Scott Fitzwater Interest Crosses Atlantic

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on February 14, 2016 by Laura Paull

How cool is this: my profile of the contemporary mosaic artist Scott Fitzwater in Berkeleyside was picked up by a French art magazine, translated, and published! Voila! We’re in the December  2015 issue of Mosaique. It’s not yet online, but here’s the proof:

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Actually, it should be no surprise to anyone that there should be interest in Mr.Fitzwater’s brilliant innovations in the mosaic medium or his stunning (and rapid) technical achievements in the medium. Also, the mosaic community in France is thriving and has expanded throughout the past decade, and creative ideas, we eventually learn, belong to no one, but rather seem to float free through the universe, intercepting receptive artists.

In any case, here’s the profile in the original English, minus the specific event info.

Scott Fitzwater: Sketches in Slate

If the gray metamorphic rock known as slate could revert to the flow of its geological origins, it might resemble the dynamic new works of the mosaic artist Scott Fitzwater.

Opening September 19, the Institute of Mosaic Art in Berkeley will host the Portland artist’s solo exhibition “Sketches in Slate,” featuring Fitzwater’s year long exploration of slate as a mosaic material. From the flowing lines and curtains of color in his early “Progress” to the chunky chaos and subtle color overlay in his most recently completed “Diversity Gradient,” “Sketches in Slate” gives viewers the rare opportunity to see this body of work in one show.

Fitzwater is a largely self-taught artist who began his exploration of mosaics in 2008 after retiring from a career in software engineering.

“It looked constructive yet was expressive; the small pieces could display fluidity and texture; could make angles and curves yet mosaic techniques remained mysterious and unknown to me,” he recalls.

He went to the best sources, traveling throughout Asia, Europe, and the U.S. to study the techniques and scope of this diverse art form.

“I discovered that mosaic art was ancient, contemporary, architectural, functional, religious, community-based, fine art, folk art, geometric patterns, portraiture, scenes of nature, animal depictions and abstractions and it all mesmerized me,” he has written.

Not surprisingly, he favors the abstract. Geometry plays a strong role in his designs, which often reference ancient Roman, Byzantine and Moorish patterns. Noted Bay Area mosaicist Michael Kruzich, a master of the Italian Ravenna technique who is also known for intricate, perfectionist designs, notes that Fitzwater’s work reveals “an advanced sensitivity and awareness of line, composition and the effect it can have on the eye and emotions.”

Of note to math geeks and techies:

several of Fitzwater’s works were inspired by the 12th-century Italian mathematician known as Fibonacci.

“Having been a creative and technical type throughout my adult life, Fibonacci math and objects called to me,” he explains. “I saw it in art, in architecture, in nature, in the universe — everywhere. So, when I started creating art, I naturally relied on Fibonacci to guide me in my creativity. I’m no longer so dependent on it.”


Scott Fitz mosaic

‘Progress’ by Scott Fitzwater

When he started working with slate – prompted by a discovery of slate roofing tiles — the nature of the material led him toward a more organic and improvisational creative process.


In his piece, “Subterranean,” his intention to explore the movement of lines as they flowed encountered the stone’s opposing course, which he “inevitably, slid past,” he says. He was able to repeat this process in subsequent slate works.

“A Prayer for Earth,” begun with a contemplation of “heaven, hell, and our corporeal existence,” was waylaid by a new focus on “our physical lives on earth and how humans have exacted a terrible toll on our small, rocky planet.”

Indeed, many of the works in this exhibit, with titles like “Gene Pool,” “10Billion Max,” “Biotic Attrition,” and “Reef Gap,” evidence a preoccupation with human-caused environmental impact on the planet, perhaps related to his growing in

Section of Scott fitz piece

Reef Gap by Scott Fitzwater.

timacy with the material.


“Scott has had great success building a relationship with slate, which, in my experience, has a mind of its own and is a very challenging material to bend to your will,” Kruzich observes.

“Unlike some other natural stone, which is more willing to be formed, you often have to merge your vision with slate and allow yourself to use it for its inherent personality rather than insisting it behave like something else.”.

Visit the artist’s website at:


#HeartsinSF: On Wings of Love

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 29, 2016 by Laura Paull

When I was offered the chance to “make a heart” for an annual fundraiser for the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, I hesitated for a moment. I’d never made a three-dimensional mosaic, per se. It had to have technical issues — that point at the bottom, for example, where everything converges? That cleft between the two upper chambers?

But a challenge is a challenge. And besides, I have a special feeling about San Francisco General. In the mid-1980s, as a rookie reporter for the old San Francisco Examiner, I spent an afternoon in what was then called “the AIDS Ward.” It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, people were dying in droves in cities like San Francisco, and those who weren’t yet ill were in a panic. But every Saturday, a skinny blonde woman from the Midwest called “Rita Rockett,” who had come to California looking for the Hollywood dream and found only waitressing jobs, volunteered in the AIDS Ward to “give back” to the gay men who had made her dislocation tolerable. She  cooked massive amounts of food and the hospital allowed her to wheel it up to the ward, where so many were wasting away. The patients invited their friends, family, lovers and ex-lovers.  Everyone ate a non-institutional meal, and for at least that one day out of every seven, it was almost a party. Many of the patients had nowhere else to go in their condition; it would be their last ‘home.’  So the sense of community established by this crisis ritual was essential in staving off the terror: the terror of those who would tumble importunately into eternity, and of those who would lose them.

I remember learning that a handsome, green-eyed visitor who conversed with me in a deep baritone voice was the star of many a gay porn video; he said he felt a deep responsibility to “be there” for the fellas. And I remember that the squeamishness I had to repress when pushing the ‘up’ button of the elevator, was very much gone by the time I pressed the button to go down.

So yes, I said yes, and started the project. Thirty days we were given, to turn it in.

Soon a little box arrived from the HeartsinSF campaign offices, incredibly heavy for its dimensions. Inside, I found a pure white cast heart on a stand.  The mosaic equivalent of the white page. I loved contemplating its possibilities.

White HeartHeart- beginning

It didn’t take long to decide I was going to make a cockatoo. People asked me: how did I come to that? I have to confess: it was the color of a piece of stained glass I found, ranging in shades from deep orange to white through the spectrum of peaches and corals — it just said “cockatoo” to me. Which brought to mind a white cockatoo named “Marilyn,” who I used to visit in a Modesto flower shop.

From there I began to cut and sort the tesserae, and pencilled the bird on the virgin heart. With the very first pieces I laid down- the cockatoo’s face — I knew it was going to work. The project was a pleasure from start to finish, although fitting the pale blue tile into the upper crevice of the heart was indeed very difficult.Heart-Cutting Tess

Cockatoo face beginning

Heart rear before grout











Heart bef Grout

The pale gray grout tended to tone down the bright oranges and blues (see before – above- and after- below.) But it was the best possible choice, I think.

On Wings of Love front viewOn Wings of Love rear view

Eleven hearts designed by San Francisco artists will be displayed in the windows of the Neiman Marcus department store in Union Square and four in Wilkes Bashford, until February 16, when they will hopefully be sold at auction to benefit the new Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center.

It is indeed a very good thing that Mark Zuckerberg and his wife gave $75 million to this cause. But I gave my heart.

My Heart in NM window

Four of the hearts (‘On Wings of Love” is at left) in the window of Neiman Marcus in Union Square, San Francisco. 

Darkness Visible

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 25, 2016 by Laura Paull

On an inspired flight back from my first SAMA (Society of American Mosaic Artists) conference, in Austin, 2011, I sat furiously typing notes into my iPad for a dozen or more new mosaic pieces. Seeing such a variety of brilliant, original work had shattered my concepts of mosaic art in the best way. Images lined up in my imagination whose fulfillment would devour my foreseeable future.

Then I looked out the airplane window and realized we were on the ground. We had made a pit stop in Denver and were waiting on the runway. It was late night. Nothing was moving but a slow mist descending on the asphalt, making gauzy moons of the harsh airport lamps. Winking lines of blue and red lights spoke to pilots in the air. Parked airplanes lined the runway like a descending chord, tail fins shrinking into oblivion. In the distance, a suggestion of mountains was another shade of dark. Click. Another vision shaped the slow trajectory of my creative production.

It was the summer of 2015 before that image fell into the front slot of my mental slide projector. I was heading for a summer workshop with Sonia King at West Dean College, in England. I needed a project that was portable and small enough to accomplish in the 5-day class. About the size of an airplane window.

I made my sketch before leaving home and was surprised at how vivid the image had remained in my mind, how relatively easy it was to convey perspective and distance given a line of airplanes of diminishing size. But what I realized was that I had stumbled onto a subject that, unlike anything I’d done and very little that I had seen before, was about darkness. All that was light in it would be in service to the portrayal of the night. It was a study in black.

Me working at West Dean.jpg

Blissful beginnings at West Dean.

I brought a variety of dark art glass–one  with misty swirls of white, another with the navy blue glitter of a wet night sky–and some small tiles with variegated black and silver patterns. I brought metallic glass for the airplanes, red and blue for the runway lights. I found matte black Cinca tiles at West Dean. I had no idea how I would combine these materials, but that was the work of the intensely peaceful five days I spent at West  Dean under the tolerant, encouraging tutelage of Sonia King.

Despite the fact that my piece was entirely different from anyone else’s work, or anything I had ever seen in mosaic, and that I am sure nobody entirely understood what I was trying to do, I  moved forward as if I did.

Three days into the exercise I jotted down in my notebook,

“This is not about an airport runway. It is about forms disappearing into the dark.”

For whatever reason, these are the visual compulsions that truly govern us.

The only downside was that art whose dominant color is black is notoriously impossible to photograph, not to mention the intrinsic challenges of conveying the 3-D values of mosaic in 2-D photography. Two professional photographers took a shot at it.  This is the best I’ve got, for now.

Darkness Visible



Where Do Our Creative Visions Come From?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 25, 2016 by Laura Paull

When I went to England last summer to take Sonia King’s course at West Dean College, I left behind an uncompleted mosaic that represented a new challenge for me. While representational in style–a landscape with specific elements–I wanted to make an ungrouted mosaic that used natural materials–stones, matte ceramic tiles–nothing ornamental. I didn’t want to be the crow attracted to shiny objects. NOT that there’s anything wrong with that.

The landscape I had in mind was one that I had seen every winter in the California Central Valley–vast expanses of pale buff hills populated by grazing sheep. Migrating white cranes would settle into the fields, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with the sheep that had something to do with their dung, and the contrast of the wooly animals with the sleek white cranes fixed in my mind. The sky was often leaden grey, darker than the land itself. Towering thunder clouds would build drama until expended in rain. I found some stones that were totally clouds — and look! they could double as sheep! That made my task of recreating this scene a whole lot easier.This was as far as I got before leaving for England. The major, and I think most important part by far, would be the ground itself – the quality and texture of the andamento that would unite all the other elements and render the landscape true.

This was as far as I got before leaving for England. The major, and I think most important challenge by far, would be to cover the ground itself with a quality and texture of andamento that would unite all the other elements and render the landscape true.

Sheep mosaic very incompleteMy project for the West Dean workshop was a completely different one – a small one that I could carry on a plane and hope to finish or at least get a good start on in one week. (see next post!) So imagine my surprise when I arrived at West Dean College, in the southern county of Suffolk, and found myself in a landscape that looked like this:

West Dean sheep blue sky

Or sometimes like this:

West Dean sheep rainy day.jpg

I do realize the English countryside pre-dates me, but it felt as if I had conjured this landscape from the persistence of my inner vision. Clearly this subject was not going to leave me alone!

I took many walks among the sheep (which were more plentiful than this photo shows,) through West Dean’s hills, (which were far greener than in California,) and was able to study them and their relation to the landscapes on which they depend. But when I returned home to resume the mosaic, I felt it didn’t matter, because I am not a painter, and the style of mosaic I had in mind was not hyper-realistic.

If my stones could suggest the sheep, if my rocks could be seen as weightless clouds — that was what I was after.

What mattered was an emotion I held for the life of animals on the land, their quiet pursuit of sustenance, their co-existence with one another and with us.

That. And the intrinsic challenge of the mosaic medium: to lay down line after line of earthly materials in a way that reminds of us something real, but through composition and texture achieves its own unearthly beauty.

Wet Dean sheep with Castle in BG

The sheep of Suffolk, in happy symbiosis with the estate of West Dean College of the Arts.


Encounter in Israel: Ilana Shafir

Posted in Other artists with tags , , , , on February 3, 2014 by Laura Paull

In the beginning, there was just the sand and the Mediterranean sea and the promise of a life after the Holocaust. The young artist Jelena Stark  made her way to Israel with her family, which had escaped German-occupied Sarajevo during the war. The year was 1949.

In 1952, renamed Ilana Shafir, she moved as a new wife and mother into a brand new home in Ashkelon, the ancient coastal town an hour south of Tel Aviv. It is to this house that I make my way during a trip to Israel, the house where for six decades she has grown and flourished as a mosaic artist of unequaled originality and craft. Simply put, there is no one else in the world who is doing quite what she is doing, as well as she is doing it, in the world of fine art mosaics. This is, for me, a pilgrimage.

There's definitely imaginative feedback between the plants in Ilana's garden, and her mosaic works.

There’s definitely imaginative feedback between the plants in Ilana’s garden, and her mosaic works.

I find her sitting at a table on the open porch of her Mediterranean-style home, a comfortable one-story spread surrounded on three sides by an intriguing garden. Her gardener, a young Jack Nicholson lookalike, is master of the outside domain defined by the fences on which her mosaic works hang. He is pruning and weeding a path that winds through a population of her three-dimensional ceramic creatures and rare plants that are equally fantastical.

“Who are these creatures you sculpt?” I ask Ilana in amazement, for they look like models for a science fiction film of the intergalactic genre.

“They  are the result of my fantasy. I imagine they came from another planet and are watching what we do here on this earth,” she says without blinking, as she strokes a favorite ceramic figure crouching on a dresser. “They are friendly and have good intentions. They have different personalities. I love them very much.”

Ilana with one of her favored creatures.

Ilana with one of her favored creatures.

At 89 -1/2, Ilana Shafir is white haired and frail, but her eyes are lucid and she speaks English haltingly but well.

“Mentally I’m fit and I work with no problem, but walking is now a problem for me,” she says, gripping her walker. “Age is coming and I need more help than in the past. But I don’t need someone to keep me company. I like to be lonely.”

She may have meant “alone.” Or maybe not.

Help comes in the form of housework, gardening, and lifting heavy things. But in the work she does tirelessly, day after day, even cutting stone, “No help — ever!  Cutting is not a difficulty. Only time is a difficulty — to have enough.”

How much time is enough to absorb the blows of history and to strike your own in order to balance out your fate? Even after all these years, “I use every free time that I have,” she says.

Ilana Shafir was artistic from a very young age. Born into a Jewish family in 1924, her world was full of culture and multiethnic stimuli.

“Sarajevo was like Constantinople: on every every corner you had the mosque. I learned with children from Muslim families and from orthodox Christian families, and from the Catholic — in Sarajevo  everybody had another religion. Living in peace!  And we were invited to every holiday, to two Christmases —  one Catholic and one Orthodox, and the Muslim holidays. They came to us, too, and everything was very smooth. It could be the best example of all people living together. But you never know what will develop.”

Everything changed with the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia. Her early studies in the high school of architecture were interrupted. The situation became so dangerous that her father, a railroad engineer, planned their escape.

“My father decided we’d leave Sarajevo secretly, and that we’d go to the station and read books, not looking at one another, like strangers, so we would not be recognized as a family leaving. Our papers were not legal; we were under big stress. It would be four, five hours on the train until we reached the Italian Occupied area, where we would be safe,” she recounts, as if it were yesterday.

“Then one moment the train stopped, and they said we could not continue because  the partisans had demolished all the bridges. So everyone gets out, and we are in the middle of some deserted place, still in the German Occupied zone, not knowing where to go. It was very dangerous.Then along comes a worker from the railroad who said, ‘We have organized at the bridges that somebody will take you out. There will be workers who will transport you with some vehicle on the road, then you will come to the next bridge  and so on.’

“You know,” Shafir confides, “to arrange something like this, in a country where normally when people will say they’ll be there at 4, they are still not there at 7 —  how can this work? But at every bridge there were railroad people waiting for us, taking our things and going around another way. We do not know who these people  were. We could hardly say thank you. When we come to the Italian territory — again we had help. Things that you cannot imagine will be. I have no explanation for it. But it happened. You can only say that this a miracle.”

I can’t find it in me to tell her that it was the railroad workers union, and the Resistance, whose planning and execution of escapes were legendary in France and apparently Yugoslavia too. I can understand that at 17 it seemed like a miracle to her. But you don’t contradict a nearly-90 year old woman, nor her memories.

The family rode out the rest of the war in Kula, a small Yugoslavian village then under Italian rule. Again, they owed their lives to the ‘miraculous’ fact that not one individual chose to reveal their presence to any Nazi or pro-Fascist authorities. It was there that Ilana began to develop her skills, endlessly drawing and painting the faces of the villagers of Kula. At the war’s end, she began her studies at the Zagreb Art Academy. Shortly after her graduation in 1949, the family emigrated to Israel along with two cousins who had survived the concentration camps.

“To come to Israel was freedom, and we are thinking, ‘this is a place where nobody will attack us because we are Jewish’,’” she recalls. “But my parents were broken. After the war they could not do anything. My father lost six sisters, with their families; they were all gone, and my mother lost two sisters and one brother. My father was the stronger  one; my mother collapsed. Only in Ashkelon, they  were happy again; they saw that we had our new families, and children, and there were other families speaking German as they did. It was a good time for them.”

Ilana’s transition to Israel stimulated her interest in portraiture. She responded to the environment by drawing and painting the faces of the new blend of nationalities and ethnicities she saw around her.

“Survivors and newcomers from every country: I had never seen Jews of this kind before.  I was enthusiastic to see in every man a prophet, every woman a Queen of Sheba. They ???????????????????????????????were so beautiful and so special, and I was fascinated,” she recalls.

And yet, deeply affected by the war, she drew the portraits in black and white.

“They were sad faces,” she admits without apology. “People said, ‘Nobody will buy pictures like that,  faces like an old rabbi — too sad.’ But this was the right moment in time to do it.”

And then, one day, in about 1960, she took a pen and ink and began to draw some paradisiacal landscapes, lush with natural imagery and Middle Eastern architectural forms. At about the same time, she began to experiment with the mosaic medium.

“And there I am until now,” she says. “I finished with the difficult memories. Israel was a very healing place.”

By 1968 her landscapes had bloomed with color. In 1972, she began to bring forth the ceramic creatures of her imagination. She became a dedicated art teacher and founded the Ashkelon Art Center, today a flourishing educational institution. Signs of her influence can be seen all over the city, from mosaic murals on public buildings to playgrounds displaying mosaics by her adult students. And still, day in and day out —  a widow now with her two grown children leading lives of their own — she relentlessly pursues the intrinsic aesthetic dynamic that is the muse of all true artists.

The mosaics of Ilana Shafir are really indescribable, but I’ll give it a try: tactile rivulets of rough, natural materials flow in directions that seem more found than planned, suggesting but not insisting on things we can recognize.  If it is the sea, it is about the movement of the sea; if it is a house or a temple, it is the essence of a temple, with visual patterns that speak of solidity, community and joy. Each work contains an incredible variety of unique pieces — glowing chunks of colored glass; rocks cracked open to their inner mysteries; textured ceramic objects — whose connections and arrangement somehow achieve wholeness. Her work is unique in the world of mosaics, very much her own, she agrees. What does she call it?“Spontaneous mosaic.” Which is not strictly true, she says, but was a phrase given to describe her work at a lecture once in the mosaic mecca of Ravenna, Italy, and people  have since adopted it.

A bin of colored glass chunks await their destiny in her workshop.

A bin of colored glass chunks await their destiny in her workshop.

What defines her method, she says, is that it is based on the materials she uses, not on an idea, or principles of composition, nor a style. Which is to say, not only rock, pebble, shell, glass, tile or ceramic, but what kind of rock or tile or glass: their essential qualities.

“The point of beginning is the material itself,” she says gravely. “You choose something that is speaking to you. This is the big point to learn: that every thing has its emanating strength or power, and it influences the one who is next to it.”

The materials she uses are often very old, and have had a kind of ‘life’ before they came into her hands.

“Some of them were 300 years in the sea, or maybe they were in a household and were a part of a family, things like that.” And this history influences both the material itself and the thing that is —  she struggles to find the word  — “adjacent.”

Finding the connections or relations between such a diversity of elements “is a very very long process,” she confirms, “and it goes very slowly, so I am concentrated for a year or more on one mosaic. During this time I am completely into this world and I always find new things; however long it takes, I find this [process] very interesting. For my work you do not need patience because you are always discovering something new.”

For the next ten minutes we sit in silence as I watch her sort through a table crowded with potential elements for a new mosaic that seems full of light. As she places one stone consciously next to another, I watch her falling through the timeless portal of her creativity.

And then I bring her back. Does she ever ponder what Israel has become today, I ask. She looks up at me, as if gauging my capacity to understand.

“The problems are huge. People talk, but if you come into the problem, it has another face. It is not simple,” she says. “I have no good ideas for how to solve these problems.”

???????????????????????????????But she has some sense of their origins. Her father, she explains, was a Zionist student in Europe, and like many of his peers he eventually came to Israel.

“But nobody could imagine the other problem. They had not seen it. They were sure that here [in Israel] are native people; they thought that we will train them, we will teach them modern agriculture and we will give education to their children, and they will be very  grateful for this, no? Nobody could imagine what really happened.The war of independence — it was a  miracle that we won. And until now you have the residue of this war, because they could not accept that they were not the winning party. They are very very complicated questions.”

Had her family had any interactions with the Arab population early on, and had that changed as Ashkelon grew from the sandy seaside village with crumbling ancient ruins, to the modern Jewish commuter suburb that it is today?

No, she says, she has no interactions today. “When I came, I barely realized that they existed. In my time there were some Arab families living in town of Migdal, now a neighborhood. They left because they were sure that the Israelis would treat them the way they would treat the Israelis if they were the victim. There were only two families left and they were good friends of my son, and their children were together in the schools. So there was no problem with them at all. The problems,” she says, “are artificial.”

She adds that in her view, “only commerce can be the factor (that) unites the parties. Because if you have commercial interests, you do not go to make a war. But we are not yet at this point. It will take time.”

Again, the refrain of time. How much time will be enough to get there?

“There are many people who try, and I hope they will find the way. I am always optimistic,” she says, “because otherwise I would not survive.”

Mosaic is widely understood as the art of putting things together, sometimes shattered things, sometimes things that have been deliberately cut. I tell her that her work makes more sense than all those little miracles that mark her life like a meme, the work of finding in the slagpile of history the exact pieces whose connection results in harmony and new beginnings.

“I imagine that all of them are happy pieces,” she affirms.

Ilana and me reflected in a ceiling mirror that she uses to get some perspective on her work as she creates it.

Ilana and me reflected in a ceiling mirror that she uses to get some perspective on her work as she creates it.

Shamelessly taking advantage of her experience, I share with her an iPhone photo of my own latest creation, a small mosaic on which I had worked very hard and for me represented a breakthrough in technical ability. She takes a quick glance.

“Ornamental,” she pronounces.

“It’s just an exercise,” I say, too quickly. “To work on my technique: cutting, form, line, color, flow.”

“These things are not so important. What matters,’ she says gently, “is feeling.”

Ilana Shafir has spoken. And my life as an artist, changed forever.

This article was first published in

The Unconscious At Work

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 20, 2013 by Laura Paull



It was only a few months into my move to San Francisco that I met the family whose members and impact would continue to reverberate in my being for the next several years (and into the foreseeable future.) The “children” of this amazing family — now all in their fifties — included a set of triplets, two males and a female. I knew the minute I saw her that she would become my new best friend.

Fast forward to 2013, and I am working on the third of my series of studies in paisley, this one inspired only by a beautiful piece of rare pink glass that I found at The Stained Glass Garden, in Berkeley. Note that the intent of this series has only been to explore form and color in mosaic, using the paisley motif and a combination of glass and ceramic tile. The first two, which can be seen in this blog, had order and shape in the paisley elements contrasted by a crazy quilt arrangement in the gray tile background. I thought that was the way to go, having seen its efficacy in many of the works of the masterful Sonia King. But this time I decided to try – just try! – to lay the tiles around the paisley in a purposeful andamento, to create more unity and movement. And voila! an ENTIRELY different look — so much so, that I cannot longer consider this piece the third in a series, and my goal of making a quartet of paisley pieces to be exhibited together is now completely blown.

But here is the real story, as my opening sentence promises. It was not until I was grouting the piece that I suddenly thought: these three paisley forms, as arranged in this piece, look like —triplets! Starting with the paisley shape itself, so ancient and instinctual, in some cultures a symbol of life, for obvious reasons. And then the way that the three forms lay in relation to one another, as if they had somehow accommodated themselves in a womb — two of them practically in a yin/yang relation, and a third off to the side but still part of the whole. And the way each form, though entirely unique (I am still struggling with my inability to replicate anything) has elements of the other, the way each twin or triplet will share  much of the DNA of the others.

That was when I knew that in some unconscious way. I had made an abstract representation of this family I love, and named the piece, “Triplets.”

The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 4, 2013 by Laura Paull

I had the opportunity to interview the mosaic artist Lilian Broca for my ‘day job,’ as editor of I love it when all my interests converge!

So this piece was first published in For more information on the artist, visit her website at

Queen Esther's Banquet, by Lilian Broca

Queen Esther’s Banquet, by Lilian Broca

Let us depart for a moment from the bawdy carnival of reversal that celebrations of Purim have become.

Consider instead a Romanian child’s experience of repression growing up in the Communist era, a time and place so harsh, so dangerous, that her parents feared to tell her that they were Jewish.

Enter now into the vibrant panorama of the Queen Esther mosaics of Lilian Broca, who only discovered as an adult emigré and fully developed artist how much she identified with the story of that brave young woman who used her wits and wiles to save the Jews in ancient Persia.

Lilian Broca in her Vancouver studio, working on one of the panels.

Lilian Broca in her Vancouver studio, working on one of the panels.

“My whole childhood existence was an Esther experience,” the artist explained by telephone from her home in Vancouver, B.C., where she has lived since 1972. “In Bucharest we were repressed in every aspect of our life. Everything was a secret, our family name was changed, and there was no synagogue. Parents didn’t dare speak in front of their children because many children unwittingly gave their parents away by repeating in school something they had overheard at home; people were taken away in the night. You couldn’t trust anyone. So in many respects we lived like Esther. But I only knew this many years later.”

The family escaped Romania in 1958, when Lilian Broca was 12, first to Israel, then making their way to Montreal, where they had family. She earned an art degree at Concordia University, where she completed her first mosaic, and then an MFA at Pratt University in New York, where she developed as a painter and completed a second mosaic. When she married and moved to Vancouver, she carried with her the leftover shards of glass from her first project, intending someday to return to the medium.

“Once we escaped, I carried my Romanian identity like something neatly folded in my pocket, and it came out too in the series,” Broca said. “I was so in love with the Byzantine icons I saw around me as a child.” The part of the Balkan Peninsula where she’d grown up retained the cultural influence of the old Eastern Byzantine Empire, centered in what was then Constantinople — today’s Istanbul. The colorful and gold-painted icons she saw all around her probably illuminated what was an otherwise gloomy environment in Bucharest, she proposes in her recently published, lavishly illustrated book, “The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca. Published by Gefen House of Jerusalem and New York in 2011, the exquisite book contains artistic and technical accounts of her process by Broca, a long poem based on the Estr Scrolls by Yosef Wosk, and a forward by the major American feminist artist Judy Chicago.

In an astute analysis of the multiple layers of Broca’s technical and artistic accomplishment in this work, the Romanian art critic Pavel Susara has described her mosaics as a process in which she reconciles her national and cultural roots in the post-Byzantine world, her religious and cultural roots in Judaism, and her development and aesthetics as a Western artist.

He also commented that by creating enduring works on portable panels Broca has profoundly contributed to the liberation of the mosaic from what has historically an art that is tied to fixed places: buildings, walls, floors. Like Jewish culture and religion, it is an art of the Diaspora.

To hear her tell it, Broca’s return to mosaics, the medium in which she will no doubt leave her most memorable legacy, sounds like destiny. After many years as a successful painter, she attended a lecture where a scholar was showing slides of some paintings on the walls of an ancient Syrian synagogue. A scene of the Persian King Xerxes (known to the Jews as Ahoshverosh or Ahashvayrosh)) and his Jewish queen, prompted her to begin her explorations in early 2002.

“My unexpected discovery that one of the earliest if not the earliest written references to mosaics occurs in the biblical Book of Esther, in the passage describing King Ahashvayrosh’s palace, further, contributed to my decision to return to this powerful, singular art form,” Broca writes in her book.

Her identification with the figure of Esther was also key.

“Throughout my artistic career, I have explored human relationships and the nature of the human condition,” Broca writes. “…In the past 15 years I have turned my attention to societal issues, especially those involving woman and their plight in historical times.”

In previous work, she had explored the figure of Lilith, a legendary figure said to have lived before the biblical Eve. Esther, she says, personified for her the theme of feminine sacrifice and courage.

“Esther was young and innocent, and like all the women of her era had to obey Mordechai, the alpha male of her family,” Broca says. “She was beautiful, yes, but also very wise, and she eventually used her beauty in a different way than Vashti did. She didn’t want to die, and had to come up with an idea for survival in a cunning way.”

Esther Holding Evidence of Haman's Guilt

Esther Holding Evidence of Haman’s Guilt

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity

Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity

Broca’s Queen Esther series, as seen in these images, follow Esther’s evolution from a frightened and submissive teenager to a mature and confident queen, who manages to manipulate treacherous political conditions so as to ensure the survival of her people. Her ability to convey deep and subtle emotion, not to mention the fabulously ornate ambiance of Persian culture, in the inflexible medium of glass tile, is beyond comparison.

Broca’s obsession kept her going for seven years; the massive, 10-panel mosaic series was completed in 2009. It has garnered a number of honors for Broca including the prestigious gold medal (for the early panels) at the 2003 Florence Biennale; the complete series was purchased by Canadian art collectors Jackie and Horatio Kemeny, but continues to be in demand for exhibitions.

The technical details of the actual process she used to create these panels, in which she sought above all historical authenticity, has been of tremendous interest to contemporary mosaic artists around the world.

“… Lilian is not just telling a story. She has taken a tale from antiquity, and is using the narrative to convey a wider contemporary message, which here is that of the role of women in self-sacrifice, and the promotion of non-violent negotiations for peaceful conflict resolution,” wrote Sheila D. Campbell, art historian, archaeologist, and Curator at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

“She works with colour and light to achieve her goal. But the success of these panels lies not only in Lilian’s ability to weave a narrative. Her understanding of colour and how it works is superb. The three dimensional effect which is achieved happens because of this understanding. …Many people try to work in mosaic. Few achieve such successful and professional results.”

In 2012, Romanian film maker Adelina Suvagau made a compelling documentary film about Broca’s life and art, which Broca narrates and in which she appears. “Return to Byzantium: The Life and Art of Lilian Broca,” which is making the rounds of film festivals, will become available to the public on DVD later this spring after its run on Romanian national television. For information about the film, visit
Before we complete this all-too-brief sketch of the art and life of Lilian Broca, let us add, for the record, that she is a fan of Vashti, too.

“I think Vashti is a heroine – I really do,” she said. “I was taken with Esther, because I identified with her. But I have a lot of respect for Vashti. In the past women had no tools except for their sexuality; their survival often depended on how they used their sexuality and there was only a small window of youth in which to do so. I honor her.”

Who knows — perhaps the banished Vashti will inspire a new series of mosaic marvels from the hand of the gifted artist, Lilian Broca.

‘Throughout my career I have explored relationships and the nature of the human condition through symbols and metaphors. The biblical Book of Esther addresses the themes of sacrifice and female empowerment, two subjects that particularly intrigue me. It encourages women to believe in their own strength  even in a patriarchal society where women are usually submissive and dominated by men All women possess the potential to be the “assertive Esther” – one hidden inside a shy, reserved and obedient girl. I chose the biblical Queen as a prototype for the courageous, selfless heroine who wins against all odds. As a young woman, Esther fulfilled her role as leader at a time of crisis with intelligence, persistence and dedication. Today we view her as a role model and as such, she contributes significantly to the status of women in society.’

–Lilian Broca

Esther Seeking Permission to Speak. All photos of Broca's art by Ted Clarke, Image This Photographics

Esther Seeking Permission to Speak. All photos of Broca’s art by Ted Clarke, Image This Photographics