A couple of shots of Feathers, my latest mosaic commission, which is now completed and installed.
This is my first mosaic project on Wedi board, which is a foam-core cement board that’s waterproof and much lighter than plywood. Wedi is a German company with few Canadian retailers, but enough of us Toronto mosaicists blathered on about it to the lovely couple that owns GlassMosaicCanada that they started carrying it a few months ago. So I can now buy it close to home.
It was important to find a lightweight substrate for this mosaic because of the size of the project. Even on Wedi, the weight of all the faux-marble, glass and mortar is considerable, so I designed the piece in two parts to be more manageable in handling and hanging. The curvilinear shape is also made possible mainly thanks to Wedi, which can be easily cut using just a utility knife.
Feathers is a gift for my mother’s 50th birthday, intended to add much more va-va-voom to this crazy-coloured accent wall in my parents’ house than its current assortment of paintings imparts.
The design went through a few iterations (below), following requests that the two shapes fly apart rather than curve around each other, then flip open towards the top, then basically be made more like feathers. So hence the final design and title.
The materials used are all salvaged tile (mostly from the same scrap tile haul that supplied the materials for our backsplash), with the exception of the lime-green tesserae I bought to match the wall. This time I opted not to use the wet saw but to smash or nip the tiles into irregular chunks.
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I’ve been getting ready for the Riverdale Art Walk, which is coming up in ten days, and here are a few new pieces I made using salvaged slate and gold mirror smalti.
The slate was part of the great scrap tile haul from our local tile store, and strips of it were arranged into panels that I ended up smashing apart.
The four mosaics above are quite small – about 6″x7″ – mainly because slate is so heavy.
I did make one larger piece, 8″x12″ (on the right), after which I had to stop with this lovely series, as there was only slate rubble left.
I suspect there’s another small series of abstracts hiding in the rubble though – I’ll see about digging it out tomorrow.
The backsplash is finished and installed and it looks like this:
I ended up hanging it all in one piece, as it was just manageable in terms of weight.
I’m glad that in my research I came across the suggestion to fill in the spaces between the tiles with sand before applying Thinset adhesive to the back – this worked really well to prevent any cement from being pushed too far forward between the tiles.
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A few weeks ago it occurred to me to ask my local floor tile store – where I’ve been buying grout for years – whether they have any scrap tile I could have. Up until now, I’ve only used vitreous mosaic tiles and stained glass, but it was time to look into ceramic tile as I was about to start working on a kitchen backsplash, which called for larger tiles and cheaper materials.
So I show up with my sturdy shopping cart – the store is a ten minute walk from our house – and the guys there take me to a whole separate warehouse in which huge crates full of scrap and remainders stand. “Knock yourself out,” they say – and there’s piles of stone and glass tile, imitation marble and even occasional pieces of natural slate.
By the time I had the cart about half-full, I had to force myself to stop digging though the crates and head home, but it was too late. I had been too greedy. I had not gone two blocks when the axle bent and one of the wheels started to resemble a soft-edged frisbee.
Anyway, this is how I came to be making this project with all kinds of fancy faux-marble tile for the cost of a short cab ride. The cart, it later turned out, could still be repaired.
New materials, new challenges: to someone used to working with glass, which can be easily nipped and cut by hand, cutting up 1/2″ thick stone tiles into small pieces means making new friends with power tools.
The splash effect of the wet saw, I was glad to discover, is closer to that of the steam iron than that of the garden sprinkler. I could totally use it in the dining room (not having a dedicated workshop space) without drenching the walls. This was a relief because it’s still below zero outside, and I was really eager to get started on this thing since I had finally figured out how to approach the awkward rectangle of blank wall in our kitchen.
Framed by a patchwork of cupboards, countertop, wooden butcher-block and existing tile, the 2.5′ space was exposed after we moved the fridge last year to make room for a dishwasher. Ever since then I have been puzzling over a mosaic design that would tie all these odd edges together. Since this would be my first architectural mosaic, I also had to research all the associated mounting options and techniques.
I decided not to attach the mosaic to a substrate such as Wedi, but use only a fibreglass mesh and cement that directly onto the wall – both because I didn’t want to raise the level much higher than the adjacent tile and because Wedi is kind of hard to find here in Canada.
There was a single inexplicable row of tiles along the top, which had to be removed, but this was good news, as it meant I could incorporate some tiles that matched the rest of the walls into my design.
Also, I got to use a heat gun for the first time, which was neat. (Favourite line in the manual: “Never use the heat gun as a hair dryer. The extreme heat will burn your scalp and scorch your hair.” Surely there are Darwin Awards nominees among the ones who only skim the heat gun manual and miss this important caution?)
In the end, the wood of the butcher block inspired the color scheme in the lower half of the mosaic, lightening to an off-white at the top where it will be adjoining the white cupboards. It all seemed kind of bland until I decided to include tiny bits of red glass here and there in the darker lines – then it finally looked interesting enough to go ahead with. (Red to match my husband’s collection of KitchenAid appliances on a neighboring counter.)
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Jeremy Down‘s abstract three-dimensional paintings are created outdoors in the wilderness of British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, where he lives, skis, canoes, and plays in a band.
When you started out as an artist twenty years ago, you were living in Toronto and painting on traditionally flat canvasses in a studio. Now you’re living in a small town in British Columbia, you stretch your canvasses over these organic 3D shapes and you work only outdoors. How did this series of shifts come about – did you make a big radical move to change everything about your life at once, or did one change flow from another, naturally carrying you to where you are now?
For years I was painting out things that were not related to me and getting closer to a style that is very personal and able to express everything I experience. For many years it seemed this was an impossible task. I wanted to get away from the canvas being a context for something to happen within, I wanted the canvas to be the subject itself, and I thought that shaped canvasses would open that door.
As much as I explored different possibilities, nothing really worked until I had a major shift of consciousness. My canoe flipped in Slocan Lake in mid-February, and while swimming to shore, my heart stopped and I had a near-death experience. Three days later in the studio, I watched as a flat square canvas morphed into an abstract 3-dimensional shape. I walked over to my wood tools and built the first shape – which I still have. It was definitely a gift!
There are a couple of beautiful short documentaries about your work. Jeremy’s Shapes shows you painting up in the mountains in the snow and talking about your 3D shapes and the experience of painting outdoors. Then you snowboard down the mountain with one of your canvasses strapped to your back. My main question after watching that is: how many artworks lost their lives in snowboarding accidents?
Not too many actually! I used to use an easel on skis – “the skisel”. I pulled it into an amazing grove of 300 plus year-old cedar trees – an incredible ancient place – but I couldn’t get the skisel out again – too steep!
So I thought a ghostride might be in order, and the skisel took a high-speed run straight down the mountain for about 1000 ft. Amazingly it slowed to a stop undamaged! I tried my luck one more time but this run smashed the skisel into a massive tree and splintered into pieces. The painting survived. It’s called Ghostride.
Quite a few pieces have been scarred by the experience, but for me the challenge is acceptance of these alterations. If I am going to paint in the wilderness, I have to let nature make its mark. This process of acceptance usually gives the work a maturity that can translate to the viewer. Resistance is futile, and acceptance is peaceful.
The other film, Crossing Over, is about your near-drowning experience while setting out to paint in your canoe one stormy February day. It is an amazing story and beautifully presented in the film, but could you talk a little bit more about the influence that this experience had on your life and art? Did it make you more careful about setting out in your canoe on a stormy day? Or did it make you want to take even more risks so as to live your life to the fullest?
Risk management is a common point of conversation among the people I spend time with in the mountains. The event in the lake did inspire me to make wiser and more informed decisions about risk taking … but I love the relationship with challenging situations – so I will never stop!
As I get older, I don’t feel the same pull to the most dangerous experiences. I can reach that wonderful place of sensing my own mortality without being in dire straits. But I still climb mountains and paddle in winter – just a lot closer to shore!
You’re part of an art collective DRAWNONWARD, which is an Ontario-based group of artists who travel and exhibit together, and you’ve travelled all over Canada and to the Arctic with them. What was your most memorable, awesome or terrifying experience while travelling with this group?
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