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A Timeless "Grotto" by Connie Chantilis

On 09, Mar 2010 | 6 Comments | In Artists | By man-admin

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. We are in awe of mosaics that fit perfectly into their environments. In order for that bit of magic to happen, there has to be a happy — and intelligent — convergence of the right vision with the right design and the right materials.

When we saw this beautiful shell mosaic by Connie Chantilis of Dallas, Texas, we knew we had an example of this kind of perfection. We weren’t alone in deeming this work special. Grotto just won a Juror’s Choice Award in the Society of American Mosaic Artists‘ Mosaic Arts International 2010 exhibit currently running at the Navy Pier in Chicago, IL.

The couple who commissioned this work for their home envisioned this space as a private “sanctuary.” With that as a directive and two existing statues as inspiration, Chantilis worked with Lambert Landscape Design to create something that is totally appropriate for the space.

The mosaic combines the elegant symmetry of the Romans with the lush fantasy of French 16th century garden grottos. Geometry and fleur de lis blend beautifully, creating a feeling of timeless serenity.

The design also manages to pull together a fairly difficult combination of strong visual elements within a small space: the domed shape of the grotto itself, the coved wall and oculus of the water feature, the strong arch at the opening of the space, the rock used to flank the water feature and those two glorious statues. Take another look.

Creating the Optical Illusion of Perfection

According to Chantilis, the greatest challenge of this project was creating “the optical illusion of perfection.”

At the start of installation, Chantilis quickly discovered that the two outside walls of the water feature did not match in height and width. This required that adjustments be made as each tiny shell tesserae was applied to the border with tweezers. All that appears symmetrical is not so — a real design tour de force.

Sourcing Materials

An admitted “inventory freak”, Chantilis was more than prepared to create a sample board for the clients to consider using shells she already had in a stash. Sourcing them in large quantities, however, proved to be a challenge. “You’d go to pick up 17 sacks of shells and 3 of them would have come from a different ocean and were totally unusable.”

Oyster shells were simply unavailable. Luckily, Chantilis has an affiliation with a catering business. They happily supplied her with “leftovers”, but they weren’t usable — yet. “You can’t just put something up for a client that could smell like the bad side of the ocean,” says Chantilis, “so I gave them all several baths in bleach and alkaline solutions and such.”

An enormous amount of time was spent culling through thousands of shells — sorting for color variation and physical characteristics. “Shells aren’t man made, they’re God made so there are natural inconsistencies that have to be considered.”

Installation Challenges

The three-month project started off with a chalk drawing in the grotto for client approval. Then, it was time to apply the custom-tinted thin set. The chalk drawing quickly disappeared and was recreated several times in the installation process.

“The worst part was that working with the tinted thin set was not forgiving at all. The drawing had to be perfect at that point. you could not adjust – no washing away or chipping – they showed in a big way and any repairs would negate the smooth cohesive look that we wanted to achieve with the tinted thin set.”

Then there were the long hours in contorted positions in a domed, coved, and cramped space applying thin set with a trowel and shells with tweezers. “It felt like we were paying Twister,” says Chantilis, “but I enjoyed every minute of it.”

Chantilis and her biggest fan, her father, Angelo Chantilis.

We say, brava, Ms. Chantilis. The next time we hear the word “sanctuary” we’re going to think Grotto.

  • To see more of Chantilis’ work go to Additional photos of Grotto can be seen under the Latest Projects category.
  • For more information about the Mosaic Arts International Exhibit go to
  • All photographs supplied by the artist

Enjoy — Nancie

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  1. Stone Art

    This is great, looks really nice. Do you know shell artist Blott Kerr-Wilson, she has some amazing stuff. I wrote a post about a garden building she decorated over here in Ireland (if your interested)

  2. Musing Over Mosaic

    Wonderful! Highly artistic and skillful work. For some reason, I can see these mosaics provide romantic wedding settings…

  3. Nancie Mills Pipgras

    So glad you're all enjoying this post. You design bloggers you — thanks for spreading the word about custom mosaics. Mosaicists everywhere thank you! (Thanks Saxon!)

  4. Saxon Henry

    This is so incredible! Breathtaking, really. I don't know why I didn't have you listed in my blogroll on Roaming by Design before but I do now! Thanks for sharing this incredible story!

  5. Paul Anater

    Wow. Just wow. There are beautifully primitive shell mosaics all over the Caribbean and I love the idea of taking that "primitive" material and using it in a structured (but not too obviously structured) way. Brava indeed!

  6. Mindful Musings

    Oh, I agree with you – this is stunning! Although not a huge fan of shell mosaics, this piece takes my breath away. Thanks for posting such a great post.

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