This week and last I worked on a commissioned project for a friend - a design concept for a mosaic tile piece that will be installed in the floor of her swimming pool. She asked simply for a monogram of her and her husband’s shared initials and two mermaids, intertwined with one another to express their love and connection.
The first design I sketched and painted was a good test of whether or not I was up for the challenge and proved to me the degree of difficulty in creating an image in one medium (in this case gouache on paper) which must be conscious of its eventual medium (tiles of varying shapes and hues under water). I spent a bit of time studying mosaic tilework in pools, attentive to the way sunlight lifts and water shifts its collective brilliance; also the manner in which each piece of tile is laid in connection to its surrounding tiles, building patterns and a familiarity of image at a distance. I studied monograms and returned to my typography books, sampling several fonts and arrangements. Having never tiled in my life, I acquired as much of an understanding of the subject as I estimated would be helpful (unfortunately only a peripheral scrape), but at some point I would love to study the craft in greater depth while experimenting with its multitude of elements. Yet time is time, only so much given.
As I progressed in the project, I was reminded of how skilled my mother was at designing for craft. She painted a richly layered scene of ocean, beach, sunset, rainbow, and three seagulls that became a stained glass window in our dining room. She also designed her own headboard, a drawing transformed into a wood carving of a fiery sun with a handsome face. In almost every room of our house my mother had installed her creative charms. I only wish I could go back for reference now, not only to study her methods and results but to reinvigorate nostalgia, to touch things that were once there and are now lost.
Before diving into a second design, I spent more time talking with my friend about what colors interested her, what colors would dance in the sunlight and water. I created a range of blues, greens, and purples with accents of gold and bronze. We also decided on a different style of monogram, Gatsby in nature, that would make the letters ring harmoniously. I added stronger details to the mermaids to incorporate and balance the color range and attempted a more precise, mathematically coherent presentation. Overall, the biggest challenge for me was painting the image and in a painstaking color-by-number fashion. Naturally, I am a messy painter: impulsive, dramatic, and heavily romantic. I paint what I want to paint beckoned from a dark and dreamy place, some fantastical figure the supplier of its source. The colors and designs I choose take shape and evolve as I go. Here instead, I was required to take my time, measure and plan things out, and carefully calculate several moves ahead of myself. As much as I love being assigned to a task, this particular endeavor, at times, made me want to scream. I felt the hot pain of being caged, my swollen limbs sticking out uncomfortably from between the bars. Though I was determined, and whenever I’d completed some portion of the image or lettering successfully, as a relief the reward was grand enough to alter my attitude.
Looking over my finished design, I am highly critical of it, taking note of a thousand things I could change and do better, but give me a month, and perhaps I’ll come back to this painting with more merciful eyes. This was an exercise to build endurance and a test to prove (and push) limits. This was a test of joy and joy is always striated with suffering, a pattern in the glasswork sometimes difficult to familiarize or understand, but when we pull away and let the light get down to it, we may see the intended connection, the dance of two lovers in the sea. I can only hope this concept will be a guide in some way for my friend to have constructed, by far more skilled artisans, the perfect symbol of her affection and devotion. And I will run off now and paint something messy and wild - some imperfect symbol of my own.