In progress: Feathers

Feathers mosaic on Wedi in process, left side

Mosaic sketch on Wedi board

Full sheet of Wedi board (3’x5′) with the sketch in chalk. Vertical lines represent the position of struts in the wall, where the mosaic will be anchored

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.

Wall for mosaic

The colour is actually a lot more insane intense than this picture makes it seem

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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Scrap slate abstracts

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.

Slate abstracts

Slate abstracts 5

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.

In progress: my first architectural mosaic

Backsplash mosaic in progressA 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.

Scrap tile pile

The tile haul that broke the cart’s back

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.

Wet saw

Was I ever sick of the sound of the wet saw by the time I finished cutting up those piles of perfect triangles

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.

Blank space for mosaic

This is what the blank space in the kitchen looked like. The top row of tiles has now been removed and absorbed into the mosaic design.

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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Canadian Visual Artists: Tick Tock Tom

Tick Tock Tom is a scrap metal sculptor from Ottawa. His creations have appeared as props in movies and music videos, and for the last five years he’s been making one-of-a-kind award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The Lion (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Lion (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

I spoke to Tom over coffee on his visit to Toronto last week to drop off his latest commission: two sculptures based on the beasts from Dante’s Divine Comedy – the Lion and the Wolf.

When I ask how this series – which also includes the Leopard, completed earlier – came about, Tom laughs as he tells me about being inspired to read Dante’s classic poem because of a video game:

“I played this Xbox game called Dante’s Inferno, in which you play Dante and you hack and slash your way through hell. It’s all very epic. At the end of it I realized I was never forced to read the Divine Comedy in school, and my education from Xbox left me doubting. So I picked up the book.”

He found that Dante did not in fact hack and slash his way through hell, but journeyed through it. He even had a tour guide:

The Wolf (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Wolf (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

“There’s some amazing imagery in the poem, apart from the animals that I used as a kind of beginning exercise. This poem used to be such a guide for people’s lives: don’t do this or you’ll end up doing this in hell. And the punishments were all very appropriate. Fortune tellers, for instance, are punished for their crimes of trying to see into the future by having their heads twisted on backwards so they can’t see ahead.

“I had the first piece – the Leopard – at the TOAE (Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition) last summer and I wasn’t sure if I was going to complete the series. But when I told the client who’d bought it the plan for the other two pieces, he commissioned me to make the other two animals.”

Idea - scrap metal sculpture with light bulb

Idea

The Lion has a door lock mechanism for its mane, hinges left over from a movie set for its paws and part of a motor in its body. Where do the various metal parts for his sculptures come from?

“I started out scavenging the trash for broken TVs and VCRs. Eventually if you tell enough people that you want their broken things, it just comes to you. At some point you have to say “Whoa, I only have so much space.”

“I’ve had a few jobs in assembly and manufacturing and some wonderful employers that let me dive into the steel bin every once in a while. But really it’s just a matter of keeping my eye open for things that I think I can use.”

Tom started making sculptures out of junk about thirteen years ago, with no prior art experience:

Time Machine

Time Machine was commissioned for a time travel short film The Escapement

“I’d always taken my toys apart a little bit too much when I was a kid but I never planned to get into anything like this.

“A friend of mine had this old computer monitor lying around and he gave it to me and said, “You look like somebody who can do something with this.” I’m not sure why, but he just chose me. To this day, I will parade him and thank him for getting me into this.

“I took that computer monitor home and took it apart, along with a VCR I had that wasn’t working, and made this humanoid head and gave it to my friend who gave me the monitor. He showed it to his boss and I got my first commission.

“Since then, I’ve just been trying to make better and better things.”

Tom’s early sculptures were put together using hot glue, but he soon began to improve his technique.

Toymaker scrap metal sculpture

Toymaker

“I think eventually my friend had to get rid of that head once all the teeth fell out.”

Employed in a succession of manufacturing and assembly jobs, Tom got to hone his metalworking and welding skills:

“I spent a year and a half in a metal fabrication plant working on a robot welder. The job itself was repetitive but every once in a while the robot would fall off its track and I’d get to go inside and reprogram it. From there I learned about the angles that one needs to weld at, the temperature, the speed.  And ultimately I was able to translate that into my own welding: my own angles, my own temperature, how long I held there. It was a year and a half of sometimes-not-so-exciting times but what I learned out of it was invaluable.”

2012 OIAF awardFor the past five years, Tick Tock Tom has been making award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The statues comprise a round metal plate representing an old-style animation wheel (phenakistoscope)  mounted on a handle. Tom’s involvement in their design not only improved on the original fixed-disk arrangement but also made each award statue unique:

“They allowed me to just go crazy on the design. I wanted to come up with a better holder for the plate. The phenakistoscope originally had a viewer that you looked through that would break up the image to allow it to look animated [as the wheel was spinning] so I wanted to accent that and I wanted to  give the idea that once you had this thing in motion it could function.

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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.

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