Pictured above: Prerana Phadnis with Rachel Sager
With passion, dedication and commitment, a voice can be given to history, people and special places; the Ruins Project is a testimony to this, writes Prerana Phadnis who created a map of India for Rachel Sager’s collaborative mosaic art installation in Pennsylvania.
By Prerana Phadnis
The Ruins Project is a long-term collaborative mosaic art installation amidst the ruins of a former coal mine in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, USA. It is the brainchild of Rachel Sager. Rachel is a highly accomplished mosaicist with a history of coal mining in her family. A native of Southwestern Pennsylvania, she works on the cutting edge of the contemporary mosaic fine art movement. Her imaginary map-like mosaics have been featured internationally and in cities throughout the U.S. where she has received multiple Best in Show Awards in juried exhibitions.
Created in an abandoned coal mine, the art installation features mosaics assembled from local rocks. The mosaics tell the story of the time when the coal industry thrived in the area. The walls and rooms of the Ruins Project tell the history of the mine and represent the rebirth of abandoned American coal country through artistic endeavour. More information can be found at www.sagermosaics.com
The site itself is one of great natural beauty with the now unpolluted Youghiogheny River nearby and sitting close to the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile multipurpose nature trail, the museum attracts artists, students, and travellers from all over the world. Rachel’s collaborative mindset Rachel believes that the project she has undertaken is stupendous and not something she wants to do on her own. She invites mosaic artists from all over the world to collaborate and create meaningful mosaic artworks, unique, thoughtful and sympathetic honouring the site.
Once we made contact, we discussed the brief, which was quite open. I discussed some early design concepts with her. Rachel shared with me some photos of the site and where my mosaic might be installed. There is a map area at the Ruins, a symbol of true collaboration of world artists. My work resonated with her, and she believed that my Indian heritage and British training as well as a common theme of ‘Unearthing optimism’ in my work and writing would enable me to create a piece of mosaic artwork, fit for the Ruins.
A chance to create an artistic map of India was a dream come true. It was an opportunity to create an artist’s interpretation of my birthplace, beloved India in this unique medium of glass, marble, stone, and special objects picked up in India such as bangles and beads and terracotta. I am passionate about my Indian heritage as well as my British home. India helped develop my personality and gave me so much. This is a small token of my love for India and my gratitude for the opportunities that Britain provided me in my adulthood and above all an opportunity to make a mark at the Ruins with a medium I have come to love so much. I believe that this passion has been reflected in my work and is site specific too.
The final design
The mosaic map is 90 cm by 90cm in size, with a textured undulating finish. I made it in London in my home studio and at The London School of Mosaic. It is made on mesh directly in cement, piece by piece. Each piece of marble, ceramic, glass and smalti (Italian glass manufactured especially for mosaic making) is hand-cut. I was working on it every day almost for three months. In addition, found objects such as computer chips and their specialist packaging, glass bangles and beads, broken china, single-use plastic, and mini pebbles from the banks of the Ganges are some of the materials used.
I have used the colours of the Indian flag (deconstructed) including two symbolic wheels (a gear showing a nation always moving and progressing and another one represents spirituality at the confluence of the three holy rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mysterious Saraswati at Prayagraj). Within the layers you will find references to cricket, the textile art of Lucknow, the mighty Himalayas made from broken porcelain plates, the rivers from bangles and beads and the more you observe, the more you see.
The mosaic was installed on-site at the Ruins Project on 13 May 2023 in an area called “The Map Room”. Other country maps already installed include USA, Australia, England, Scotland and Israel.
Commenting on the map of India, Rachel Sager said: “Prerana describes her India as like the layers of the humble onion, peeled back to reveal the vibrant colour. She fits so many ideas into this one composition: recipes, rivers, cricket, Bollywood, spirituality, and India’s attachment to industrial progress. Even the great Himalayas are here, made with shards of broken china. She throws in a hefty dash of saffron-coloured smalti to the pot. We installed mid-way up the steps, in a spot at the end of the Hot Metal gears, which will help pull the viewer’s eye down the length of the wall.”
The design process
For me developing the concept usually takes a while. I take some quiet time on my own and go walkabouts. Out comes my camera and my sketchbook. Unrelated things get noted, pocketed even. For this project the word ‘LAYERS’ was speaking to me One evening I was cooking, cutting open an onion as you do and I observed the beautiful layers inside, nature’s pattern and the penny dropped. The humble Indian onion, a canvas to show in a tactile topographic manner in mosaic the hidden layers and meanings that make up India… I had to make this project about vibrant colours, multiple layers and hidden meanings. I created a storyboard seeking commonalities with the mindset of the Ruins and my own to remain true to the intention. Storytelling forms a key part of my mosaic practice.
Bearing in mind that the installation was to be outdoors, and the mosaic had to be transported to America, planning played a key role. Following were some of the considerations:
- Use of materials to be robust enough. There was no problem with marble, stone and smalti, but other material such as terracotta had to be made frostproof and tested outside.
- Attention had to be given to how the design could be split into five parts, for ease of making and transportation. Full-scale drawing of the map was made on a roll of tracing paper. The andamento was drawn up for guidance. The drawing was cut into five individual pieces in a way that andamento would be easy to join up at installation. Each piece was measured to fit into hand luggage.
- Each piece of the drawing was mounted on ply, with andamento lines being clearly visible. A transparent contact paper was taped onto the drawing, followed by mesh, which would be the final layer on which, the tesserae would be put directly into tile adhesive.
- Care was taken to ensure that the various materials used such as computer chips and broken shards would fit into the andamento to look coherent.
- Several small sample pieces were made to test out the design and several shades of tinted tile adhesive. Some areas of the map, for example, the mountains and rivers, had to be given special attention to ensure that they looked coherent, especially as they were three-dimensional.
- A colour palette was developed, bearing in mind texture, colour and composition.
- Some tesserae were made individually using miniature gears, bottle caps and tinted tile adhesive.
- Planning is key to a successful project.
- Be bold, be authentic.
- Respect the materials and honour the site where your work will finally be placed.
- Try and keep the important lines in the mosaic in one workable piece, for example, the river. However, due to the nature and shape of “India,” I was not able to do so and this did create some problems for me.
- Be very careful when scaling up your drawing, so all parts are scaled up to the exact percentage you require.
- Practice, practice, practice, the only way to learn and move forward.
With passion, dedication and commitment, a voice can be given to history, people and special places. The Ruins Project is a testimony to this.
About Prerana Phadnis
Creative business development consultant and mosaic artist Prerana Phadnis is Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees at the London School of Mosaic. She is a former architect and industrial product designer with longstanding design, branding and marketing experience. She recently published a book on creative thinking entitled A Different Life, Piece by Piece.