Above: A section of Svetlana Kondakova Muir’s Burnham’s seawall mosaic
After reaching the shortlist of applicants to enhance Burham-on-Sea’s seawall, Edinburgh-based Russian artist Svetlana Kondakova Muir won the final stage of a public vote – and, along with it, the commission. Rhona Duffy asks Svetlana about this project and talks to her about her other mosaic work too.
By Rhona Duffy
After six months’ work, painter, sculptor and mosaic artist Svetlana Kondakova Muir has completed and installed her wildlife-themed mosaics on the seawall of the South Esplanade in Burham-on-Sea in the South West of England.
Svetlana developed her winning design concept with the help of local wildlife experts from the Somerset Wildlife Trust. It consists of three panels featuring creatures who live above and below the waterline along this stretch of mudflat coastline – this includes birds, fish, molluscs and crustacea.
“It’s been such an interesting project to work on,” says Svetlana, who completed the installation in November 2022. “I’ve enjoyed learning about the lesser-known forms of life through my own research and by speaking to marine biologists. I wanted to showcase these different life forms in the mosaic.
“I also wanted to highlight the interdependence between all the different species and just how fragile this ecosystem can be – and therefore how precious it is to us,” she adds. “I hope people will think about how important it is to preserve these habitats and how essential they are to human survival.”
The Seafront Public Art Project was a partnership between Burnham and Highbridge Town Council and regional arts group Seed, with funds provided by the Hinkley Point C Community Impact Mitigation Fund, Sedgemoor District Council, Arts Council England and the National Lottery. It was initiated to enhance the seawall with attractive design features rather than it being purely functional. Three artists were shortlisted by the council and residents were invited to vote for their preferred proposal.
Svetlana primarily used glass mosaic tiles to create the three panels. “I chose dark brown, green and blue recycled glass tiles for the background of the lower section of the panels to represent the mudflat environment,” she continues. “They have golden streaks through them, which reminds me of the light hitting the sand.”
Originally from St Petersburg in Russia, Svetlana moved to Edinburgh with her family in 1999 and graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2011. During her degree, she had the opportunity to study at the Athens School of Fine Arts in Greece, via the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange programme, where she learned traditional techniques of mosaic.
It was only after studying in Greece that Svetlana realised she’d been surrounded by so many mosaics in her childhood. “I hadn’t paid that much attention to them when I was growing up. The metro stations in St Petersburg all contain incredible mosaics as do the cathedrals. My artistic identity has deep Russian roots and these mosaics are a huge source of inspiration for me now in my work. I’m horrified by what’s going on in Ukraine right now – it seems wrong in one way to say I’m proud to be Russian, but I am. We can never go back from this moment now – it will forever be a blood-stained country, which I feel very sad about.”
Svetlana’s degree focused mainly on painting but, in Greece, she got to pick an elective subject. “I chose mosaic and it was incredible in every way,” she says. “We were introduced to materials like smalti and marble, and we learned the reverse method, even creating our own glue. When I came back to Edinburgh, I realised I didn’t have the setup or materials to immediately focus on mosaic – it was a few years and a bit of research before I would come back to it.”
In the meantime, Svetlana completed several public art projects in Scotland. Throughout this time, at the back of her mind was the potential of combining mosaics with public art.
She got the opportunity to realise this ambition by winning the commission to create a large mural on the floodwall of the Scottish town of Selkirk in 2017. The project, which was completed in 2019, was part of the Selkirk Flood Protection Scheme and commissioned by the Scottish Borders Council.
“It was a funny coincidence because my husband had spent his childhood years in Selkirk. So it was a place I’d heard a lot about, even though it’s just a small place in the Scottish Borders that many people have never even heard of,” Svetlana explains. “When I saw the opportunity, I immediately thought that mosaics would be perfect. It was a lengthy and multi-stage entry process, which culminated in a public vote, but I was desperate to get it and I gave it my everything. I got to know many local people, who were friendly and helpful to me throughout the process, including helping me formulate the design and create some of the mosaics.”
Her 200-metre mural depicts many faces connected to the local area. It includes a kelpie* creature (pictured below), which metaphorically represented the River Ettrick and its flood threat, being tamed by Scoutmaster Graham Coulson (the face of the tamer was decided through a public vote).
The largest part of the mosaic depicts ‘common riding’, which is an equestrian tradition mainly in the Scottish Borders of Scotland. Horseriders ride out of the town and along its borders to commemorate the practice from the 13th and 15th centuries where there were frequent raids on the Anglo-Scottish border known as the Border Reivers.
“It’s a huge thing in Selkirk – I was interested to learn about how local people, from young to old, take part in it. So I asked them to share their photos with me – some even shared historic black-and-white photos from years ago – all of which helped me create the design.”
The mural also contains 94 leaping salmon mosaics, representing native wildlife, which were made entirely by locals of all ages – including primary school children and elderly people from a local care home – in a series of workshops.
“The fact that the artwork has been inspired by, and created together with, the people of Selkirk is wonderful.I hope their active participation will leave a lasting legacy. It’s a project that I’m very proud of.”
Svetlana’s explorations have taken her outside the traditional norms of mosaic too. “I don’t think it has to necessarily be glass or stone that you create a mosaic with,” she says. “I’ve created mosaics from litter, which were tremendous fun.”
One is a 4×2-metre mural made with the help of the local community, made entirely out of coastal litter. Commissioned by Viridor for their Visitor and Education Centre at the Energy Recovery Facility in Dunbar, it aims to inspire people to view waste as a valuable resource as well as informing them about how our environment is affected by it.
For this project, Svetlana worked with local school pupils, who picked up litter around their school, sorted and washed it, and then made local coastal animals out of it. She completed the artwork at her studio by creating a background of the various habitats which the animals inhabit.
“The focus is on the East Lothian coast and the background shows the beautiful Barns Ness Lighthouse,” Svetlana explains. “It also aims to highlight the scale of the problem by putting all the rubbish in its full variety on display.”
* A kelpie or water kelpie, is a shape-shifting spirit inhabiting lochs in Scottish folklore. It is usually described as a black horse-like creature, able to adopt human form. (Source: Wikipedia)
Svetlana’s tips for winning a public art commission
- Keep trying and learn from any declines. Even if you’re not successful in an application, always ask for feedback (even though you might not always get it) and learn from it. They’ll likely tell you what the artist who won did better than you, so you can try to incorporate that in your next application.
- Be prepared for the admin involved. There can be several forms and a lengthy application process to go through before you win a public commission. I was lucky because I’d set up an arts organisation and I looked after everything from budgets to exhibition applications. This helped when it came to form-filling and admin. If you need to, try to get help from someone good at writing for this part of the process.
- Get help from other professionals if you need it. For the installation of the Selkirk project, I got a professional tile installer to help me with that part – he had to subcontract a renderer to help smooth the surface of the wall before we installed the mosaics too. I learned a lot from that, which meant I was confident about installing the Burnham-on-Sea project myself.