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Applied Arts: Ceramic Mosaics Workshop February 22, 2010

Posted by claralieu in Applied Arts, ceramics.
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This past weekend we hosted our second Applied Arts Workshop this semester, the Ceramic Mosaics with Rhode Island artist Kate Oggel.  Kate is a ceramicist who has developed her own unique technique and approach to mosaics using handmade square ceramic “tesserae”.  Her process begins by rolling out huge slabs of ceramic clay, and then scoring one side to create the tiny tesserae tiles.  Each scored slab is fired and then glazed with a different color to produce a wide range of colored tesserae.  After the scored and glazed ceramic slabs are fired, Kate hits the slabs with tile nippers (they look like a lot like pliers) and the tesserae break into little pieces.  As the pieces get smaller, tile nippers are used to cut the smallest pieces. What is most remarkable and unique about Kate’s technique is that every single tesserae is it’s own one-of-a-kind creation. Kate also emphasized the fact that the colors you can achieve in ceramic glazes have a kind of depth which is unachievable in another medium.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
Kate Oggel speaks about the history of mosaics and tile design to provide a context for the workshop.

Workshop participants were encouraged to keep their designs simple, since any curved forms in a mosaic design requires one to nip each individual tile into a specific shape to fit amongst the others. This process is definitely doable but makes the process significantly more time consuming. Kate also stressed the need to maintain a sense of contrast through the patterns, colors, and shapes in the mosaic designs to make the mosaics more visually appealing. To get started, participants sketched out a pencil drawing on a 10″ x 10″ sheet of paper on their board.  When the design was ready, a sheet of clear contact paper, sticky side up is placed on top of the pencil drawing and board.  The clear contact paper allows you to place the tesserae on top of your design, without worrying about the tiles getting knocked over.  At the same time, the contact paper isn’t too sticky, so it’s easy to move the tesserae around.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
Workshop participants search through bins of ceramic tesserae, to select tiles for their mosaic design.

There was definitely a “treasure hunt” aspect to the process of selecting and finding specific colors in the tesserae which was fun and exciting. I found myself searching for tesserae which had textures and patterns, and this one specific turquoise blue which was particularly vibrant. There were even tesserae which were more dimensional than others; some tesserae were more bumpy or textured and had a more sculptural quality.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
Laying out the tesserae on the contact paper, sticky side up on top of the pencil drawing.

I was lucky enough to participate in the workshop myself, and created a mosaic design of an orange octopus.  As a professional artist and professor of studio art, it was a rare opportunity for me to get to do something creative with my hands without the pressure of a deadline or burden of professional concerns. Laying out the tesserae on my design was wonderfully relaxing and mesmerizing at the same time.  It’s the kind of creative process where you’re so focused, immersed, and entranced that you forget to eat or go to the bathroom.  The process is very much like creating a spontaneous puzzle:  as you lay out each tesserae you have to figure out how to get them to all fit together.  I spent quite a bit of time with the tile nippers to cut the tesserae to specific shapes what would fit. Other considerations were how far apart to keep the tiles, since eventually grout is placed in the mosaic to hold the tesserae in place.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
My ceramic mosaic design in progress, you can see the tile nippers on the right, which are used to cut the square tesserae into different shapes.

Once the mosaic design is finished being layed out, the grouting process begins.  Kate offered us a choice of white or grey grout, bearing in mind that grey grout tends to work better with darker colors, while the white grout allows lighter colors to appear more seamless. Kate had an absolutely brilliant technique that she had worked out to transfer the tesserae in such a way that the design would remain intact through the whole process.  Her technique is tough to explain verbally because it has so many steps, but the overall goal is get the mosaic design on the sticky contact paper transferred (while still intact) onto a a sheet of Bondera Tile Mat Set, which is an extremely sticky tile adhesive which comes in sheets. Generally speaking, the technique involves transferring, flipping, and peeling the contact paper with the the mosaic design multiple times, until your mosaic design is sitting safely intact, face up on the Bondera Tile Mat Set. The technique was wonderfully thought through and is nearly foolproof.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop9 Ceramic Mosaic Workshop Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
Ceramic Mosaic Workshop Ceramic Mosaic Workshop Ceramic Mosaic Workshop
Kate Oggel demonstrates the transfer and grouting process.

Ceramic Mosaic Workshop Ceramic Mosaic Workshop

Once the mosaic design is set in the Bondera Tile Mat Set, tile grout is scooped and placed on top of the mosaic and pressed and pushed into the areas around the tesserae with a putty knife.  Looking around the classroom, many of us looked like we could have been frosting a cake. The tile grout is scraped as clean as possible with a putty knife.  The excess tile grout is then removed with a wet sponge, creating a clean surface. The edges of the mosaics have to be properly sculpted as well to create a clean, neat edge for the mosaic. Even after the sponging, there is still a little bit of excess grout residue. Kate instructed us to allow the grout to set for 2-4 hours and then to buff the mosaic clean with a clean rag.  Another tip was that if the residue was being stubborn, regular white vinegar worked into the rag would remove the residue. I will also note how unique this is that we were able to walk away with finished mosaics in just four hours; Kate explained that the traditional materials and approach to mosaics requires several days because of the curing process that is required for some of the traditional adhesives.

Finished Ceramic Mosaic Finished Ceramic Mosaic Finished Ceramic Mosaic Finished Ceramic Mosaic Finished Ceramic Mosaic

Above is a selection of the finished mosaic designs from the workshop. I’m amazed that we accomplished this in just four hours! See all of the photographs of the workshop on our Flickr account or on our Facebook page .

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