Day 1 of Visionary Mosaic Murals: get started, cut mirror, break tile, make blobs, get acquainted

For the first session of our Visionary Mosaic Mural class, Isaiah and Julia Zagar met us in the large classroom space of The Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA) in Oakland on March 4, 2009. They were supported by Amber Hill, Isaiah’s assistant, and Laurel True, owner/co-founder of IMA, mosaic artist, and proprietor of True Mosaics Studio. Laurel began the class by calling roll and introducing us to Isaiah, who is her mentor.

Isaiah turned out to be a compact man in a red watch cap, denim pants, a brightly decorated shirt covered with line drawings, a ruddy complexion, and a grin surrounded by neatly trimmed whiskers.

[ Rufus talked to him while visiting the work site last Saturday and found out that Isaiah will be 70 years old this month. His hair is white. Isaiah has to be one of the most photographed men in mosaic history, and I didn’t make any images of him during the class (except one, a cartoon of the proposal for the rest of the mosaic, called the Tilesetter Constellation, which I later gave to Chuck DiGuida). Rufus took one or two pictures, though. More on that later.

I’m glad Isaiah doesn’t color his hair, just his mosaics. Even the Dalai Lama has decided to go natural these days. Why shouldn’t the 4-armed Tilesetter Genius of South Street have white hair? He earned every one of them. ]

Isaiah presided over introductions and instruction, with several helpful additions in content from Julia, Laurel, and Amber. He explained about his theory of the continuous line, of Blobs (“that’s the ‘technical term’…”), of cutting mirror, some things about safety. He also talked about a little of his history in making mosaics. Explaining that he would like to cover the world with mosaics, he said that he would be willing to settle for Philadelphia. He has a dry sense of humor, a ready-to-go attitude. He listened with interest to our self-introductions.

There were 12 of us in the class. Many of my closest seatmates were heavy-hitters in art: art-teachers, collaborators with Josef Norris (another Isaiah protegé in San Francisco), tile-business owners, mosaic makers; others said they had taken several classes at IMA and claimed they could not stop. I am a beginner who has occasionally been bold at gluing things with silicone. I made my first mosaic (an ashtray for my Mama) during a class taught when JFK was still alive and President; not much activity since then. Compared to these people, I am a rank beginner. I didn’t have time to think about that during the five days of class: I was too busy.

Laurel made an important comment during the morning: she was remembering when she first met Isaiah in Philadelphia, about how excited she was to start, about how much material she’d accumulated over time for a big project. She told him about it. His observation at the time was: “You don’t own your materials; your materials own you.”

This is a theme for me: it is sometimes difficult for me to let go of things. I see how stuff (material goods) continuously rules our lives. We have to pay to store it, move it around, and try to take care of it. We could give it away, but we often choose to hold on. I don’t want to die owning a lot of stuff. Like everyone else, though: once there is beauty in my life, I automatically grip it a little tighter. If Rule Number 4 = Let Go of Outcome, then the corollary is: There Will Always Be More Beauty. I have to re-learn this lesson constantly.

Mosaic material is everywhere. You don’t have to accumulate or hold on to it. It will be there when you are ready to collect it and make something. Julia talked about how people would leave old dishes and tile outside their door: they knew.

This isn’t a precious, fussy, color-matching technique. You can use almost any stone or stone-like material at hand for this technique: asphalt, river rock, broken brick, marble, bits of crockery, bathroom tile, plates, glass, marbles, geegaws, sea shells, beads, bottles. You name it, you can mosaic with it.

Josef Norris used some photos on tile in this piece; check it out at the IMA photo gallery

Josef Norris used some photos on tile in this piece; check it out at the IMA photo gallery

Julia made an important comment about giving away work. She said that many of the over 100 murals in the South Street area of Philadelphia (where they live) were donated by Isaiah. Her remark was that you must keep working, you need to do whatever it takes to keep putting the work out. The implication is that if you can’t figure out how to get paid for it, then you need to figure out how to give it away and still keep going.

[ The struggles of living while performing creative mitzvaim are never-ending. ]

Amber helped us with technique; she cut marble/stone with precision over many years and works very fast. She cut large swaths of mirror down into smaller strips for us to learn the mirror-cutting technique.

For a while, the studio was filled with ozone of silent concentration and the plinking of many tiny hammers (the ball-end of the wheeled glass cutters sound like xylophone mallets). Mirrors gave off little flashy lights. It was the least flashy day of all: we were under a skylight, not outside.

Isaiah showed us how to work on a tarp, to get rid of the fragments safely, to position the mirror safely, not to worry about imperfections, to cut small small pieces when needed. Julia helped cut mirror. The buckets filled up fast. Then we all went out to the garden to sort/break tile and to make the Blobs. Part of Isaiah’s design technique revolves around the Theory of Blobs. Sounds like science fiction? Okay, then!

Isaiah has created several mosaic murals in the Jingletown/IMA neighborhood: one is in the garden of the IMA classroom complex. There’s a quotation by Vanessa Bell (Virgina Woolf’s sister) as part of the mosaic on one wall. Its a pretty wild, pop-art experience, working near the garden wall. The color is intense but soft. Rivers of mirror everywhere at slightly different angles, each section reflecting light and color, with black lines flowing in between the rivers of mirror and tile. The old continuous line which would connect each of us eventually, and each of our days of class to the rest of the Universe — that was part of Isaiah’s design. Older than Ancient Mesopotamia, the Ancient Pictish Ones, or the Celts, the art of the continuous line flows on. It connects everything, everywhere.

Think of that  photograph of Pablo Picasso drawing (“line-writing”) with the sparkler:

Photo from

Photo from (see the faces on the plates? Faces were a theme, too.)

It has genius, the spontaneous continuous line.

Merman, continuous line, what a theme!

Merman, continuous line, what a theme!

The Isaiah Mural in the Yard/Garden of IMA

The Isaiah Mural in the Yard/Garden of IMA

We spread the tile out all over the yard of IMA. Everything has to be absolutely dry for this process, and though it rained for about 4 days steadily before the class, we finally had good weather for most of the first day. While it’s good to see the sky in late winter, we needed every drop of this rain after 2.75 years of drought.

Too much of everything is hardly enough. It started to cloud up and rain again after we’d carried about 15 buckets of tile/ceramic shards into the studio to keep dry overnight. So we broke for lunch. Amber and I stopped picking up dry tile and schlepped a few more buckets into the shop while they were still mostly dry. Almost everybody got food Karen ordered earlier from the geniuses at the Voila! Cafe next door.

[ Voila! is still owned by Gary Boland. I’ve know Gary since way back in the 80’s: I worked in downtown Berkeley during the blooming of the gourmet food revolution. Nothing compares to fresh orange juice. During certain parts of the year the Texas oranges are sweeter, but then other times, its the Florida oranges. Perhaps its been a long time since California oranges were king, but lately I’ve been really enjoying the Tom Wilson ones at Andronico’sPark N’ Spend” (as my family Doc calls it), where I shop gladly, since they have both women checkers and Union labor. Nothing wrong with that!]

I ate crackers and peanut butter most of the five days of class. I tried to drink hot tea to stay warm. Its hard for me to eat much when I am this excited. Never mind enjoying food or staying hydrated. Its all a challenge.

While the others ate, I dug into my bags and fished out a cracked teapot, some plates, some broken cups, and some marbles I had brought from home. I smashed them a little more with those fabulous 6 ounce tile-breaking hammers and put them on top of one of the “bling” buckets (bling is what Laurel called the fancy tile, even if broken) in the corner of the shop. Letting go is not a bad thing. My son traded me the marbles for some I had which he really liked. There were some good ones in there: cat’s eyes and aggies. Yummy art materials. Rich!

It stopped raining, so Isaiah took us out in the garden again after lunch and showed us how to mix cement (in Texas where Karen comes from, it’s see-ment, which we all love): Portland Type A. Isaiah likes the plain old white sandbox type of sand. We used what we had: bags of construction grade sand, no whiter than the average Alameda beach community. Red, yellow, black, and brown: stick around!

[ Wear a mask and goggles when you’re mixing this stuff, you don’t want to breathe it, and you don’t want any splashing in your eyes. After the water goes in, you can take your mask off, but keep your hands away from your face until you’ve washed it off. Fresh cement is a bit caustic. Don’t mess with it. ]

Isaiah added pigment from a can by pouring it into the tray after the powder was mixed to a pie crust type consistency with the sand and kind of smoothed out flat: like adding water to the pie crust dry mixture. Pure white sand would make the color more intense; more pigment is only going to do so much to color sand which already has color in it.

[ ICI seems to be the pigment brand, though you can’t use it any more, for some reason you can still buy it at the Borg (Home Depot). Isaiah made me wash my hands after I handled the can and got a lot of it on my skin. You don’t want it on you. I washed them in the water bucket we were going to use to add to the cement mix. He watched me, making sure I didn’t slack on the instruction to get that stuff off my skin. ]

We used a big plastic tray with two sloping sides (think of a 3-D trapezoid) for mixing, and a masonry hoe. A masonry hoe has a hole or two in the blade so the goop can get through. Its an “ooh-ee-oh!” rhythm of — pulling a bit of mixture down from the berm and pulling it toward you (hoeing to mix the material) — only there’s no Wicked Witch watching over you while you mix it up. Just line up on either side of the tray and take your turn hoeing the mix from the berm on the other side of the tray toward you until its all hoed over to your side and the Maestro says S’alright!

First you measure and mix the cement and sand: a 1:3 ratio. Then you add the pigment (not much!), and it starts to look like an ant farm disaster [the first big batch we made was a terracotta brown cement, looking a bit grainy]. Then you begin to add the water: be careful if you start out with wet sand, like we did. Not too much water, just enough to be able to pour the stuff. You want those suckers to cure overnight.

Keep mixing with the hoe until it is all uniform. It looked like a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon cooking disaster (‘Ack! puréed monkey heads, again!’) when it was ready to pour. We decanted it into a smaller bucket from the mixing trough first, then poured the blobs.

Blobs got poured onto plastic-sheeted plywood, looked like 1/4″ sections of it, exterior grade boards. These supports allow them to dry somewhat protected. Plastic sheets protect the work surface and enable you to pick cured blobs up without breaking.  Blobs are fragile even when they are cured. You use a “swimming pool” trowel with four rounded corners to flatten the newly poured blob.

Isaiah decorated the first several blobs as a demo and we gathered around watching. He told us we were making propellers. I tried to maintain a distance from my natural tendency toward disbelief; maybe a propeller is brown if you stare into it long enough, or if its rusty, or painted.

I couldn’t wait to get home and ask Rufus what he knew about the installation site. Bridgehead Studios is the name of it now. I don’t make calls when I’m in class except for emergencies, so I practiced the Principle of Delayed Gratification (which I’m a master at) for the time being.

[ The site we were going to do the mural at was an old propeller factory at one time (Pitchometer Propeller). It still has a working chain hoist and a big T-shaped opening in the front of the building. It is a large cinder-block storefront, 2 stories tall. Rufus has gone to the factory many times on Coast Guard business, but not while they still had a working cupola and foundry. Think _big_old_propellers_ and lots-o-bronze. An industrial site. They closed the whole factory about 10 years ago. He’s worked for the CG quite a bit longer than that.

If anyone can mess up a propeller in the line of duty, its the Renegade Navy. Rufus is a naval architect; lately he’s been working on their 378s. Just being on the bridge of one of those things makes you feel like you’ve entered a science fiction movie, something like a cross between Captain Nemo, Star Wars, and Big, depending on the age and mission of the vessel. Maximum respect for the work that Coast Guard enlisted/civilians do; it’s hard work with little glory, 24/7.]

Isaiah used a bucket of bullnose tile and mirror and then marbles and then started to just whip pieces of tile (Amber seemed to be feeding him tile just about as fast as he could use it) out of the bucket without really examining them, laying them onto the surface of the blobs. He created a kind of “outline”  structure for the blob using the big pieces, and then filled in using the little pieces. He showed us how to use a screw and a washer to make a place or two to attach the blob to the mosaic wall.  He stepped back. He made a few comments on what he was doing: making a mandala.  Then he said: “Now, go for it!”

So in we jumped, with he and Rob pouring more blobs (Rob Tobin was the only male student, and I’m afraid he got asked to do more of the heavier work b/c of his gender, but he never complained) out on the table, and then it was: Avast with the Waiting, Go Forth and Make Ye Some Blobs, Me Hearties!

The Tobin 'Cousins' Tile Sticking Team, up on the scaffold.

The Tobin 'Cousins' Tile Sticking Team, up on the scaffold. See the blobs on the right, down by Rob's knees? Propellers? Mermaid belly-buttons? Wait and see...

We only took breaks to make more cement and get tiny bits of brightly colored bling tile and marbles for certain places in the Blob-world. Several people were working on two or three blobs together; some of us just flitted from blob to blob, putting a piece in here or there. Sometimes a bit of bright colored tile showing in a dark, plain background seems like a comment, a joke, a whimsical thought.

Then we made green blobs, sort of a forest green. They were faces. Isaiah carried out some special tile he’d brought in the belly of the plane from Philadelphia. Face components: eyes, noses, mouths. He talked about being myopic, about being a baby and only seeing parts of faces as people moved in close to say “Hi!” He doesn’t seem to wear glasses much. He’s got a 3rd eye too, or so it seems. The faces turned out pretty Cubist; more shades of Picasso.

These were white tiles he had gathered and intentionally painted with glaze and re-fired, making components for the faces in this project.  An eye on one, a nose on another, a pair of lips, an ear. Marbles went into the faces, so did the mirror, bits of our teapot (the spout and the handle), and other tile shards. Isaiah used some fancy curly bling tile for the hair. He used a tile he had painted with a silhouette of himself, almost a pictograph of how to lay tile combined with the dance step of tile-laying (he has 4 arms in the silhouette, with dotty lines showing the motion) for a nose on one of the faces.

[ A green face, a dance step for a nose. Get behind me, disbelief! ]

Then he asked us to step in and finish everything. The blobs filled up. We were out of room. We had a total of 16 blobs. Some of them were rather large. We left them in the ramada out in the garden to cure undisturbed overnight.

With only a half hour of class left in the day, we broke and cleaned up. Isaiah, Julia, and Laurel went over to the work site so that he could paint some design lines on the wall. We went home. Before I left I took a few photos of the outside of IMA. Even though it is unfinished, it sure is beautiful. I guess all our beauty is a work-in-progress, hey?

We were told to report to the school the next day, to help load “Bubba” (one of the students had a big truck she was loaning us the next day) with tile and materials to haul to the site. The time was a little unclear. The class started a 10 a.m.  I decided a little early couldn’t hurt, and moved out to get some rest.

I hurt all over and my brain felt fuzzy. I guess that’s from all the concentrating and being tense around strangers. Pretty exciting to meet one of your heroes, but always a big fear for me that somehow I’ll kludge the whole thing up. I wish Isaiah knew what a gift he was giving us all; perhaps he does, really.

Day 1, IMA Mural on Chapman Street

Day 1, IMA Mural on Chapman Street

Unfinished IMA Mural, but still the Casbah!

Unfinished IMA Mural, but still the Casbah!


3 responses to “Day 1 of Visionary Mosaic Murals: get started, cut mirror, break tile, make blobs, get acquainted

  1. Hi, I was looking at your blog. Me and a couple of people at school are making a mural at school. I am very interested in making it a mosaic mural. I don’t know in which direction to go. I was wondering if you could just give me some guiding words of advice.

    • Hi Amy,

      The Institute of Mosaic Art has lots of resources; they ran our class with Isaiah.
      Isaiah also teaches classes (in Philadelphia and around the world).
      In San Francisco, Josef Norris teaches kids how to mosaic.
      The resources are huge, just take a look around.

  2. It is good to know. Nice and informative article. Thank you.

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