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Modern Mosaic in Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens: “Shattering Expectations: Mosaic 2014”

On 05, Apr 2014 | 7 Comments | In Uncategorized | By Nancie

Photo by Anabella Wewer

Photo:  Anabella Wewer

When we were first approached by the Mosaic Society of Philadelphia and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens to jury a regional exhibit, we asked the organizers – Carol Shelkin, President of MSoP, and Ellen Owens, PMG’s Executive Director – what they wanted the show to accomplish. The title of the exhibit, Shattering Expectations: Mosaic 2014 is a direct reflection of their goal to shine a light on makers who use the medium to create art that is timely, relevant and engaging and, in doing so, break through some old assumptions about mosaic.

Photo Gabe Kirchheimer©
Isaiah Zagar “The Magic Gardens”    Photo:   Gabe Kirchheimer©

Shattering Expectations: Mosaic 2014 would place fine art mosaics within the belly of Isaiah Zagar’s massive visionary mosaic environment, The Magic Gardens of South Philadelphia. Zagar has mosaicked the interior and exterior walls, ceilings, and floors of nearly half a block of real estate to create what is, at its core, a 40 year personal diary that began as a response to a nervous breakdown. We found it a no less an all-encompassing experience than the cathedral of San Vitale in Ravenna; it is every bit as overwhelming, inspiring, transporting and, in its own way, sacred.

Isaiah Zagar "The Magic Gardens"       Photo Gabe Kirchheimer©
Photo:  Gabe Kirchheimer©



Isaiah Zagar      Photo:  Wikipedia


Photo  Gabe Kirchheimer©

Photo Gabe Kirchheimer©

For the exhibiting artists to “hold their own” in the gallery space within Zagar’s Gardens, they would have to have very strong voices of their own. And they do.  We selected Invited Artists Karen Kettering Dimit, Samantha Holmes and Brooks Tower and Juried Artists Yakov Hanansen, Yulia Hanansen, Rachel Sager, Carol Talkov, and Carol Stirton-Broad because their concepts and visions are as strong as their mastery of mosaic techniques. This is a group of highly-accomplished artists, most of whom have multiple award-winning works in their portfolios.

Climate change, technology, feminism, self-discovery, science, history, popular culture, beauty and the nature of mosaic itself are all explored within Shattering Expectations. With multiple works from each artist and the extremely thoughtful staging by Owens the exhibit works beautifully.

Photo Anabella Wewer

Photo Anabella Wewer

During the opening attended by 400 people – the largest opening of any PMG exhibition to date – we were delighted to watch visitors become strongly engaged with the art on the walls. It was just plain noisy in there! People pointed, got nose-close and selfied next to favorite works. The tech-savvy scanned the QR codes provided on the info panels to listen to prerecorded interviews with the artists.

Photo Anabella Wewer

Photo Anabella Wewer

Visitor looking at work by Carol Talkov

Visitor looking at work by Carol Talkov

Photo Karen Kettering Dimit

Visitors learning more about Karen Kettering Dimit via QR code interview.  Photo by the artist.

Visitor looking at work by Rachel Sager  Photo Anabella Wewer

Visitor looking at work by Rachel Sager Photo Anabella Wewer

Brooks Tower and visitor.

Brooks Tower and visitor.

For the artists, all of whom were there, it was a rare and personally rewarding opportunity to interact one-on-one with viewers.  Marvelous moments of serendipity ensued  – “That’s Jupiter!” exclaimed a gentleman upon spying Yulia Hanansen’s Great Red Spot. A subsequent conversation with the artist revealed that the man was connected with the Physics Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Much to Hanansen’s delight, he extended an invitation for a private tour of the school’s Rittenhouse Observatory.

Yulia Hanansen and "Great Red Spot"  Photo Anabella Wewer

Yulia Hanansen and “Great Red Spot” Photo Anabella Wewer

Glorious spring weather the opening weekend brought over 1,100 visitors to the Gardens, some of whom participated in a workshop held beneath work by Yakov Hanansen.


Equally important, on Saturday March 8, there was a private showing of the exhibit for a group of 47 art collectors from the James Renwick Alliance (JRA) of Washington DC.  JRA supports the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery  with education programs on American craft and also makes acquisitions for the museum’s collection. A presentation on the mosaic renaissance occuring in the US and a walkthrough of the exhibit with the artists was the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing conversation about modern mosaic with this important art institution.

With those 400 people at the opening, another 1,100 the first weekend and 6 sales since Shattering Expectations: Mosaic 2014 opened on March 7th  we would have to say that Philadelphia is definitely a mosaic kind of town. The exhibit runs through April 20th, so there is still time to experience some great modern mosaics within one of the world’s most extraordinary mosaic environments. What follows is a brief look at work from each of the 8 artists in the exhibit.

Karen Kettering Dimit, Invited Artist

We have long appreciated Dimit’s in-depth mosaic exploration of themes that have great meaning for her.  She is marvelous at exploiting the natural attributes and cultural associations of her materials to create imagery that can be haunting, thought provoking and delightful.

Karen Kettering Dimit "Miss Willendorf 2008"  2008  36 x 22 x 22 in.

Karen Kettering Dimit “Miss Willendorf 2008” 2008 36 x 22 x 22 in.

In her Subway Goddesses series, Dimit juxtaposes ancient female archetypes with the “goddesses” of today to examine how cultural stereotypes have impacted her own sense of self esteem. In Miss Willendorf 2008, we see the “Venus of Willendorf “ c. 28,000 B.C.E. – 25,000 B.C.E.  recast in designer jeans, Spandex t-shirt and lovelorn tattoos.

Karen Kettering Dimit "NYC Watertowers XI" 12 x 12 in.

Karen Kettering Dimit “NYC Watertowers XI” 12 x 12 in.

A second series is devoted to the silent sentinels of New York City – its iconic water towers. Using natural stone and minerals, Dimit paints an apocalyptic sky in NYC Watertower XII; another example of her masterly use of materials. A similar work exhibited, NYC Watertower IX, has recently been sold to a mother with an autistic child who “became strongly engaged” with the work. No higher praise . . .

Yakov Hanansen, Juried Artist

If there were ever an example of how a photograph does not do a mosaic justice, it would be any image taken of Yakov Hanansen’s stunning work Brain.

Yakov Hanansen “Brain” 36 x 36 in. Hand-made ceramic tesserae, porcelain, smalti.

We loved this in a jpeg, but in person it was just a knock out. There were worlds within worlds composed of smalti, the rims of ceramic plates, and exquisitely hand-sculpted tesserae in this mosaic. Light is manipulated through relief, reflection, texture and shape.  Shadows are everything.  “White is the compilation of all colors,” Hanansen told us. “The brain is a universe that we are still exploring.”  We could easily have spent hours exploring this work which proved to be magnetic for everyone who came within three feet of it. Something about the intricacy and symmetry in Brain is enormously compelling. Hanansen is very much a mosaic philosopher and his work stands at the intersection of science, cosmology and art.


Yakov Hanansen "Inflection Point" 2006  30 x 108 in. Triptych  White and off-white porcelain.

Yakov Hanansen “Inflection Point” 2006 30 x 108 in. Triptych White and off-white porcelain.

Hanansen was classically trained as a mosaic muralist in Russia but now maintains a studio and school with his wife, Angele, in New York City.  While his commission work for architectural installations is often very vivid, since the 1980s his personal work has all been in white. Hanansen is also the father of stained glass mosaic artist Yulia Hanansen, whose work is noteworthy for her marvelous, painterly use of color. An article by Philadelphia writer Paul Anater about this father daughter mosaic duo appeared in the 2010 edition of Mosaic Art NOW.

Yulia Hanansen, Juried Artist

Even as she is the daughter of a mosaicist trained in the classical European tradition, Yulia Hanansen is a thoroughly American mosaic artist blazing artistic trails in a material generally eschewed by the Europeans – stained glass. Her “layered mosaic” technique is an innovation she created to add the mosaic element of “relief” to a material that traditionalists find too flat. When she points this technique and her artistic training on the astronomical and ecological themes that are her inspiration, the result, as we noted above with Great Red Spot, draws the viewer in instantly.

Yulia Hanansen "Jupiter: Great Red Spot " 2010  36 x 56 in.  Layered stained glass.

Yulia Hanansen “Jupiter: Great Red Spot ” 2010 36 x 56 in. Layered stained glass.

It can take Hanansen as long as three years to accumulate the materials for a mosaic she has planned.  This patience and care is often rewarded; Great Red Spot was selected as Best in Show in the Society of Mosaic Artist’s Mosaic Arts International 2011.

"Jupiter: Great Red Spot" detail

“Jupiter: Great Red Spot” detail

Displaced Hurricane is part of a series Hanansen is doing on global warming and potential disruptions to water supplies across the planet. In this work, we have a satellite’s view of a hurricane system devastating crop circles.

Yulia Hanansen "Displaced Hurricane" 2013 24 x 30 in.

Yulia Hanansen “Displaced Hurricane” 2013 24 x 30 in.

Samantha Holmes, Invited Artist

Samantha Holmes "Aperiodic Asymmetry" 2014  112 x 38 in.  Aluminum, wood.

Samantha Holmes “Aperiodic Asymmetry” 2014 112 x 38 in. Aluminum, wood.

Samantha Holmes academic credentials provide clues to what drives her as artist working in mosaic; she holds a BA from Harvard and was recently awarded an MFA in Experimental Mosaic from the Academia di Belli Arti in Ravenna. She is passionate about bringing intelligence and relevancy to modern mosaic and has put that passion into action with great success; the American artist has already represented Italy in an exhibit in Paris and won several prestigious European mosaic prizes including the Innovation Award for the Young Artists & Mosaic Competition in Ravenna. Holmes’ work combines the most essential elements of the mosaic language – foundational attributes such as individual tesserae, andamento, interstice, permanence, etc. – with the exploration of the ambiguities of modern life such as the true meaning of “home”, thwarted communications and the nature of faith.

Samantha_Holmes_Aperiodic Assymetry_detail_Photo SH

In Aperiodic Asymmetry, the site-specific work she created for Shattering Expectations, Holmes riffs off the traditional Islamic tile patterns designed to express Divine order in houses of worship. “Aperiodic Asymmetry deals with the disparity between this notion of Divine order and the chaos of the human experience, the perfection of the underlying geometry and the inaccuracy of the individual hand” explains Holmes. Indeed, if you look closely at this mosaic, you will see how one small bit of imperfection, if allowed to grow, quickly breaks down any opportunity for unity. Aperiodioc Asymmetry looked absolutely marvelous in its Garden setting.

Rachel Sager, Juried Artist

Pennsylvania-based artist Rachel Sager is well-known for digging into the earth to source materials for her mosaics. In the four works shown in Shattering Expectations, Sager looks at the earth – and the world as she knows it – through the lens of cartography to explore personal and societal conundrums.

In Here Be Dragons, Sager compares the unknown lands depicted as danger zones filled with beastly perils by 17th century cartographers with the newly-minted cyber-lands of Facebook and Twitter. While we all flock to these new lands with their promises of connectivity and opportunity are we making ourselves vulnerable to perils yet to be discovered?

Rachel Sager "Here Be Dragons"  2012 17.5 x 23.5 in.

Rachel Sager “Here Be Dragons” 2012 17.5 x 23.5 in.

A crowd favorite at the exhibition was Printlandia, a work that was the product of a feud between Sager and her long malfunctioning printer which culminated in her demolishing the machine and having a final revenge by repurposing its carcass into a mosaic map.

Rachel Sager "Printlandia" 2012  19 x 24 in.

Rachel Sager “Printlandia” 2012 19 x 24 in.

Beyond what we admire about Sager’s personal art, we also have a great appreciation for the incredible work she is doing to promote the mosaic medium; organizing exhibitions, teaching classes, speaking at geological conferences and, most recently, assisting the Touchstone Center for Craft in creating a mosaic curriculum for its 2014 season. Brava.

Carol Stirton-Broad, Juried Artist

Carol Stirton-Broad is a Philadelphia artist and teacher who has explored a number of mediums from photography to fiber. Mosaic has become a major focus for her and she has studied with some of the medium’s most rigorous instructors in Italy and the US.  That training enabled her to transform the mundane into the sublime in two of the works selected for Shattering Expectations, From My Sister’s Garden #1 and From My Sister’s Garden #3.

Carol Stirton-Broad "From My Sister's Garden #1" 2013  6.25 x 7 in.

Carol Stirton-Broad “From My Sister’s Garden #1” 2013 6.25 x 7 in.

Carol Stirton-Broad "From My Sister's Garden #3" 2013 3.5 x 10.5 in

Carol Stirton-Broad “From My Sister’s Garden #3” 2013 3.5 x 10.5 in

Using classical mosaic techniques and materials, Stirton-Broad has given elegance and grace to cow and deer teeth that were unearthed in her sister’s rural garden. These two works are just plain beautiful. We can’t wait to see more from Stirton-Broad in the future.

Carol Talkov, Juried Artist

Carol Talkov was a successful costume and interior furnishings fabricator before turning her life to mosaic. One can easily see how the love of the materials she works with continues in this new medium. In fact, she believes that the glass, stone, minerals and gems she works with have stories within them that can be seen when when they are placed in the right relationship with one another.

Carol Talkov "Moth" 2012  20 x 20 in.

Carol Talkov “Moth” 2012 20 x 20 in.

Plume agate, petrified wood, agate, geode, chalcedony, mica, travertine, smalti and sea urchin spines are just a few of the materials Talkov sourced and carefully selected to use in these dynamic works. Visitors found these works enormously appealing, often getting extraordinarily close to investigate each individual tesserae. They are delicious.

Carol Talkov "What's Inside" 2012  14 x 17 x 4

Carol Talkov “What’s Inside” 2012 14 x 17 x 4

Brooks Tower, Invited Artist

We have come to think of award-winning artist Brooks Tower as a mosaic poet. Instead of using a pen or keyboard, Tower employs the heavy duty industrial tools called wet saws and band saws in his modern interpretation of an ancient mosaic technique known as opus sectile.  Sometimes, his mosaics can be a limerick, as in I Told Your Sister, where a split second of street life and tension is caught in stone and tile.

Brooks Tower "I Told Your Sister" 2013  9 x 12 in.

Brooks Tower “I Told Your Sister” 2013 9 x 12 in.

Other times, Tower’s work can be likened to psyche-disturbing doggerel as in his cartoon-like No Pants, a poem with a punch line that is any performer’s greatest nightmare.

Brooks Tower "No Pants"  2004  24 x 14 in.

Brooks Tower “No Pants” 2004 24 x 14 in.

Often, though, Tower’s work are heart-tugging sonnets to the beauty of every day life, as in Quaking Oats, inspired by a simple scene at his breakfast table.

Brooks Tower "Quaking Oats" 2013  16 x 12 in.

Brooks Tower “Quaking Oats” 2013 16 x 12 in.

We think that Tower is one of America’s finest mosaic artists and were very pleased to have his work in this exhibit. In addition to Shattering Expectations, he is also showing work in Tulsa Oklahoma’s beautiful new Hardesty Center in a show entitled Art in Mosaic.

Shattering Expectations: Mosaic 2014 continues through April 20, 2014 at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. Again, we want to thank Carol Shelkin and the Mosaic Society of Philadelphia for giving us the opportunity to play in the Gardens, Ellen Owens and the staff at the Gardens for mounting a beautiful exhibit, and Isaiah Zagar and his wife Julia for their phenomenal hospitality. Can we do this again, please?

Nancie Mills Pipgras, Isaiah Zagar, Julia Zagar and Carol Stirton-Broad  Photo:  Sharon Ritz

Nancie Mills Pipgras, Isaiah Zagar, Julia Zagar and Carol Stirton-Broad Photo: Sharon Ritz


  • Karen Kettering Dimit website; see more of her work on MAN
  • Yakov Hanansen website; see more of his work on MAN
  • Yulia Hanansen website; see more of her work on MAN
  • Samantha Holmes website; see more of her work on MAN
  • Rachel Sager website: see more of her work on MAN
  • Carol Stirton-Broad website
  • Carol Talkov website
  • Brooks Tower website; see more of his work on on MAN
  • Photos of Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens, murals throughout South Philadelphia and home in an extensive gallery by Gabe Kirchheimer here
  • More photos of Shattering Expectations Opening by Anabella Wewer here

Photos are provided by the artists and the author unless otherwise noted.

Share this article


  1. Jacob Zabicky

    An exalting experience of beauty, joy and often profundity. All my friends have to see it.

  2. Lilian S.

    well done Nancie, a truly thoughtful re-cap of this precedent-setting show. Nice to see multiple works by the artists. The Magic Gardens must be especially magical right now with all the good energy around the show. Congrats to all!

    • Thanks for the comment, Lillian. The only thing missing that opening weekend was you. Cheers!

  3. Carole Choucair Oueijan

    What a great exhibition, article and art! Thank you!

  4. Carol Shelkin

    Nancie, you told the story and showed the photos so beautifully. I experienced opening night – again – as I read your words! MSoP couldn’t be happier with how you put the FIRST mosaic art show together in our town and in an historical location: Philadelphia’s Magic Garden’s.

  5. Caren zane fishman

    I’m reading BOM on a gorgeous sunny day in Boston, I’m in awe looking at more than talented mosaic artists. They should all be in fine art museums in my opinion! waiting patiently for mosaics to be thought of as a fine art .( not the case in Boston, yet!).

  6. Jacqueline Iskander

    Thank you for this wonderful Sunday morning read! I thoroughly enjoyed every word and especially every photo. What a success!

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