Interview with mosaic artist, Caitlin Hepworth

Updated: Feb 5, 2020

We asked Caitlin what inspires her, and where her favourite mosaic sites are around the world

Have you travelled to some amazing places to see the mosaics? Tell us about that.

Working and teaching in mosaic has enabled me to travel to and participate in conferences, symposiums and tours around the world. As you would expect, Italy is a major centre for experiencing mosaics and for me, the two most exciting and inspiring places are Ravenna and Aquileia.

In fact, these two cities are the inspiration behind the two courses that I am running at Arts Muster this April.

Ravenna and Aquileia are both Unesco World Heritage sites and both famous for their mosaics. Ravenna is well known for its Byzantine mosaics in Smalti. Aquileia is known for its earlier Roman mosaics in marble.

Smalti mosaic came to prominence in the Byzantine era when it was used to adorn the ceilings and walls of churches and other buildings. One of the most special Byzantine examples is the mosaics inside the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. From the outside, this small unassuming brick building is bland and the exterior unadorned. There are a few thin, vertical windows made from sheets of alabaster that allow only a small amount of light to enter the building.

Once inside, it is quite dark, but as your eyes adjust, a wonderful, sparkling, glimmering, interior lined with mosaic appears. The perfectly measured amount of light that the windows allow dances and bounces off the surface of the smalti and is enhanced by the abundant use of Oro, which is mosaic gold, made by fusing a sheet of gold leaf between two pieces of glass. Another technique to maximize reflectivity is the deliberate placement of the tesserae (pieces) into the mortar on varying angles. Every single tessera then catches and reflects the light in a different direction. As you move through the space, the reflectivity is in constant motion and the mosaics appear to dance, the effect is truly stunning.

Another particularly exciting place to visit in Italy is a large established school dedicated to mosaic; the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli, situated in the North East of Italy in the Friuli region. It is essentially a Mosaic College, where young artisans can learn the styles of Roman, Byzantine and contemporary mosaic art over a three or four year period. I was lucky enough to undertake a short course at the school. My first visit there overwhelmed me so much that I became very emotional. The enormity of the school, the quality of the work and the resources available for this unique art form were simply mind blowing and I am so impressed that the region and local government supports such strong investment in the development and maintenance of young artisans.

Tell me about the materials involved, where do they come from and what are they made of?

There are many materials that can be used as mosaic tesserae (pieces). Some of these include smalti, vitreous glass, Oro (mosaic gold), porcelain, slate, marble, travertine and other stone, and ceramic tile. However, there are many more non-traditional materials that can be integrated for texture or different effects and varying reflectivity. These may include china, kiln formed glass, hand made ceramic inclusions, repurposed or salvaged materials, found objects, plastics, metals and more. In contemporary mosaic practice, artists are selecting from a broad range of materials based on their provenance, symbolism, how they transform or respond when cut, and how the materials used support the concept being communicated.

I predominantly use smalti, which is a thicker form of glass that is made especially for mosaic. The smalti is made in a glass furnace and poured out to form a pizza like slab of glass. Once cooled, it can be cut down and purchased in several sizes, which are then cut with a Hammer and Hardie or wheeled nippers to achieve the desired shape and size for use in the mosaic. When using Italian smalti, the cut face or inside of the glass is placed facing up or out in the mosaic. This cut face, or riven edge, reflects the light in unique ways because it is not flat. I work with Mexican Smalti from the Perdomo factory as well as Italian smalti from Dona Murano. We have many suppliers in Australia. I also like to use stone, salvaged materials, hand formed ceramic inclusions, rocks and minerals.

What attracted you to mosaics?

I came to mosaics after completing my degree in Sculpture and Drawing.

I too started with a decorative approach, working on two dimensional substrates and using vitreous glass and porcelain tiles to create patterns and imagery. I was attracted to the meditative nature of the mosaic making process, the piece by piece process of building a composition.

There were many parallels with Visual Arts where all the elements and principles of design still applied. One of the key differences between mosaic and other mediums is the way that a mosaic artist cuts or breaks their material. There is something personal about the way each artist breaks their tesserae. They imprint on their material with each cut, revealing its core. This is how a mosaic artist’s language comes to be. They find a way to express, gesture and communicate through the breaking and placement of every tessera.

I particularly enjoy the varied reflectivity of mosaic materials, the way that mosaics constantly change under different light, at different times of day and from different viewpoints. Each material cuts and reflects differently, sometimes the cut complies, and sometimes it does not. This is enhanced by an element of surprise involved when the inside of a piece of glass or stone is revealed.

My turning point with mosaics came when I realised I could bring together my previous sculptural training with my knowledge of mosaic. For me, a three dimensional surface makes mosaic practice infinitely more exciting, complex and engaging. I now enjoy working with sculptural mosaic, teaching mosaic and visual arts and completing commissions for private and commercial clients.

What can your students expect in your mosaic workshops at Arts Muster in April?

The workshops provide a great taste of the possibilities and language of mosaic. Students will all learn the basics of cutting as well as some basics of andamento (mosaic flow) while creating a small mosaic, which puts the skills learnt into practice. There will be several prepared designs for each course, inspired by the historical sites I have visited that have been modified to be achievable and to include different techniques which are beneficial to understand. Throughout each course I will talk at length about mosaics and its many and varied possibilities as well as provide demonstrations, guidance and answer questions.

The Stars of Ravenna workshop will focus on smalti, a brightly coloured, textured glass. The Tesserae di Aquileia will focus on the use of marble and other stones which are muted in colour and create a subtle ancient effect. These contrasting materials and approaches create very different but equally effective results.

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