘process’ for me was the gathering of the materials, cleaning them, sorting and storing them before coming up with the design.

The other side of the Mission Statement wall - this is the side seen from the road

The other side of Mission Statement wall, facing the road

I’ve learned such a lot doing this large project: the biggest is – dream big, think about it, research it, keep the passion, work at it … you can make it happen. The thinking/dreaming/planning process for this wall took far longer than it actually took to build and mosaic! The building and mosaic work took 2 summers. Other things I learned were: you don’t have to do it alone. Surround yourself with enthusiastic supporters – get friends involved, run a class around it, throw a bar-b-que in with it and people will come to help. Another thing: research materials and construction methods well before you take on something this big – and build beyond specifications, especially in Canada where nature takes its toll on everything. Build to last.

Slate mosaic

This piece was created using slate roof tiles discarded after renovation of a victorian house.

We get a lot of reaction from people passing by on the highway – strangers come up the drive and ask to see it. Often when I meet people and tell them where I live they say “you mean the place with the big wall?” It’s gratifying that people notice and even more gratifying that people understand why I did it.

I love your philosophy of creating art from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. You use salvaged construction materials and discarded objects in your mosaics, as well as natural stone.  Do you have any good scavenging stories?

I have salvaged stuff all my life and yes, I have many great stories. It’s the materials I find that fire my work. I always begin with materials, rather than the idea or design. My work is all about the process – the thrill of the find, the endless hours of thinking about how to combine my treasures with other materials, and the final production.  All of this process is as important as the final result.

Working in construction, I have come across some wonderful dumpster materials – aluminum, ceramics, wood, rusty nails, copper and other metals. Once you take away from your mind the expected use of these materials you can see them purely as textures to be played with.

Mosaic sculpture using salvaged construction materials

The crushed Tim’s cup in the tool belt? My favorite part of the sculpture!
Women in Skilled Trades, back and front views. Photo © by Heather Vollans.

Other great finds have been broken terracotta pots at the side of the road. At the back of a strip mall once I found a granite countertop, in pieces. Sadly it had been dumped without thought!  But for me it was treasure. I packed every last piece of it into my van, stashed it behind my barn and then eventually (a few years later) it was used on a concrete tabletop.

Wall clock with a frame of old watches

The rim of the clock on the wall of Heather’s studio is decorated with a mosaic of discarded watches

Sadly for me, “big garbage day” as I used to call it – when the Municipality invited people to put anything out by the side of the road – is no more. I used to be able to collect furniture, tile, curtain rods, metal frames, mirrors etc. and revamp them into useful objects. My best salvage ever was an old wet and stained Iranian carpet rolled up on the top of a pile of garbage. I brought it home thinking I would give it to my cats for a scratching pad. As it dried in the summer sun it looked more and more beautiful, despite its damage. So I had it cleaned and valued – worth $2,000…and to me, priceless, because of the story that went with it.  The cats missed out on that one!

You also teach mosaic classes to both kids and adults – what role does teaching play in your life?

When I began teaching it was as if a light bulb went on inside of me! Many years of working in a career which was a “job”, and finally I find something that puts a fire under me. That was a real  “aaah ha” moment. The greatest thrill with teaching is being able to fire the imagination of somebody who does not see themselves as an artist. And when that happens the tables are turned – and I become the student because then I learn more than I could possibly teach others.

Public mosaic sculpture incorporating children's mosaic designs

Children’s Memorial Garden Sculpture

You currently have a large public sculpture in progress in Brantford Children’s Memorial Garden. This looks like a fantastic project that will be completed in Spring 2013. Could you talk a little bit about it and about your experience of artistic collaboration with kids?

The children’s memorial garden project is my first public project and also the most complex project I’ve ever been involved with.

The contract  included classroom teaching to get feedback from children on what they would like to see included in a memorial for children. The main themes from the children’s drawings included the importance of family, friends, animals, nature and the Grand River in Brantford. I then produced three designs from the children’s ideas and one of the designs was chosen by Committee for the park. Children and adults were then invited to become involved in the project by helping to produce mosaics for the sculpture. Some of these designs were then included in the artwork.  It was a very emotional project to work on because a number of people who took part had experienced the loss of a child and their drawings and mosaics reflected that. There was a great deal of support in the community for the project and we ended up having to provide additional teaching sessions to cater for the number of people who wanted to be involved.

Interior wall mosaic in natural stones and driftwood

Interior wall mosaic in natural stones and driftwood

You live in a small town called Lynden outside Hamilton, Ontario. Having always lived in large cities (and also having a lot of faith in technological progress and the power of the modern communication networks) I find it a little bit scary that Google maps can’t quite figure out how to find your address. What do you like and dislike most about living out in the country?

For a lot of my life I’ve lived in small country towns so the transition to the real ‘country’ when we moved to Canada 13 years ago was not difficult. I love the feeling of isolation, the open spaces, the privacy, the green and the fact that I am surrounded by animals and nature. We are in fact only a few miles from town, so accessible to most things easily. Galleries, restaurants, libraries – all things I love – are only a short drive away. There’s not much to not like living out here but internet access is not great sometimes and that is frustrating. I grumble and complain, but I live with it for the pleasure of being here.

The problem with Google finding us is actually a post office problem! Our physical address is not where our mailing address is. We have a postbox we collect mail from at our local store.

Heather's latest mosaic series explores the detrimental effects of copper mining on the environment. These mosaics incorporate salvaged copper ornaments and natural stone.

Heather’s latest mosaic series explores the detrimental effects of copper mining on the environment. Salvaged copper ornaments are incorporated into these mosaics among natural stone.

What are some of the exciting things coming up for you in 2013? New projects or exhibitions?

I am constantly on the look-out for new projects and am usually planning 6-8 months down the track. I have some wonderful teaching in schools and local galleries, plus my own studio for the winter and spring. I am also preparing for a solo exhibit at the Hamilton Library in April of this year and another in Brantford in October. It is many hours of work to get ready for each exhibition – mostly it’s not simply a matter of moving work around from gallery to gallery, but producing new work to order, often with a specific subject or idea.

You can see more of Heather’s work on her website and Facebook. She has mosaics currently on display at McMaster Innovation Park in Hamilton and at the Maplestone Gallery in Creemore, Ontario.

Catch her solo exhibitions at the Hamilton Public Library in April 2013 and at the Brantford Station Gallery in October 2013.


Canadian Visual Artists: Heather Vollans — 5 Comments

  1. Love your work Heather. Like the sculpture in the Children’s Memorial Garden especially. I pass it daily and always have to take a second look.

    • Thanks Johannes! I’m privileged Natalie chose to write about my work. And glad you like the Children’s Memorial Gardens sculpture. Certainly was a labour of love and great collaboration with the community. Look for the opening ceremony on 8 June this year.

  2. Found your pictures! WONDERFUL work. I absolutely love everything you do. I wish I could see it in person!