Pictured above: Macaulay ramp wall
For California mosaicist Wilma Wyss, the desire to make art that enriches public spaces is what excites her most about mosaics. Here, Lynn Jones talks to Wilma about how she expresses her artistic vision through large-scale outdoor mosaics.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY LYNN JONES
Listen to Lynn narrate her article:
San Francisco’s Tenderloin district is a crowded low-income neighborhood of old buildings, immigrant families, homeless people and concrete. In 2019, the city planned to improve two small playgrounds in the Tenderloin and Wilma won the competitions to make mosaics for them. The projects – a floor mosaic of a coastal tide pool, a bench showing local pollinator species and a ramp wall displaying butterflies from around the world – represent rare spots of color and beauty amid the urban landscape.
A collaborative design process
Art for public spaces usually begins with a request for proposal (RFP), which explains the project parameters and application documents needed. In the San Francisco Bay area, RFPs often attract many skilled applicants, so the competition is great and the ability to create a persuasive application matters. Wilma’s previous experience as a graphic designer gives her those needed skills. Once Wilma’s proposals were selected, she had meetings with funding groups, city employees, landscape architects, and neighbors. “My background as a graphic designer taught me that soliciting input from the various stakeholders is key to the design process; you want the design to work for the site and you want it to work for the community. I really like collaborating because ultimately it will result in the strongest piece for the people who are going to see it,” explains Wilma.
Each of the three mosaics reflects Wilma’s commitment to making her designs meaningful to local residents. “After I learned that the Tenderloin has people who have immigrated from so many countries, I thought migrating butterflies would be an appropriate theme,” she continues. “I researched and included butterflies from those regions, so people could recognize them from their homelands.” She says she also modified her design in other ways. “Community members spoke about the beauty of the architecture in the Tenderloin, so I added rosettes inspired by the ornate Victorian buildings nearby,” she adds.
Wilma makes her mosaics using high-fired tiles for durability and weather resistance, usually finding seconds, samples and overstock from local manufacturers. A steadfast environmentalist, Wilma searches local recycling centers for tile as well. Her methods have evolved to minimize waste of materials at all stages of her work.
For the tidepool at Sgt. John Macaulay Park, she had to use flooring porcelain. “It’s a very hard material to work with. I was using material of various thicknesses and the floor had to be perfectly flat. Sometimes I had to build up the thickness of thinner pieces with thinset,” says Wilma. “Public art must be safe to touch, especially at playground sites. The edges of each tessera had to be dulled by hand with diamond polishing pads.”
Wilma made a full-size paper drawing of each design in her studio, created the mosaic on top of the paper pattern, and put tile tape over it as she went. She then marked and cut the mosaic into sections the approximate size of pizza boxes for transport to the site. For large exterior mosaics, installation is always stressful and the work is physically demanding. Wilma explains: “Thinset has a limited working time. We had to re-assemble the sections of the mosaic perfectly and keep everything from slipping.” For these reasons, Wilma has a team of assistants, both paid and volunteer, to help install her mosaics.
For the 30-foot long, built-in bench at the Turk-Hyde minipark, Wilma was involved in the design of the seat wall from the beginning. She advised on construction details to facilitate the mosaic installation, enabling her to install the mosaic flush with the concrete, leaving no vulnerable edges.
Wilma’s fascination with mosaics began with a childhood trip to ancient sites in Lebanon, Syria and Greece. Her own earliest mosaics were exterior sculptural works and she has done a number of sculptural mosaic commissions. She also creates fine art mosaics, which are exhibited in galleries and open studio events. As a gardener, hiker, and beekeeper, Wilma has spent decades closely observing the natural world. She finds mosaics a way to share her love of nature with other people, enjoying the idea of creating art for all to see, which will remain long into the future.
About Lynn Jones
Lynn Jones is a mosaic artist with a background in textiles. Her work can be found in public parks and private collections in her home town of Berkeley, California.