Pictured above: Mussel Shell (detail) (2022)
Amanda Tattam interviews Dr Helen Bodycomb, asking her about what moved her to follow the mosaic calling, her PhD in mosaics, her latest book, and more.
By Amanda Tattam
You began your artistic life doing a degree in visual arts majoring in drawing and painting. What moved you to start working in the medium of mosaic?
I’ve been making all my life, in some way always thinking and making in mosaic. I started as a classical musician and later began painting in my early twenties, while a snowed-in farm labourer in Cornwall. After some clumsy painting and visiting the Pompidou Centre in Paris, I returned to Australia to go to art school. I studied for four years majoring in painting, and did another two years of post-grad study.
I’ve always been interested in art made for a more democratic space than the austerity of a gallery – “the white cube”. I began working in mosaic by accident, part of a community project in Melbourne. I had made a couple of hundred metres – mostly using the indirect method – before I ever made anything small.
My contemporary visual arts studies emphasised archival fabrication and being mindful of the intended lifespan of the artwork. So when I started working in a medium I was not familiar with (mosaic), I knew I had to find people who could teach me.
I was fortunate to work alongside a few trade tilers who were at the top of their game and I gradually developed some reasonable technical skills. After the occasional technical blunder (they are inevitable), I realised it’s a good idea to bring in a conservator at the beginning of a large project, to specify the technical approach. This process has helped me immensely, particularly to understand more about mosaic chemistry.
How did your time at Spilimbergo School in 2001 influence your work?
I had just finished a large project in Sydney in the late 1990s when I was invited to Italy as a guest of Bisazza in Spilimbergo.
I was fortunate to get some arts funding to help with costs and, after a small spanner in the works (I became pregnant), we left for Italy with a four-month-old spanner (my daughter Freda). I was a guest of the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli in Spilimbergo, and I worked under the guidance of Giulio Candussio, then its Artistic Director. I didn’t do a course; I made my own work.
I had no experience with a hammer and hardie or with smalti. I started by doing a big painting and then making it in marble and glass, and Giulio came to the studio each day to critique my work.
Giulio has always been a renegade and leader in contemporary mosaic practice in Italy, particularly in large-scale works. It was an amazing opportunity to be mentored by him.
He didn’t teach me classical principles. I asked him but he said I was an artist and it would constrain me. So I had to investigate classical forms myself. Although this teaching method frustrated me at the time, I respect the avoidance of prescriptive teaching, which should be about facilitation and opening doors, not closing them. Giulio was encouraging me to be observant and independent, something we should all try to be.
Did this experience in Italy influence your own teaching practice?
Absolutely. I think a formulaic approach to education can be dangerous. It assumes that the teacher has a set of unequivocal truths to be passed down, but these can extinguish creative juices and initiative in the student.
We all have opinions. Some are more “learn-ed” than others, shaped by wider and deeper experience. Risk is important to learning and essential to making good work.
Why are the ancient traditional and classical mosaics still special today?
They are a bedrock and becoming familiar with them is like tasting fine red wine. The first sip doesn’t do much for you. But drink deeply and yes, you get drunk, but over time you develop your own palate. You deepen your understanding and enter a place of deep listening. You build your knowledge as a maker.
Some of the mosaics in the Naples Archaeological Museum are my oldest family. Seeing them again is deeply moving. I feel a special kinship with them, they are my revered teachers. I am always misty when I’m walking out the door, not knowing if I will ever see them again.
I see each as a text, like a book or poem. Some were deliberately allegorical works made for a non-literate but culturally sophisticated audience and some were to provoke discussion and reflection. They are about sharing ideas, and reflection.
Why did you start to run mosaic tours?
Some of my students had said if I ever did a mosaic study tour in Italy, they would love to come. Then I met Ingrid Gaiotto, an Italian-born restauranteur who had been running cultural tours in Italy and she has been central to making them possible.
Each tour has changed my life. They are a 14-day festival of experiences and ideas. The sharing of these unique places, enjoyed through the refined lens of mosaic, are very special experiences. We drink from wine, glass and stone. Tears are shed, stories are shared.
It gives me great joy to facilitate and share these experiences so meaningfully.
What is your PhD about?
My practice-led research PhD, was titled Mosaic, Classical Principles and the Act of Making in Contemporary Works.
This summary might be the touchstone for many mosaic peers, but few mosaic makers have engaged in academic research and written about it.
One of the ideas I explored in my PhD is what I call “Thinking in Mosaic”, which is a philosophical approach to reviewing what we make, why we make and what we make our mosaics with.
Your book Mosaicism is being published about now and it’s unlike many other mosaic books. What prompted you to create this kind of work?
I have something I wanted to say. I’ve used a combination of creative writing and simplified extracts of my thesis to help illustrate “thinking in mosaic”. I’ve built a mosaic journey, meandering threads of things to take readers somewhere they maybe haven’t been before. I want people who don’t know much about mosaic to get excited about it. I would like people who already make mosaics to think differently about their own practice and potentially grow the range of medium, timeframe and method. If we stay locked inside the familiar, we don’t learn much more.
I’m intrigued by the question: how will the mosaics we make today be perceived 50, 100 or even 2,500 years from now?
We are storytellers. What do we want to say to people of the future – near or distant?
We should be thinking more about the power that sits within the mosaic once it is a finished object. It’s in our hands.
Technical tips from Helen
I’m sharing some hot tips for the indirect method because it’s such a useful yet under-used technique. By using the indirect method, mosaics can be easily edited before being committed to a permanent substrate using professional-grade thinset/adhesive. It achieves a completely flat finish even when using tesserae of slightly variable depth. What a dream combo!
- Use the right paper and glue: Use brown kraft paper (100-150 gsm, depending on tessera weight and individual sheet sizes) and just modest amounts of either flour paste, wallpaper paste, or clear “educational paste”. Do tests and aim to achieve a balance between adhesion strength and the ability to release the mosaic for the setting stage. Don’t flood the paper with glue or it will buckle and stretch.
- Remember that everything is back to front: Laying indirectly is a bit like driving in the rear vision mirror, so cut for the face-down side, not what you see as you lay. Remain observant of the colours and shape of each tessera’s cut face, keeping your end goal front of mind. Check any numerals or text are correct by using a mirror.
- Setting: Do any final edits and then use a notched trowel to apply the glue to the substrate (to control the glue depth). If you want, you can also back grout the mosaic before laying it into the glue – a nifty technique often used by commercial tilers, who will sometimes use the same product to glue and grout for a clean, uniform finish.
- Last hot tip: Let the thinset/adhesive cure and, the next day or so, use boiling water and a poultice (old towel or similar) to aid the release of the kraft paper. Rinse the mosaic well to get rid of all the paste, give it a gentle scrub with a soft scourer, then grout if you didn’t back grout.
Remember, mosaics are not hard to get right, but they’re easy to get wrong.
Dr Helen Bodycomb is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artist specialising in mosaic. She has practised full-time, working predominantly in stone and glass, for more than 30 years. Her innovative work extends from neo Greco-Roman mosaic to creating intricate, precision inlays into multi-tonne basalt boulders for public art commissions. She also applies mosaic methodologies to more experimental artworks exploring ephemera and biodegradability. Helen is the author of Mosaicism – Thinking in Mosaic.