Matt Hanson interviews Chilean artist Isidora Paz López about her journey to mosaic art and asks her about her large-scale mosaic interventions in Chile and Germany.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY MATT A HANSON
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As an art student at the University of Chile in Santiago, Isidora Paz López sought courses in the craft of mosaics. But she could not find any. The closest subject was ceramics. So she pursued that and acquired a unique skill that she has since integrated into her many and diverse works as a mosaic artist, specializing in public murals that express a distinctly environmental naturalism.
Now living in the German city of Pirmasens, reflecting on her early years in her native Chile and the many changes in her life, Paz López remembered how she began producing experimental and multidisciplinary art without a clear focus. As a graduate in ceramics, she made sculptures and explored other forms for over fifteen years. But she felt that something was missing.
Without a formal specialization in mosaics at the university, Paz López bemoaned the fact that there were no professional mosaic artists in Chile. She wanted to change that. “My knowledge about mosaics was very basic,” Paz López said over the phone from Germany. “I didn’t have experience in mosaic when I started my first project.” Paz López began working in mosaics by converting an area of 150-square meters in a stadium in Santiago. She had told the officials that she was not a mosaic artist, but a ceramicist. It was apparent that they simply could not find an expert in mosaics with an art degree. So, following in the footsteps of several botched attempts, she took up the challenge.
With a team of five people, none of whom had any experience in mosaics, she bought books on mosaics and embarked on a series of experiments. They only used hammers, no nippers, applying basic techniques. Luck was on their side, and the project was well-received. All of the work was made in-situ.
“We were working like warriors,” Paz López said. “This was in a very popular neighborhood, like the Bronx. Every day people congratulated us, brought us snacks. It was so precious to have direct feedback from the people. I felt an inner call, that this is what I had to do. More important than the money was to do something transcendental, something that normal people can enjoy.”
Paz López spoke fondly of the former mayor of the town of Puente Alto, who supported her to begin her journey as a mosaic artist. She called him visionary. At the end of his third and final term, he called Paz López to his office to imagine a project that would immortalize his legacy. They opened the window and looked at the raised metro line. It was not exactly beautifying the city, not yet.
He gave her one year to cover the entire four-kilometer metro line with mosaic artworks. She told him it was impossible, that he was crazy. Although she had success with the stadium, she felt afraid to take on the metro project. “In Chile, things work differently than in Europe or anywhere that I know. We make the impossible possible.”
Eighty-three pillars and four stations later, Paz López and her teams covered four thousand meters square in mosaic. Although the metro was owned by a Spanish company, the mayor pushed the project through so they were free to do what they wished without submitting prior designs. Every week, she worked with more people, until she was leading around 80 fellow artists.
Without a break, through winter and summer, it took about two years to finish the project, overlapping into the succeeding mayor’s term. “The people wanted us to complete the whole metro line,” Paz López said. “We were inspired by a beautiful concept, to show all of the flora and fauna of the region, to bring back the nature to this concrete surface that invaded the city.”
Summoning her fine arts education, and singular talent for magical realist aesthetics, Paz López made sure that every one of the pillars displayed color harmonies. Her wholistic creativity required a calculated approach. While basking in positive attention from the townspeople, the last thing she expected was international fame.
“We were humble, without experience. I couldn’t imagine how much people would appreciate our work,” Paz López said. She once met a traveler from Brazil who came all the way to Puente Alto just to see her work, and others came too. That’s when her career shot forward. Mosaic artists from around the world wanted to collaborate.
Paz López invited sixty mosaic artists to Santiago, and a hundred arrived to work with her. While the mayor supported their endeavors with modest stipends, most paid out of pocket to be there. They decorated the facade of the town hall with two-hundred meters square of mosaics. Another street artwork was an homage to the Mapuche community in Puente Alto (pictured below).
Although the Indigenous People of the Mapuche culture are originally from the southern tip of South America, they have urbanized and migrated to other parts of the continent and the world like everyone else. And after falling in love with a German man, Paz López became an immigrant in Pirmasens, which she compares to Detroit for the economic fallout of its archaic shoe industry.
She has since initiated the “Vogeltreppe” project (pictured below), which means “bird stairs” in German, and considers its chief motifs to be emblems of a better world in which people identify as birds, borderless and ascending along the steps of her multicolored stairways to naturalist beauty. Although she misses the more engaged public communities of Chile, she is active in Germany. Paz López now lives in an old, architecturally intricate house by a busy autobahn in Pirmasens that she intends to convert into an artist residency and mosaic house inspired by Carrie Reichardt of London.
“I am returning to ceramic. I want to combine ceramic and mosaic, 3D mosaics. This is my personal work. Still, I hope to have the chance to work on big projects.”