The grammar of mosaic

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Pictured above: Vino Versato

Venezuela-born mosaicist Anabella Wewer has recently embraced the life of a nomad, working from wherever she is in the world, drawing inspiration from different cultures and geographies. Rhona Duffy talks to Anabella about her travels and how she finds the right balance between her work as a graphic designer, travelling and mosaic. 

By Rhona Duffy

At the time of writing (January 2023), Anabella Wewer has just returned to the US following months of travelling. Because Anabella and her husband’s jobs can be done from anywhere, they sold their Pennsylvania home last March, bought a trailer and decided to travel the US for a year until they figure out where they’d like to settle. 

“We lived far from the ocean for 20 years, so we wanted to find a place to settle that was closer to the water. I also thought it would be a great opportunity to teach mosaic more often as we travelled across the US,” Anabella says. 

But things didn’t go quite according to plan. Their trailer was stolen early in their journey, so they decided to put into play some other plans to travel to Europe that had been put on hold because of Covid-19. Their travels have taken them from Spain to France, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. Anabella spent time exploring mosaics, meeting mosaicists, teaching in-person courses along the way, and completed an art residency in Listowel, Ireland. 

In September, she travelled to Italy earlier than planned to work on a mosaic for Dino Maccini in his Piacenza-based studio. She then lead a small group through workshops and guided visits to the Ravenna Mosaico exhibition before travelling onwards to Patagonia for a mosaic symposium Giulio Menossi. 

2 Degrees (made at the recent Patagonia symposium)

“It’s been a crazy but wonderful year!” Anabella continues. “My parents have been great, allowing us to park our trailer at their Florida home. My mom made some space in her studio for me to work while I was there, which was great.”

Balancing mosaic teaching, course preparation and recording, along with a full time career in graphic design and the need to make mosaic work has long been a dilemma for Anabella. “I have to constantly juggle these competing demands on my time,” she continues. “But, actually, this gives me creative freedom in my mosaic work. Because my job is largely to design user interfaces for web-based and mobile applications, there is significant time while my partners get on with the build, that I can spend working on mosaic. Since I don’t have to rely on mosaics to fund my living, I have complete freedom to be creative. I can work in larger pieces and take my time to do the detailed work I love. If I take my time getting it just so, that’s fine. When I do sell a piece, it’s wonderful, of course.”

Recently, Anabella’s also had to figure out how to keep a regular mosaic practice going while being a nomad. “There are challenges to working on the road, but there are ways to get around them. One way is to stop every so often and stay in one place for a few weeks to create some significant work. I am also considering returning to my first love of working in micro mosaics when I’m on the move because they are more portable. One idea I am working on is to make a series of small conventional mosaics using materials native to wherever I stop.”

Anabella started out in computer science and spent time as an editor of her schools’ newspapers. Her interests are varied, and she says she could have chosen to be an archaeologist, a stone mason, a journalist, a cartographer, a geologist, or any number of things. “Instead, these things inform my mosaic work,” she says. “My reading habits are eclectic and language fascinates me. I follow lines and paths, love finding beauty in unexpected places, and all of that translates into my mosaics.”

MMXX. Photo by Ken Ek.

Her preferred materials are stones, concrete, rusted metal and other old or discarded materials, which she enjoys combining with marble, glass and precious materials in seamless lines. She enjoys collecting treasures on her travels. “My pockets are always dirty. Even though we have slate in the US, I couldn’t resist picking up slates from the Isle of Easdale in Scotland and other stones along the way. My husband was amused that we were travelling with 20 kilos of rocks. I admit it – I have a rock problem!”

For Anabella, mosaic is all about building lines that tell a story. Spacing, proportions, materials and colour graduation are crucial considerations for her. She believes they’re so important that she teaches courses focused on the characteristics of each line, using classical andamento rules and applying them to contemporary mosaic. “Even a single line of mosaic can tell a story,” she adds.

Anabella discovered mosaics as fine art during a trip to the Vatican in 2004, after which she sought out and studied the art form from many masters – from micro-mosaic in filato and stone, to the best of contemporary techniques. “When I first started looking into micro-mosaics, someone told me that I had to understand mosaic and andamentobefore I could attempt to create micro mosaic.” 

“I’m attracted to the most challenging parts of making mosaics. I am truly a process mosaicist.”

Micro mosaic is mainly figurative but Anabella’s passions have gravitated towards the abstract. “When I was in Ravenna, I was surround by such beautiful figurative mosaics. But looking at the beautiful faces just didn’t do it for me. Instead, I was transfixed by the transparency of the dresses that the women were wearing, the ethereal quality of angels’ wings, etc. I’m attracted to the most challenging parts of making mosaics. I am truly a process mosaicist. Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to micro mosaic – every master mosaicist will tell you it’s the hardest technique to master; a discipline in and of itself.” 

(What if…) UnBleached. Photo by Ken Ek

Anabella’s now on a quest to create mosaic work that’s accepted in galleries and museums, not just in mosaic-specific shows. “I’m working out ways to make that happen,” she says. “Without wanting to sound elitist, my goal is to help elevate mosaic in general to fine art status. One looming question is how mosaicists educate curators and gallery owners as to what is a good versus a not-so-great mosaic, so that it is neither a selection based on the popularity of the artist nor a misunderstanding of mosaic as craft.  

“Because they see a lot of hobby-level work, or what is appropriately considered craft (mosaic that is based on the design of another artist), there’s a danger curators dismiss the whole art form as craft instead of as a medium that can – and should be – understood and displayed along with painting, photography and sculpture. I’m not alone in this quest; I regularly talk to other mosaicists about their own endeavours in this area. 

“My sense is that in the English-speaking world, there’s a view that anything that’s made out of pieces is a mosaic. I disagree; it’s an incomplete definition, a dictionary definition. A lot of those works are absolutely art, maybe even fine art, but many are collage or assemblage, not mosaic. I find that in Italy, for example, a visual work tends to be considered as art first, and whether or not it is a mosaic is secondary. It is not a club, being a mosaicist; mosaic is a medium, but some people really get offended at the suggestion that their work is not always mosaic, and it is collage, instead. When compared to the accepted definitions of fine art, the definition of mosaic is not clear. It’s controversial, but if mosaicists can’t consistently define it for ourselves then how can we hope to define it for curators and museums?”

So why has this happened and what more can we do? Anabella believes that some of the historical elements of mosaic art have been lost and that’s part of the reason there’s confusion about what it is. “We need to honor the tradition, and push boundaries, but I don’t think we need to redefine mosaic – instead we need to redefine what we can do with it. Sadly there aren’t many academic degrees in mosaic art anymore. I’m not suggesting that you need a degree to create wonderful mosaics – many of the great masters didn’t have one either. But we do have to immerse ourselves in other ways, really study and understand, learn to see, and practice, in a self-directed manner, to understand what mosaic is rather than redefining it to fit our current sensibility. It’s not the same to change styles, as painting has gone through periods like impressionism and cubism, than to change the definition of what we are making.

East meets West located at The Ruins Project in Pennsylvania, USA. Photo by Bri Santoro

“There aren’t as many opportunities to study as an apprentice as there used to be. That’s why I’ve tried as much as I can to study with those whom I consider masters for a month or two at a time, to try to come as close to that model as I can. In that space, there is room for a kind of understanding that has little to do with the technique or thing you’re making. It goes beyond that.”

This is an approach Anabella recommends as opposed to going from workshop to workshop without spending time in between to practice what you’ve learned. “There’s a lot of frustration in our community that mosaic isn’t accepted as fine art, but there’s a reason for that. A lot of people are hobbyists – they haven’t studied enough or they don’t practice enough. These are things we all have to do in order to hone our technical skills and develop our voice. We also need to look beyond mosaic to other art forms for inspiration and understanding. Things can start to look the same when mosaicists are all studying at the same workshops.”

Now back on US soil, Anabella and her husband plan to resume their travels across the States in a new trailer. Undeterred by not having permanent studio, Anabella plans to rent studio space and accept offers from friends to share space along the way, to snatch precious time to create larger pieces. 

Technical Tips

Andamento as language

Clear andamento gives our work definition and order. The shape of the tesserae, their proportions, the spacing and interstices we use, give the work its grammar, texture and feel; they set the tone. 

But the deeper I delve into my practice, “the language of mosaic” has gone beyond what the grouping of all the lines that form the composition are saying, and has become, in some works, about what each line individually is saying. 

Since my focus is on abstract art, the quality of my lines, much like the intensity of a painter’s brushstroke, or a writer’s well-crafted sentences, help to tell the story or convey the meaning.

This mosaic is a one-line composition, yet depending on its orientation, it can indicate an opening, freedom, or a sinking feeling. 

Trailing tesserae can function as ellipses on a sentence — an insinuation, or an unfinished thought.

In my piece MMXX, the entire composition is made up of trailing and truncated or otherwise interrupted lines, with the exception of one line. This particular detail represents a moment in time when everything seemed to change, in the narrative of that particular mosaic:

MMXX (curved line detai)l. Photo by Ken Ek.

About Anabella Wewer
Anabella Wewer is a graphic designer, passionate metalsmith and an internationally-exhibited, award-winning mosaic artist. A native of Caracas, Venezuela, and fluent in four languages, Anabella has studied mosaic all over the world with contemporary mosaic masters.

Anabella Wewer. Photo by Eric Schmoyer.

Instagram: @anabellawewer