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River of Life: Gary Drostle, Part 1

On 24, Apr 2010 | 6 Comments | In Uncategorized | By man-admin

While we were at the SAMA conference in March, we spent (not enough) time with award-winning MAN artist Gary Drostle. He told us about a massive project he was working on which was, lamentably, a tad behind schedule. Would anyone be willing to come to London to help out? Texans Julie Richey and Sarah Zirkel immediately raised their hands.

“The River of Life” is a commission from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. When we learned that Ms. Richey would be assisting in the installation here in the US as well, we saw a great opportunity to chronicle the creation of a large, architectural mosaic in this space. We asked Mr. Drostle if he would be a bloggee and Ms. Richey if she would be our blogger. Lucky for us, they both said yes.

But wait! There’s more! Family of MAN member Henry Rothberg of LATICRETE raised his hand, too! Mr. Rothberg has kindly offered to provide all of the products Mr. Drostle will need for the installation in Iowa. We love it when the mosaic world is this small and this giving.

Here is Ms. Richey’s first “postcard”, postmarked last Thursday.

Enjoy — Nancie

* * * * *

Greetings from sunny London, where the planes are now flying again. I’ve overstayed my original visit by four days with hopes of getting a flight on Saturday barring any new ash clouds drifting our way.

I’ve come to London for a mini-workshop, of sorts. Gary Drostle is working on a large architectural commission called “The River of Life” for the University of Iowa in Iowa City. The main mosaic, a 48 foot by 12 foot “river” of unglazed Winckelman French porcelain tile, is almost complete. Gary has five assistants working off an on with him. The two mosaics in this commission include a medallion for the entryway of the campus wellness center featuring athletes engaging in the sports featured at the center, and a flowing river pattern of half- and quarter-tiles, interspersed with Bisazza glass highlights.

To get an idea of the scale, Gary is holding his concept drawing. Note the intricacy of both the tapestry pattern and its continual curve; we’re now at the bottom section where it’s so large, the curve is almost imperceptible…except when you’re trying to line up tiles very neatly and a widening gap appears. Then you’re reminded that this is not a rectangle in the true sense.

Gary’s studio is in an artists’ building on the Thames, directly across from the Tate & Lyle sugar factor with a vieew of the Thames Barrier. Here I am with Tamara, working away. One of the biggest challenges is DJing the whole affair.

The Method

Gary uses a lined brown paper purchased locally. He draws the pattern on the reverse side in marker, taping sheets together at regular intervals. The pattern bleeds through to the back of the paper, eliminating the need to transfer or recopy the design. We’re following his basic outline and he makes additional design decisions as we come across questions. Pasta amido, the traditional mosaic flour and water paste, is our glue. It’s cooked right in the studio and refrigerated overnight to keep it fresh as long as possible.

Sectioning the Mosaic

As large sections are completed, they are measured to the size of the shipping boxes (approximately 18 inches square), marked on the back with indelible markers and cut off the main pattern. Each section is labeled and stored.

Here Gary is shaking the crumbs out of a finished section. Any loose pieces are glued back on at this point.

When making the transitions from darkest to lightest parts of the river, it helps to have a finished section for reference:

At first I thought I liked the river best; now seeing the whole pattern laid out, I am liking the textile patterns even more. Gary brilliantly uses the Native American artists’ designs and those of area Amish quilters. The patterns’ transitions from light to dark and the endless variations are what give this mosaic its sense of place and a grounding to the local community. The nearby Iowa River is the grounding image from which the “River of Life” takes its meaning.

The gray areas are “life out of balance,” and the River of Life flows over the pattern and out across the perimeter. Each line of tile represents one life. Some go off the edges prematurely; others take a meandering path.

And here is a photo of one third of the finished mosaic, laid out in the lounge next door. Gary does this occasionally to check the continuity of the design. I’d love to see the whole thing laid out, but there isn’t room anywhere in the building!

Gary is going it alone on the 12-foot diameter athletes medallion. I’d love to show you a better picture, but alas – he’s still working on it. Here’s a sneak peek:

Off to work before the boss notices I’m late!

Cheers from London,

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  1. DoreenA

    Following the flow of the water of life is quite a humbling experience. I can't imagine taking on a project like this one even if I did have the skill and knowledge to do it… I am truly inspired and in awe of your talent and patience to untertake a piece of this magnitude… are indeed a master of your craft. Cheers, Doreen

  2. Despina Georgiadi

    Such a huge project! I'd love and being amazed by the tremendous adamento Gary has used. I hope to work hard and reach his wonderful technique. Great work. Congratulations!
    Despina Georgiadi

  3. Anonymous

    What a plan for such an incredible image, can't wait to see the fully installed image, the planning alone is awesome!

  4. .

    Just Love! Just Awesome! Just Beautiful!

  5. Concetta

    Just awesome. Well done all of you on such a huge and intricate project 😉

  6. Maureen

    Astonishing skill. Beautiful!