In Italy, three Ravenna-based artists revive the tradition of collective working

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Pictured above: Movimento n166

Three artists – Âniko Ferreira da Silva, Giuseppe Donnaloia and Pavlos Mavromatidis – formed a collective in 2006 and have worked together under the name CaCO3 ever since. Rebecca Ann Hughes talks to them about their business collaboration and art ethos. 

Written and narrated by Rebecca Ann Hughes 

Listen to Rebecca Ann Hughes narrate her feature

In a vast, light-filled workshop in Ravenna, the three artists work together to produce monumental artworks in mosaic. The mosaics they produce are startlingly contemporary, but the group explains that their collaborative method is surprisingly traditional.  

A synchronised collective 

The mosaics of the CaCO3 collective, which was named after the chemical symbol for calcium carbonate, are the products of more than 15 years of continual experimentation around a particular theme. Nearly two decades ago, the three artists met while studying at the School for Mosaic Restoration in Ravenna. Soon after, they began a working journey together born out of a desire to explore specific aspects of mosaic production that put materiality at the centre of their art. “We had a common idea and concept that we developed together,” explains Donnaloia, “and that we are continuing to explore today.” 

Movimento n170 n171

The three artists are fully in sync, almost obsessively experimenting around a central idea that has characterised their whole oeuvre since the foundation of the collective. “The most important ideation and creative period was right at the beginning when we collectively arrived at the concept behind our artworks,” says Donnaloia. “Now it’s about delving ever deeper into the same idea.” 

Mosaics in movement 

The group’s pieces both follow and negate mosaic tradition simultaneously. They use the basic technique of micromosaics but reject the figurative and instead turn the spotlight on the mosaic material itself. They hone in on the positioning of the tesserae and experiment continuously with gluing them to the surface at different angles. In their extensive and long-running Movimento series, these angled tiles create mesmerising flowing patterns and a mosaic surface that seems constantly in movement. In some, such as Movimento n.7, the changes in direction are gentle and smooth. In others, like Movimento n.18, the movement is sudden and abrupt.  

Such a focus on materiality draws the viewer nearer to the artwork, encouraging a closer examination of the individual tesserae. Close up, the viewer can note how the rectangular tiles stick out of the artwork at different angles. Some jut out at seemingly random orientations almost like organically formed crystals. Others seem to follow a serpentine path like algae swaying underwater. Due to the varied angles, the tessera surfaces catch the light in different ways creating a hypnotising chiaroscuro effect. The inclination of the tiles also creates infinite chromatic variety. By making the tesserae the protagonists, the group’s mosaics become abstract, organic and biomorphic.  

Cattedrale n70

Another line of mosaics adopts a concept deriving from the artists’ experiences studying restoration. In their Soffio series, the surface of their mosaic works is treated so as to appear aged. “We wanted to give the impression of how these artworks would look in hundreds of years’ time,” says Donnaloia, “and we used our knowledge of restoration to create an authentic look.”  

In an ironic action, the group uses various tools normally employed for restoration to wear away the surface of the mosaics, in a kind of acceleration of the effects of time. It creates a disorientating contrast between the unmistakably contemporary design and the deteriorated appearance of the work.   

Group working 

With their artworks stemming from a central, established idea, the focus of the group is now on developing this theme through production. Mavromatidis explains that the three artists work together on most of the larger pieces, so the individual hand of each artist is indistinguishable. They don’t have separate roles or responsibilities but work on all stages of the production together.  

Movimento n163 n164 n165

In fact, this can mean they may spend hours discussing and debating the most minute aspects of the work. “Sometimes we’ll talk for hours about the exact shape or orientation of a tessera,” says Mavromatidis. In some pieces, the distribution of the tesserae, although appearing random or spontaneous, it is carefully calculated. In these often geometrical works, such as the elegant Movimento n.13, the group employs a preparatory design to plan the arrangement of the tesserae. This way, they can achieve the precise chiaroscuro effects they desire. 

Pieces expressing a more biomorphic style are less controlled, however. The group chooses a rough design, but the pattern emerges during the placement of the tesserae. In pieces such as Movimento n.65, the inclination of each tile is based on the previously placed tile, thus forming a kind of chain reaction. The final piece is the result of unplanned action by all members of the group meaning the appearance of works like these is not completely predictable.  

There are still some CaCO3 pieces that might be produced individually. “Small works are often just done by one of us,” says Donnaloia, “as well as pieces where it is very important not to show the cut-off between each day’s work.” Donnaloia points out one of the Movimento series where the tonal changes are so precise that only one artist works on the piece in order to remember exactly where to begin each working day.  

An advantageous start 

In terms of working in an artist collective, Mavromatidis explains that one of the greatest advantages came right at the beginning when the collective was in its formative stages. With the desire to produce large-scale mosaic works, the group found initial costs to be extremely high. “At the beginning, you have a lot of outgoings in terms of materials,” Mavromatidis says, “and it’s rare to have money coming in by selling a piece immediately.”  

As such, the three artists developed a system whereby one or two of them would undertake secondary work such as mosaic restoration or creating small, easy-to-sell pieces in order to bring in an income. At the same time, the other would continue working on the artworks for CaCO3. This way, the group was able to begin producing a body of work despite a lack of immediate sales.  

Movimento n166 n 167

Mavromatidis says working in a group also means having the advantage of differing areas of expertise. “One person might be particularly adept at a certain technique or skills and help you out if you are less expert,” he says, “while another might be good at the business side of tracking expenditures and booking keeping.” As he explains, working in a group is about bringing out these different talents to the collective’s advantage.  

A shared business 

Although the group’s artworks are signed collectively as CaCO3, the three artists are currently individually self-employed. They divide the cost of renting the workshop equally between them. When it comes to producing artworks, they take it in turns to finance the purchasing of materials, then split the sum between them. Similarly, the three artists alternate to receive the payment for artworks and then divvy out the profit.  

However, the group is evaluating the advantages of forming an official society for legal and tax purposes. “It would definitely make the financial side easier, “says Mavromatidis, “especially with all the Italian bureaucracy.” 

A traditional working method 

Artist collectives may not be particularly common nowadays, but Mavromatidis explains that, in the world of mosaics, this working method has a long history. Being based in Ravenna, the collective works in a city internationally famous for such a history. “We actually work in a very traditional way,” he says, “just like the Byzantine workshops that produced Ravenna’s renowned mosaics.” Once, it would have been the norm to produce mosaics as a collective rather than as individuals. The monumental mosaic decorations in Ravenna’s UNESCO-designated buildings, including the Basilica di San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, were the fruits of group working.  

Soffio n15. Photo by Daniele Casadio

Ferreira da Silva also explains that, despite the modern appearance, at the heart of their artworks is another very ancient concept central to Ravenna’s historic mosaics. “Already in the Byzantine period, mosaicists would experiment with angling the tesserae to catch the light,” she says. “It’s a surprisingly traditional idea.” The CaCO3 collective started with this classic practice and has taken it to stunning, hypnotising extremes.  

Takeaways on collaborative working:  

  • Take advantage of being in a group at the beginning by earning a side income in order to finance start-up costs 
  • Discover and take advantage of each participant’s expertise 
  • Make sure rent, running costs, and material costs are shared equally 
  • Consider forming a society to share expenses and divide profits more easily  
  • Remember that collaborative working has produced magnificent mosaics for hundreds of years! 

Instagram: @ca.c.o.3