Pictured above: Keep Me Warm (2023), 25 x 39cm
As Marian Shapiro’s third solo exhibition opens in Springwood, New South Wales, Rhona Duffy asks her what you can expect. Plus lots more.
By Rhona Duffy
Listen to Rhona Duffy narrate her article:
Marian Shapiro’s passion for fabrics and textiles, and her use of hard and permanent materials to give the illusion of something soft and flowing, are recurring themes in her work. She enjoys exploring the tension between the familiar and the strange by rendering ordinary, common objects in unfamiliar materials, enabling a different view of the everyday. These themes re-emerge in A Stich in Time, which is Marian’s third solo exhibition and runs from 26 October – 19 November at Braemar Gallery, Springwood in New South Wales, Australia.
“The Covid-19 pandemic brought about lockdowns and isolation, and people started getting back into domestic hobbies like baking bread, knitting and crocheting,” explains Marian. “All of a sudden, many people had a lot of extra time on their hands, and many decided to use it to get creative. A Stitch in Time represents our everyday experience over the past few years. It began by looking back at 2020 and the activities many of us took up in lockdown. Ironically, it was the second lockdown in 2021 that enabled me to develop and continue this body of work into the present.
“In Australia, mosaic is currently predominantly practised by women and falls somewhere between art and craft,” she continues. “Craft and domestic tasks are often seen as a female domain. Using the medium of mosaic, itself a medium oscillating between art and craft, this exhibition reclaims domestic activities, specifically knitting and embroidery.”
Born in the UK, Marian moved to Australia in 2003 where she’s been living and working as a full-time artist since. “I trained in art and theatre, but jobs were thin on the ground in the 1980s, so I worked in the computer industry for 20 years,” says Marian. “I met my Australian husband in London and he asked me to move to Australia with him. I knew that when we made the move I wanted to do something different. In fact, I think it was David who first suggested that I might be interested in mosaic.
“As I was in London for three months, I found a six-day mosaic course by Vanessa Benson who was a great artist and teacher, so I fell on my feet with that one. I immediately loved the rhythmic flow of mosaic making and something Vanessa said about mosaic struck me: that the particular effect created in mosaic couldn’t be achieved through any other medium. Thinking about that over the years, I think that’s down to how mosaic works directly with light. With 3D shapes, you’ve also got shadows that become integral parts of a piece. I got hooked straight away.”
Her first mosaic, at that course, was a paving stone created using the indirect method and 2cm-squared vitreous glass tiles – cut into ninths. “One of the benefits of being a total beginner to mosaic was that you don’t know what to be frightened of,” she laughs.
After that, Marian played with patterns and representational mosaics for a while. A pivotal moment came when she realised that she needed a concept to bounce off. “That was the take-off point for me. I started working in series, and also in either semi-abstract or abstract. A concept doesn’t have to be a complex thing. It can be: what happens if I go from big to small? Or if go from green to red? That sort of thing. But, for me, I have to have that meaning and intent. And if you’re going to enter exhibitions, for which you’ll need to write an artist statement, it’s much easier if you know why you’re doing it in the first place.”
Much of Marian’s mosaics use hand-made substrates, often undulating. “When I started to make my own substrates, lots of others were making them – but mostly they were flat. I had a joint show with a glass artist coming up and I wanted to create work inspired by fabrics and patterns. I started to create them on flat substrates but it didn’t look alive enough for me. I tend to look at things and say, ‘I wonder what happens if I do this.’ I talked to the artist who was most prominent in the flat method and asked her if she would be happy if I played around with the technique. She said to go ahead, so I started to manipulate them and came up with various methods using trial and error. I worked out how to add textile fringes along the way.”
Marian mainly uses a combination of materials in each piece. “I often use smalti and marble, or smalti and unglazed ceramic, together because I like the contrast between light-reflective and light-absorbent materials, and sometimes to make a transition from shiny into matt. Lately, I’ve also been enjoying incorporating wire knitting into my work, which has become another signature.”
On her creative journey, Marian has taken many workshops by other mosaicists and was a participant in two of Italian master Giulio Menossi’s symposiums, but most of her learning comes from studying and trying to understand things. “I can’t do stuff if I don’t understand why I’m doing it. So, when I started, I spent a long time looking at others’ mosaics. For example, if I was trying to do a borderline around a mosaic and came to a weird corner bit, I’d look to see how others tackled it and learn from that.”
She also adapted Sherri Warner Hunter’s method of using sand moulds with mesh and concrete to create her own sand-casting technique. Marian sometimes uses both her undulating and sand-casting techniques together, including in her piece Air Goddess.
Marian has been involved in several community art projects. “I really enjoy them – when they work well,” she continues. “They need a lot of input and ownership from the host organisation to be successful. And if you can get this input plus good quality artwork, it’s a very satisfying thing to do. For the mosaic, I find what works best is to get everyone to create a small section, for example, a leaf, and then put them all together at the end. I think it’s important that people can identify which part they did, as well as see how it’s contributed to the whole piece. These ingredients make for a wonderful win-win experience.”
Marian Shapiro shares some handy tips that you can use, gleaned from her years of experience.
- Do a test run. When you’re doing something you haven’t done before, do a test first. Whether it’s using a new material or method, or you’re exploring an idea, doing a test run first can save hours of time and angst.
- Take a long view of your work. Take frequent photos when working and look at them. Taking photos gives you an objective view of your work in a way that you don’t get when you are absorbed in working on it.
- Ask the expert. Social media, YouTube, etc. are not necessarily accurate sources of technical information for adhesives, grouts, etc. The manufacturer is. Suppliers can also be very helpful. With this in mind:
- Read the packet and follow the instructions – they are there for a reason.
- If you need more information, check out the Technical Data Sheet (TDS) on the manufacturer’s website.
- If you need further information, phone the free helpline number provided by the manufacturer.
About Marian Shapiro
Originally trained in art and theatre in the UK, Marian moved to Australia in 2003 and has been a full-time working artist since then. Shown and collected nationally and internationally, Marian is intrigued by the creative tension of using ancient techniques and traditional materials to make original work that is relevant today. She regularly teaches and speaks both in Australia and abroad and is currently Vice President of the Mosaic Association of Australia and New Zealand (www.maanz.org).