2015 Essay | Not Your Grandmother’s Mosaic: Modern Mosaic Art in the United States

2015 Essay | Not Your Grandmother’s Mosaic: Modern Mosaic Art in the United States

Not Your Grandmother’s Mosaic: Modern Mosaic Art in the United States 

By Gwyn Kaitis

  Lynne Chinn
Arabesque, 2013
Smalti, 24k gold, marble, porcelain, vitreous glass, shells
12 x 29 x 24

In the 1960’s, at the age of 9, I had great fun attaching tiny tiles to a metal ashtray form in summer camp.  I brought it home to my mother who used it for many years. What fun it was to mosaic, how odd today that a 9 year old creating an ashtray was considered to be an acceptable activity.  Most of the time the ashtray sat upon the mosaic kidney table that my grandmother had made in the 1950’s, they truly complimented each other.  I also created mosaics from pre-fabricated mosaic art kits that were popular at the time, a cat and an owl have survived to this day along with the ashtray and a tile trivet I made at school.  These mosaics were displayed prominently in the living room along with the kidney table and ashtray.  

All of this is to say that prior to the 1950’s there was very little work being done in mosaic in America with the exception of a few WPA mosaic murals in the 1930’s. Around this time, mosaic art achieved a certain level of popularity in Europe.  Well-known artists including Klimt, Picasso, Hundertwasser, Miro, and Chagall all created works in mosaic. The Vatican continued to recreate paintings in mosaic and micro mosaic while Venice and Rome produced mosaics including jewelry and portable mosaics that were marketed to American tourists visiting after World War II.  Many large scale wall mosaics were created as well.

As with other mediums, mosaic has experienced cycles of popularity.  It is a creative medium where art and craft are inseparable.  It takes considerable time and talent to create a mosaic.  Many mosaic artists describe the deliberative process that is mosaic, as meditative and joyful.  It is an example of what University of Chicago researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.  The process of creation is of vast importance to the mosaic artist and not just a means to an end.  The making of a mosaic appeals to a basic human desire to put things together to make a unified whole, like with puzzles, building blocks and Legos.  

Betsy Youngquist
, 2015
mosaic sculpture
19 x 19 x 19


The self-expression that is mosaic starts with the first piece and continues to require active decision making to the final piece.  There are thousands of decisions that are made during the creation of a mosaic.  Where one piece is laid, all future pieces will be affected providing the artist with a multitude of possible paths to follow, the fragmented surfaces serves the artist as their language of self-expression.  

Mosaic art in the United States has come a long way since the kidney tables and ashtrays of my youth.  In the United States, mosaic is coming into its own once again.  In 1998, a small group of artists formed the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA).  The original founders, scattered across the country, were pursuing the art form in seclusion long before the proliferation of information about mosaic art that can now be found on the Web.   Now 2,000 members strong, SAMA is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and promoting excellence in mosaic arts.  Like grassroots movements of social change, mosaic art has spread through organizing and mobilization of people who are devoted to the art form. Mosaics’ defining feature are that bits of material are attached to a substrate but other than that fundamental basis, the expectation of what is mosaic has been shattered time and time again by the work being created by artists across the country.  

These artists have been creating amazing work that is covering the United States from airports to hospitals to schools.  Mosaic art is a versatile art form that can now be seen in outdoor and indoor murals, subways, fine art wall hangings, and functional art and sculpture.  Substrates have been developed to make mosaics portable and lightweight.  Core materials used are generally of glass, ceramic and stone in virtually thousands of colors and shadings.  Small pieces of this material are strategically placed to make up a greater whole.  Techniques used in making mosaics have changed little over hundreds of years.  The most common tools used for cutting material even today are the hardie and the mosaic hammer, which together function as a fulcrum and cutting edge.  Tesserae is the term used for the material which are cut generally into squares or rectangles to then be put together in various ways to create a new whole.

Alternately craft and art, mosaic is both a noun and a verb and cannot be captured in one overarching definition.  Artists are using mosaic in a way that stays true to its fractured nature, not merely to emulate painting which would disregard the original purpose of the material.  While respecting tradition, today’s modern artists are creating truly innovative works and heading in new directions with this ancient art form.  Traditional techniques combined with new materials allow for broader interpretations of the medium than has been seen before in history.  Mosaic has expressive and tactile qualities that lead the viewer to experience the work not only visually but also kinesthetically. Mosaics beg to be touched.

Since the advent of the current mosaic art explosion, schools, classes and instructors devoted to teaching this ancient art have spread across the country.  Classes are now accessible in most major cities and many rural areas.  Numerous techniques that could once be learned only from books and through trial and error are taught and passed on to new artists. This emphasis on passing along skills is resulting in artists pushing the boundaries, inventing innovative works by building on the knowledge of our forefathers and mothers.

Today’s artists using the mosaic medium have a host of exhibitions within which to exhibit their art.  The most prominent of these exhibitions is the annual Mosaic Arts International (MAI) which is sponsored by SAMA.  MAI is held in a different location of the country each year including at such venues as Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, and the Museum of Man in San Diego, California.

MAI Exhibiting artists such as Jim Bachor, Irina Charny, Lynne Chinn, and Jo Braun demonstrate the breadth of the mosaic art form:  Jim Bachor makes clear the connection between ancient and modern mosaic.  He uses traditional materials and elements albeit with a thoroughly modern touch.   Meanwhile, Irina Charny takes a modern whimsical approach to her art while Jo Braun, uses cast-off construction materials and utilizes the substrate, the mosaic equivalent of the canvas to incorporate negative space.  Artist Lynne Chinn’s vessels mimic extravagant sea creatures and seed pods.

The works of the artists’ shown here vary considerably, but all have one thing in common, they work in the traditional medium that is mosaic.  SAMA champions mosaic art in all of its forms, bringing recognition to artists who may otherwise be overlooked in a world that recognizes “mixed media” but has been hesitant to embrace mosaic as an accepted artistic medium for the purposes of most art exhibitions.  SAMA offers a forum for the exploration of this ancient new craft providing mosaic artists a vehicle for their self-expression within the mosaic medium.

Visit www.americanmosaics.org for more information about mosaic art in the United States, the annual Mosaic Arts International, and an online gallery of members’ work.



Jo Braun 

Earthstation, 2014

Salvaged porcelain, ceramic, mortar, etching, and 

pigment on hand formed cement panel

39 x 27 x 2

Gwyn Kaitis is an artist, lecturer and instructor of mosaic art.  She currently serves as curator of the traveling exhibition “Think of Me” a project by children exposed to community and family violence.  She is a past Vice President of the Society of American Mosaic Artists and is a contributing writer for Glass Art Magazine.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO special exhibit Shattering Expectations: The Art of Mosaics in the 21st Century Presented by Society of American Mosaic Artists, Ligonier, PA; curated by Gwyn Kaitis, Former Vice President, Society of American Mosaic Artists, and Kim Wozniak, President of WitsEnd Mosaic and Smalti.com.

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