The art of Mosaics...and friendship

These best friends create engaging artworkfrom bits of colored glass and found objects — and in the process, cement their bond


Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 1:14 a.m.

When artists Linda Zidonik and Nan Szypulski-Lewis decided to try their hand at the mosaic arts, they knew just where to go for supplies.

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Linda's self-portrait, "Artist with Coffee."

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

"We got our materials right there on (U.S.) 441," Linda says of the permanent roadside flea market in Orange Lake known as Geneva's. "For five dollars we got more plates than we could carry."

When the two friends got back to Linda's Micanopy art studio, they held a demolition derby, carefully wrapping the ceramic ware in towels and then using hammers to smash the plates into a million little pieces, which they could then reassemble into original works of art.

At the time, Linda and Nan had planned to experiment with a variety of art forms. But they never made it past mosaics.

"Have you ever done something like a jigsaw puzzle – anything where you're putting little pieces together? It's so addictive!" says Linda, who teaches art at the Waldo Community School.

"It's seductive!" says Nan, a pediatric speech and language therapist who has her own private practice in Gainesville. "It pulls you in and it's hard to stop."

And, Linda says, "If the little pieces don't pull you in, the colors are phenomenal."

That was 12 years ago, shortly after Linda and Nan met. (They met through their children, who were both in the International Baccalaureate program at Eastside High School and on the rowing team.) The two women have been making mosaics ever since, using bits and pieces of colored glass, ceramic tile, broken china, pebbles and other materials to create artwork whose impact is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Their works, which include collaborative projects and individual pieces, are represented at McIntyre's Stained Glass Studio in Thornebrook Village (www.mcintyrestudio.com). The artists' works have also been displayed at the Thomas Center Gallery, the Randy Batista Gallery, the Harn Museum, the Hippodrome Gallery and in area restaurants. They regularly exhibit and sell their works together at the Downtown Festival and Art Show in Gainesville and in other art shows in Florida. Linda also shows and sells her work in Massachusetts and New England, where she's from and where she and her husband have a summer home.

Going to the heartof mosaic art

The mosaic arts can be traced back to ancient Sumeria and Mesopotamia, where the mud walls of buildings were adorned with small terracotta cones in geometric designs. More sophisticated forms of mosaic were made by the ancient Greeks, who used colored pebbles to create geometric patterns in their streets, along with scenes of people and animals from Greek mythology.

But it was the Romans who turned the technique into an art form, using stones, glass, marble and other natural materials to tile the floors of their buildings with elaborate designs and decorative panels. So when Linda and Nan wanted to learn more about the art form soon after they began making mosaics, they saved their money and signed up for a workshop in Ravenna, Italy – the capital of Italian mosaic arts.

"They have more Roman mosaics there than anywhere else in the world," Linda says. "They're everywhere; they're on the streets, randomly in walls, as well as the churches and plazas."

Their teacher was Lucianna, one of the top restorers in the country.

"Lucianna is incredibly famous among all mosaic artists," Linda says. "When we went to the Society of American Mosaic Artists conference in Miami in 2008, if you mentioned her name to any other mosaic artist there, they'd say, 'Oh, LoO-CHI-anna!'" Linda says, pronouncing the name with a thick Italian accent and waving her hand in a characteristic Italian gesture.

It was in Ravenna that the women learned about the concept of andamenti.

"The way you put down tiles, they should flow in a certain way so that your eye never gets stuck in any one place," Nan explains. "It's kind of the feng shui of mosaics," she says.

They also learned how to cut tile the old-fashioned way.

"We didn't score there," Nan says of the modern-day technique of running a glass or tile cutter over the material to perforate it and then gently tapping the scored lines with the ball side of the glass cutter to break it into individual pieces known as tesserae. "They used the hammer and hardie."

"It's the old Roman ways of cutting tile," Linda says of the technique in which the tesserae were painstakingly cut one at a time with a hammer and chisel-like device called a hardie. "It's fun but..."

During the workshop, the women had to reproduce – tile for tile– an ancient Roman mosaic. Then they were free to design a work of their own based on the principles they learned in the class.

Dreams and themes

Linda and Nan started out using broken dishes and ceramic tile to design their mosaics. But before long, they fell in love with stained glass.

"A friend gave me a whole bunch of stained glass because she was retiring and moving to a smaller home," Linda says. "Once we started using that, we never went back to tile...except for embellishments."

Their first mosaics were more functional than fanciful. The very first piece they made was a decorative shelf with a mirror. "We had a hard time deciding between functional and nonfunctional, but I would say now we tend to lean toward nonfunctional," says Linda, whose body of work includes several series of related pieces, and whose favorite subject matter is birds and human faces.

Right from the start, spiritual themes wove their way through both artists' work. Even the decorative shelf and mirror were shaped like a cathedral window.

Nan often gets her inspiration from songs, sayings and spiritual iconography. One of her pieces, "Waves of Mercy and Grace III," incorporates soft colors and flowing lines that were inspired by that phrase in the verse of a hymn.

Linda's favorite creation, "Mother Earth," is a seven-piece freestanding, 61-by-86-inch glass mosaic on wood with a steel stand. "I tried to incorporate all the things of the natural world in the folds of her skirt," she says.

Nan's favorite is a depiction of the face of Christ that she completed last year.

"I used a mosaic from the St. Luce Cathedral as inspiration."

Last year, many of Linda's most recent works were part of a "Saints and Sinners" exhibit at Randy Batista Studios. All of the saints in the series were portraits of close friends and family members, including Linda's mother and her mother-in-law.

"My saints were all pagan saints," Linda says of the series.

"I was one of those saints," Nan says in objection. "I have trouble with the word 'pagan.'"

Nan was raised in the Catholic faith and, at the age of 18, she spent five years in a Catholic convent before making the decision to leave at age 23.

"Well, you were a pagan saint only because I didn't have papal authority to make you a full saint," Linda replies lightheartedly. Linda jokingly refers to her spiritual upbringing as "strictly Unitarian."

Nan rolls her eyes and chuckles. "That's an oxymoron."

"We definitely have different spiritual ideas," Linda says. "But it's kind of fun having a best friend with different ideas that you can still respect and [who] inspires you."

Different strokes

The artists have two distinctive styles of working, too.

Linda usually begins by drawing an image on a board from a photograph. In one of her latest projects, for example, she uses a photograph of her new son-in-law and her nephew playing Monopoly. She plans to incorporate game pieces from her mother's vintage Monopoly game into the mosaic.

"I have to refer back to the photograph all the time" to incorporate color and shading into the finished mosaic, Linda says. Nan, on the other hand, will often start with a flowing line and then let the piece evolve.

At what point do they start gluing the tesserae into place? The question launches the two women in a lively discussion about their work styles.

"I'll lay a number of pieces and get the flow going and then start gluing," Nan says.

"I'm more fearless than that," Linda pipes in. "I just go for it. I usually draw the line with glue."

"But you usually work from a drawing," Nan counters. "It still takes me a long time. It's not that it has to be perfect, but I worry about flow and ... "

"Her pieces are perfect," Linda says.

"They aren't perfect."

"Yes, they are," Linda insists. "Every single piece is exactly where it should be with exactly the right flow, and she will take a piece up if it's just the tiniest bit not in line with the others and nip it off and make it perfect."

"Because I don't want the eye to stop there," Nan says.

Linda smiles and whispers, "I'm not that good."

Nan immediately rises up in Linda's defense. "It's not about being good. It's about different styles. You just have a freer style."

Linda laughs. "It would make me crazy to do it the way she [Nan] does it, even though I admire and respect that."

Nan has the final say in the discussion, and her words speak volumes about the artists' enduring friendship: "I love you, Linda."

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