Pictured above: Gary Drostle (second from left) with staff from the Holt School, in Berkshire, at the unveiling of a memorial mosaic for James Furlong, an inspirational teacher who was tragically killed in a terrorist attack in 2020
Making a career out of large-scale mosaics requires dedication, collaboration and patience – quite apart from skill and creativity. Gary Drostle has become one of those go-to people whose name is synonymous with giant-sized, monumental mosaics that catch attention and have widespread appeal, writes Angela Youngman.
By Angela Youngman
It is a position that took Gary years to develop. Public projects have always played a major role in his artistic development, beginning with participation in teams creating murals for Haringey Hospitals and Alexandra Palace. Setting up a business called Wallscapes, he worked initially with Belfast artist Ruth Priestly and then Rob Turner. When he and Rob decided to go their separate ways in 2000, Gary set up Drostle Public Arts Ltd. Since then his work has appeared throughout the UK and elsewhere, particularly in America.
“The majority of the work I get comes from publically advertised commissions and requests for quotations (RFQs) – these are usually the best projects,” explains Gary. “About 30% of works are the result of direct invitations.”
He says that applying for publicly advertised commissions is his preferred way of winning contracts. “Most modern RFQs or requests for proposals (RFPs) have good, clear rules of application and transparent processes of arriving at the award,” he continues. “They also tend to be works in the public realm, which is where my focus and love lies; it’s the reason I got into mosaics and public art. The process involved hasn’t changed much, but there has been a big drop in publically advertised commissions in the UK and local authority funding has dried up. Corporate funding (which does not have the same transparency) has taken over.”
Searching online platforms for public commissions can lead to work internationally as well as nationally, Gary says. Following your interests and looking at international residencies and festivals can open up work opportunities. Gary advises, “the best thing is to just follow your passion and see where it leads”.
This policy led to one of his favourite projects – his River of Life mosaic for the University of Iowa. It enabled him to pull together different themes and interests, setting it clearly in its region by reflecting local geography. “It reflected the building’s ethos of wellbeing in the form of the river meandering through life, with its golden wellbeing section and those points where life is not in balance; it reflected the local communities with textile patterns from the First Nations, the Amish and local basket weaving traditions; and it spoke of truth in life through the idea of the river of life and the journey we all go through. It also worked as a floor mosaic within the building and in particular with the light well entrance hall,” adds Gary.
Obtaining commissions requires a lot of research and time. Most public projects have a basic idea in mind, which drive the resultant image proposals. Outlining the differences between dealing with corporate and local authority funded projects, Gary says, “These two types of projects have very different agendas and this affects their role as commissioner. As an artist who usually engages in public consultation, workshops and research, I have always seen the public as my ally in developing a design. Local authorities are also geared towards the local population, so they too value their input and happiness with the end result. I know I am generalising here but, because most corporate clients have very different objectives, they often lean towards wanting to project a certain image rather than reflect truth or history. And, of course, truth is what the artist should seek.”
Gary has had commission briefs that are pages long and, he continues, “even one that had a list of banned words. Most of the time, I have a good range of creative freedom and I actually like having a brief to work from; I particularly like researching a local area and discovering a story that can be revealed through the work.”
Typical projects have included a design for a new housing development in southeast London. His research revealed that, during the medieval period, it was the site of a battle between the Cornish and the English. Using this theme, it became possible to anchor the development within the rich history of the area. Other examples include a mosaic floor portrait of Thamesmead created for the Peabody Trust and his recent Enduring Tangerine Tree for Brixton. “I felt that project got under the skin of the local community and their enduring spirit,” he says.
Gary believes strongly in the value of public art. “Public art has a crucial role in representing and reflecting the local community, telling our stories and history,” he continues. “These stories make an area truly local and, in today’s environment where corporate branding threatens to make every public space an identical clone, we need to assert our identities and reclaim our public spaces.”
Often these projects involve collaborating with others, which can be very beneficial as he indicates. “Architectural mosaics often require many hands to complete in a reasonable time. I have found that the community of mosaic artists is amazing. I think the medium itself means that those involved appreciate the need for collaboration. Every mosaic maker I have worked with has been open and sharing. Many have taught me a lot about making mosaics and I continue to learn from other mosaic artists. It is always rewarding working with other artists, especially those from other disciplines. I have particularly enjoyed working with poets, who have always pushed the work in a new direction.”
His work has resulted in many awards, but he doesn’t believe this is the best way to gain work saying, “I guess some prospective clients can feel reassured by them, but I certainly wouldn’t go looking for them. I also think there is a whole ‘business’ of award-giving now that has sprung up that seeks to profit from holding award functions through buy-in from entrants. These sort of awards are not worth the paper they are written on.”
Gary believes that mosaics offer scope for artistic development. “I feel that there is still so much more we can do with mosaic in the built environment. A lot of the current trends are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a growing realisation that the approach of franchising and corporate identity has turned much of our public spaces into anonymous homogeny – losing our sense of place and local identity. Mosaics can play a great role in bringing back identity to our public spaces. It also brings the quality of handcraft and the immediate connection that sort of craft has with people. On the other hand, some of the modern building practices and the speed of modern construction make mosaic making more difficult.”
Asked what advice he’d give to artists considering participating in large-scale works, Gary concludes, “If you can help out on a project with someone more experienced, that is always going to be good. Taking my specialist courses in architectural mosaics at the Chicago Mosaic School is a great way to leapfrog and gain a whole raft of valuable tips and skills for making larger works. If you’re doing it on your own, take small steps, and try to get projects that gradually get larger in size. There are some important differences when you start to scale up and, in particular, there are serious implications as soon as you start to carry out works in the public realm.”
The most important course of tesserae in an architectural mosaic
“Unlike gallery mosaic (although I still think it’s good for those too), a mosaic on a wall or floor should always finish with a course of whole tesserae (no cut pieces). This means that every edge that meets the outside world should be a line of uncut tesserae. The exterior edge needs that extra strength as it meets the border. This also applies to internal edges along movement joints or column bases and so on.” Gary Drostle