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Helen Miles discusses her mosaic journey

My connection with mosaics began by chance one day in 2002 when sitting on a beach running pebbles idly through my fingers. I was living in Greece’s northern city of Thessaloniki at the time and on that summer afternoon, with the stones in my hands, I had a sudden realisation that I wanted to make mosaics. Even though I had never made a mosaic before, I knew with complete certainty that it was what I wanted to do. 

A long process of discovery and delight followed. I returned to Thessaloniki and found a master craftsman who trained me in the art of mosaic making and I followed up by taking shorter courses in the UK with some of the top names in the field. 

Inspiration was all round me in the domed ceilings of the Byzantine city’s churches and the fragments displayed in its museums, remnants of a time when mosaics were almost compulsory decoration for the great and the good. But Thessaloniki was just a taster, almost like a carefully selected introduction, before opening a door onto the wider world of mosaics which spans at least 2,500 years and encompasses a dizzying range of artistry, technique and geographical location.

Smoking Byzantine head. Made with Winckelmans unglazed ceramic tiles.

I now make mosaics mostly for commission which are intended for specific sites including floor or wall panels. One of the things I enjoy the most is making mosaics to commemorate special occasions such as weddings and significant anniversaries. 

The only real requirement for making mosaics is time. A mosaic cannot be rushed and the slowness of the making process is fundamental to what they are. It is an art and craft which is enormously absorbing and deeply meditative. Each piece is selected, picked up and laid with deliberation and even new students often mention how relaxing it is. The concentration required means that everything else around you, the cares and distractions of life, disappear and you focus only on the project in hand.

The urge to collect, gather, re-use and decorate is fundamental to the nature of mosaics. The basic materials needed to make mosaics are not hard to come by. If you have ever picked up a shell on the beach, been reluctant to throw away a broken bowl or looked at a dull concrete wall and wanted to cheer it up then you will understand the urge to make mosaics. 

For many years I used stone and marble which is easily accessible in Greece, but now that I am living in the UK I tend to use purpose made ceramic and glass tiles as well as smalti, which is a specialised glass used on Byzantine ceilings and still made in Venice using the traditional methods. However, nothing gives me greater pleasure than collecting miscellaneous materials from sea-worn ceramic, old jewellery, rusty hardware and even single use plastics to make into abstract mosaic pieces.

Work in progress, a floor panel made in reverse based on a 4th century panel from the British Museum. Greek stone and marble.

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