Mosaic Wall

3 ft. x 11 ft., variable, 178 tiles.

I have created a lot of art in my lifetime. Much of it has been ephemeral - performances and installations that live on solely through the documentation of their brief existence. Like many aging artists, I recently felt an urgency to make a project that would outlive me. But what would it be?

I am a person who is “full of try.” I’ve spent considerable energy putting things back together after one kind of devastating blow or another. I repair things. I start over. I make broken things whole again, one piece at a time. Mosaic seemed like a perfect metaphor for this outlook, so I decided to create one on the wall in my driveway.

Only one thing stood in my way. I’d never created a mosaic before. The medium seemed tedious, messy and labor-intensive. I even pronounced it incorrectly, referring to the process as “mose egg.” Still, the idea of creating wholeness and beauty from broken pieces spoke to my heart and to my life.

Personal treasures, waiting for a new life...

Few people consider themselves “hoarders,” instead preferring the term “collector.” Whichever it may be, I am a person who keeps all kinds of small treasures tucked away throughout the house. Most have a story attached to them. Some were gifts. There are pairs of my Grandmother Adelle’s earrings, game pieces once handled by us children on rainy afternoons, and pieces of her chipped china that I could not bear to throw away. Each object holds meaning for me, but it is safe to say that other people might regard it all as curious junk.

I envisioned a wall of many small tiles, each holding cherished objects, installed in a grid, much like a patchwork quilt. I am grateful that no one told me that this project would take a year to complete.

Preliminary sketch for my mosaic wall.

Unlike the more ambitious art of my younger days, I now lack the stamina and/or bandwidth for giant projects. Since my brain injury, I’ve chosen ideas that could be worked on in pieces, each contributing to a larger, later whole. This also gives me an opportunity to get a handle on the medium and to build confidence in my handling of materials. The approach is perfect for artists who do not have big blocks of time to work on their art. The project waxes quietly until there are enough components to put together. VOILA!

As my tenderly crafted squares began to accumulate, I realized I would need assistance to install them. Enter my sweet husband and fellow art maker, John Kieltyka. Thank you, John. Without your help and encouragement along the way, I could have never completed this daunting project. I feel so pleased and proud. When I leave this world, I’ll leave behind one very cool driveway wall.

My initial inspiration was provided by two important interactions. My friend and neighbor, Marie, gave me a book called “Broken For You” by a Seattle author, Stephanie Kallos. Another neighbor, Merrill, gifted me with pottery shards from his recent archeological dig in Jerusalem. These two influences provided both the “hook” and the “spark” I needed to delve into mosaic. I visited pea patches and studied designs. I checked out many books on historical mosaics. I studied exciting mosaics on Pinterest until my eyes felt crossed. I consulted my friends, Paul and Gretchen Keller, about materials that would hold up in Seattle weather. Then, I began the happy process of accumulating old dishes, which, when broken, would suit the project.

Seattle’s winter of 2016-2017 was long, dark and rainy. I began by sketching my loose visualization of how the wall might appear when the sun returned. Then I hunkered down in the garage, complete with fingerless mittens and open windows. There were bins of broken china all around me. Outdoors, with a top grade respirator and an angle grinder, we cut neat 6’ X 6” squares of Hardibacker, the type of concrete board used in shower stalls. This is very dusty and toxic work, best done outdoors, where it is more easily cleaned up.

Spring came and the production moved outside, where I could work into the warmer evenings. My neighbors soon grew accustomed to the sound of breaking glass and the tinkling “chip, chip, chip” of the china nippers, accompanied by my favorite Motown hits.

Each tile was a composition unto itself. Some were sentimental in nature, others were not. I designed the mosaic pieces without glue, and photographed them with my phone for reference. Then, wearing a mask, lightweight surgical gloves and turning on a fan, I got to work. Using a caulking gun, I applied a generous squiggle of LOCTITE PL 3X Premium construction adhesive, spreading it to the edges of the tile as if it were thick mayo on a piece of bread. Consulting my phone as I proceeded, I very carefully (sometimes using tweezers) placed the design elements into the glue. As each tile was done, I put it in a safe, well-ventilated place (away from cats) to cure for at least 48 hours.

Grout is the material that fills the spaces between tiles or design elements. It comes in many colors. I chose one called “Light Smoke” and used a very good brand. I made sure to buy a “sanded” grout, which is perfect for grouting items with irregular spaces between them. I had about 15 minutes to work before the grout was completely hardened, so I worked in small batches.

I placed a plastic tablecloth on the outdoor surface where I grouted the tiles. With my mask and a retired, hand-held, electric mixer, I followed directions and mixed small batches of grout (6 cups). The aim is to achieve a consistency much like very thick muffin batter. Wearing heavy duty gloves, I dipped the edges of a tile in the batter, then applied a glop to the face. The grout was worked deep into the cracks around objects. I wiped the away excess and set the tile aside.

With grout applied this way to five or six tiles, I used a series of brushes (coarse to light) to remove excess from the surface. I was careful not to press too hard; I didn’t want to risk removing too much grout. By the end, I was using a very soft brush and the design became clearly visible. After a day, I used grout cleaner and buffed each tile with a soft rag. This really brought out the shine of the surfaces, and prepared them for sealing.

The concrete wall needed a lot of elbow grease to prepare. As I dry-scrubbed it with a stiff wire brush, dirt and dried moss fell to the ground. Left unremoved, these things would have prevented a good bond between the mortar and the old concrete wall.

With John as my volunteer tile-setter, we worked as a team. First we used a chalk line to establish a level line for the first course of tiles. Then we sorted the finished tiles and pre-selected where each would be placed. We set up a tent to keep the wall from getting soaked in rain storms, and shelter us from the heat on sunny days. Each weekend, we were able to install about 30 tiles. The process took all summer.

The sacrificial hand-held electric mixer came in handy for mixing small batches of mortar - enough to “butter” and install about 6 or seven tiles. John applied a liberal amount of thick mortar to the place where a tile would secured. He then used a notched trowel on that surface. This process was repeated on the tile itself, which was then pressed into place. The excess mortar squeezed out around the edges and was wiped away. Suction kept the tiles attached to the wall. Small pieces of wood were used for spacers between the tiles, and boards and bricks were used to keep light pressure on the vertical tiles until the mortar dried, after which it could be removed and reused.

At summer’s end, all of the tiles were placed. I made something terrific!

-Monika Lidman