Pictured above: Cuba Libre (2023) All mosaic work photos by Steven Roels.
Belgian mosaicist Mieke Ceusters set out to answer this question in her series Roman with a Twist. She combines technical mastery with observations from today’s world to create Roman mosaics with a contemporary twist – all delivered with a large dash of humour.
By Rhona Duffy
Listen to Rhona Duffy narrate her article:
Mieke Ceusters is excited because she’s finally found her “thing”. Originally Mieke only mosaicked to learn the techniques and be the best teacher possible. But when lockdown came and Mieke couldn’t teach for six months she said to her husband, “Let’s see if I mosaic for a few hours every day where I end up.” She decided to enter a competition and the brief was that it had to be something to do with Rome.
So Mieke began to wonder what would the ancient Romans have created today. In her study of ancient Roman mosaics, she noticed that the main scenes depicted related to the Romans’ daily lives and activities like hunting, sports and performing arts. “I noticed that, apart from technology, not much has changed,” she says.
So she decided to create a mosaic of two sumo wrestlers for the competition. Her main source of inspiration for this work came from the athletics and combat spectacles depicted in a mosaic found in the Gafsa region of southwestern Tunisia dating from 239 AD. “I love the soft, earthy tones that marble has and the possibilities even with a limited palette of colours,” she continues.
Her friend saw the piece and loved it so much that she asked to buy it. Immediately after that, someone asked her to make a mosaic of Bruce Springsteen for a gift, so she decided to do it in the same style. “And so, suddenly, a series was born… I felt good with the style and the idea so I kept going,” she explains.
Like many of us, Mieke found mosaic later in life. She studied at art school for eight years, where she first focussed on advertising and then switched to graphic design. “When I finished art school, I immediately went to live on my own so my priority had to be making sure that bills were paid,” Mieke continues. “But after some years, I noticed that I was unhappy in those jobs and, when I worked in printing companies, I had an allergic reaction to the products they used. So I decided that I wanted a new twist in life.”
Mieke knew that she wanted to learn a new craft. “Something I could get my hands dirty with,” she adds. “There are many artisanal professions in Belgium, but nothing appealed to me until I came across a book called The Art of Mosaics. I thought, ‘This is it!’”
She knew instinctively that was what she wanted to do. Coincidentally, they had just started a mosaic course at the Wilrijk Academy in Antwerp that year (2005), so she enrolled for the five-year course. And after three years, Mieke was already co-teaching.
“I began to notice that what we made at school was nowhere near what I saw being created in Spilimbergo, so I set up a studio at home and started inviting foreign teachers to teach workshops in Belgium – from whom I could also learn,” Mieke says. “I soon noticed that I preferred Spilimbergo’s style so, from then, I chose to work with graduate masters from that school. I mainly organised very technical workshops, to learn, not to copy someone else’s andamenti style. I also often travelled abroad to attend workshops. Mosaic became a passion for me. It suits me perfectly and gives me peace. It feels like meditation.”
Mieke’s fascination with people and “faces that speak of a whole life” was the inspiration that drove the following pieces of work in her series Roman with a Twist. She particularly loves to depict women. “The reason I make these ‘real’ women, in stone, is because it’s a kind of therapy for me,” she explains. “Through my work, I depict women who don’t meet societal ‘norms’, but who don’t care and they radiate that they feel good about themselves nonetheless. I too am not satisfied with my body and appearance, like so many women in this world. But I think that ‘imperfections’ in other women, like signs of age or being plus size, are beautiful and fascinating. I love these brave women and show them like they are, in stone, in all their glory and for eternity.”
While her inspirations are rooted in her love of ancient Roman mosaics, she loves to add a narrative element and infuse her pieces with humour. She often starts with a photo that she sees online. It’s possible to buy stock images online or seek permission from a photographer to recreate a piece in mosaic. “When I see a photo that speaks to me, that is my starting point. Often I change things or add something to it, usually a joke,” she continues.
“Nowadays, we see a lot of work that deals with the world’s big issues like global warming, plastic in the oceans, etc… I thought there should be something more light-hearted too; something that can put a smile on people’s faces and create a good feeling. Figurative art suits me much better than abstract. Basically, everything I’ve ever done creatively comes together now. First, simplifying an image is very important in graphic arts. Second, for many years, I painted portraits in watercolour, in addition to drawing from life models in my student days, which gave me a lot of knowledge about the anatomy of the body and the face. And then came the mosaics and learning about the andamenti rules; no trains, no crosses… my students hear it all the time. All of that comes together in what I’m making now.”
Mieke’s favoured material is marble or, for exterior works, she prefers smalti. She enjoys playing with subtle colour differences in the same type of marble. “This way, I can often achieve even more variation and still work with a limited colour palette,” she explains.
Talking about her method for figurative work, Mieke says: “Initially, I make a line drawing of my figure, enlarge it to the size I want to make, and work it out on plastic. When the figure is ready, I transfer it to the permanent surface in a metal frame and then finish the background, which I usually make in a light, cream colour as the Romans usually did. I prefer to work with the direct technique, so I can see what the end result will be.”
Mieke’s work is getting noticed. Her piece A Talk on the Wild Side won the public vote and received third place from the judges in the 12th edition of the international competition Pictor Imaginarius, which took place in May this year in Nazzano, Rome. Her piece Lady in Blue(s) is currently on show at DOMO e.V.’s International Mosaic Exhibition as part of the Aldersbach Art Walk in and around Aldersbach Abbey in Germany, which runs until 4 November 2023. She also has had her piece The Theatre of Life accepted into this year’s Ravenna Mosaico Biennale of Contemporary Mosaic, which opens in October 2023 and runs to January 2024.
The Theatre of Life is a self-portrait. “When I started to study Alberto Burri’s work, the curator said that he was actually a surgeon by training and that the stitches in his work refer to the stitching of wounds. I immediately thought of inner wounds, which I think we all carry within us. Masks were also depicted in Roman mosaics. For me, a burlap mask also can be symbolic of burn victims’ masks, which in turn refers to Burri’s work where he treats the surfaces with fire. My mask has different layers because don’t we all wear a bit of a mask?”
I asked Mieke what advice she’d give to other artists considering submitting their work for consideration in a competition or exhibition. “The first time I entered a mosaic into a competition, it didn’t yield anything, but the mosaic was sold immediately, which gave me the confidence to continue. I’m still amazed at – and grateful for – the attention my work is currently getting and how well my mosaics sell. I often see students at school who are insecure and have no reason to be. So, if someone would like to exhibit or compete, I’d say to just give it a try. The ‘worst’ that can happen is that you don’t get selected, so ask for feedback and learn from it. And who knows, maybe it’s like with me, that you notice that what you do is approved by several people. If I hadn’t tried, I never would have known and I wouldn’t be in this magazine, right?”
So what’s next for Mieke? “The plan is just to keep doing what I’m doing. My current work is almost finished and I have some exciting plans for the future. One of my ideas is to mosaic a series of ‘selfies’ of all different kinds of ‘real’ women. Wouldn’t it be great to have a whole wall full of beautiful, diverse women? For anyone reading this who would like to send me a selfie, please do! I will also keep teaching, hopefully for many more years. I’m exhibiting in Hem, France, from 3-18 February 2024, where I’m invited as a special guest with no less than eleven works on show, so I have many things to look forward to. As long as I keep having fun, I’ll keep doing this.”
Mieke shares three top technical tips to help you enhance your mosaic work…
1. Know your andamenti rules.
If you know the rules well, you can also apply them correctly and play with them. This ensures that there is a good flow in your work and that the whole comes together nicely without “mistakes” claiming all the attention. Then you can “let everything flow like a river” as the Italians say so beautifully.
2. Apply a contour line.
With the Romans there is always a contour line in the background colour around a figure and there is a reason for that. This makes your figure stand out better; compare it with the black line around the figures in comic strips.
3. Make the most of shading when working with marble.
The use of marble is a kind of limitation because there are no bright colours and you often don’t have the colour you want. Even so, you can often play with shades from one type of marble – where there are differences, you can still achieve a nice result. And you often need fewer colours than you might think. I’m always amazed at how realistic the results are despite the colour limitation.
About Mieke Ceusters
Mieke Ceusters was born and raised in Geel, Belgium. She spent eight years studying art and, at age 25, graduated from the Graphic Arts programme in Antwerp. After that, there was no room for creativity for a long time due to circumstances. In 2005, the creative microbe had to find an outlet again and Mieke started a five-year mosaic course at the Wilrijk Academy in Antwerp, where she is now a mosaic teacher herself. In 2014, she began to organise workshops with foreign mosaic teachers. That came to an end in 2020 and she found her own style in the series Roman with a Twist, which originated from the question: what would the Romans make if they were still making mosaics today?