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A Perfect Fit: The Path to Great Mosaic Design in Gary Drostle’s "River of Life"

On 25, Jul 2010 | 2 Comments | In Artists | By man-admin

For several months, we have been following the progress of British mosaicist Gary Drostle’s splendid “River of Life” and “Movement and Vitality” mosaics. The two works were commissioned by the University of Iowa for their new Wellness Center in Iowa City. Award-winning mosaic artist Julie Richey has been MAN’s correspondent on the project, beginning in April with the fabrication phase in London through the final installation in June. In this last post, Richey focuses on Drostle’s design process.

Enjoy — Nancie
(Links to previous posts are at the end of this one.)
We’ve talked extensively about the fabrication and installation process for Gary Drostle’s “River of Life” project, including the accompanying medallion, “Movement and Vitality.” By now the surrounding area leading to the medallion is carpeted. The pools are filled, the exercise machines in place. Features of the center, including a glimpse of both mosaics “in situ,” can be viewed on The Daily Iowan slideshow link:
At the time of the last post, I didn’t have a final photo of the medallion installed. It might look small, but it’s 14 feet in diameter:Detail of the medallion:
One day last April in Gary’s London studio where his intrepid team was still assembling the mosaic, he mentioned that the earliest designs for the “River of Life” were quite different than the final one. I of course demanded to see them. The process of conceiving a design and working with a client to achieve the best result isn’t always as effortless as the final product makes it appear. I thought many of us would benefit from seeing his design process unfold, and Gary generously agreed to share some of his sketches.Gary said some of the original client requests expressed a desire for “classical athletes.” Perhaps someone had seen these images from the Foro Italico swimming complex in Rome:

Created for the Foro’s swimming pool in the 1930’s by Gino Severini, Angelo Canevari, Giulio Rosso and Achielle Capizzano and created by the Scuola Irene of Spilimbergo, these athletes are a tough act to follow.

Looking at the University of Iowa’s plans for the Wellness Center, they don’t seem to be “in synch” with the spirit of this place:

The Iowa building is glass, stainless steel, black metal cladding and exposed ductwork. It calls for something distinctly contemporary.

Original designs focused on an aerial view of the Iowa River, which flows right behind the building. Gary worked classic indigenous patterns into the motif surrounding the river. A large oak tree and oak leaves were central components.

He played with the mandala concept some more:

Both of the above designs have a very complicated border pattern and require intricate cutting. One of the strategies for fabricating a large project like this is to create a matrix for the design based on a tessera size formula. Gary chose the 3/4 inch porcelain and worked out patterns that could be made using half and quarter tiles. This way the mosaicists could be directed with a small sample Gary created in each section, but he wouldn’t need to supervise every curve and transition.

Designs were prepared and shown to the committee members. As Gary worked the designs and got feedback from the students (they overwhelmingly preferred his more contemporary proposals), he was able to gain their support for something more modern and, ultimately, perfectly suited to the site and its users.

So he went from this:

To this:

The final design is loosely based on the activities in the Wellness Center. Gary said he wanted the figures to merge into and out of the background for a more interesting and less “literal” effect. “And then I don’t have to draw feet so much!” he added.

Seeing the steps in the design process behind the “River of Life” project makes you appreciate how an original concept from a committee is transformed through dialogue, drawings and input. Looking at the mosaic’s custom-fit curves, its recognition of the area’s history and culture, and its predominant reference to the river running just outside the building, you can safely say that artist, client and project made a perfect fit.

Oh, and Gary? We’re glad they didn’t select the “Barfing Fish.” ; – )

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  1. Julie Richey

    Thanks, Maureen. It was a great learning experience and I felt compelled to share it with others who would appreciate everything that goes into a work like Gary's.

  2. Maureen

    Great post. I so enjoy going behind the scenes.

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