It’s tough to make a mosaic that will last. But the Chicago Mosaic School, founded and run by Karen Ami, is working on that.
Ami worked with ceramics for years. She says she learned the proper way to make a mosaic — art in which the images are created with bits of glass, marble or other materials. She spent time in Italy to perfect her technique after seeing what she says was too much shoddy mosaic work in the United States.
“The work that I saw being done was falling apart,” Ami says, “while mosaics from Pompeii and Rome were upheld.”
Her school, at 1127 W. Granville Ave., has classes and workshops, artist studios and a gallery that occasionally features student work.
By teaching techniques inspired by the Roman and Byzantine empires, students learn to make work that can last for generations, Ami says.
They learn to replicate Roman techniques by splitting tiles between a hammer and “hardie” — a metal object sharpened to break glass.
At a workshop earlier this month, students came from as far as Alaska, Maine and New Mexico to learn classic mosaic techniques.
The process of making a mosaic can vary, depending on the artist and where the mosaic will end up. The difference between a mosaic that will last and one that won’t relies in large measure on choosing materials, bases and adhesives that will work best with the conditions, according to Ami.
Artists at the Edgewater school generally start by drawing their design. Often, they use a number code to indicate which color material will be placed in each space.
They choose colors and materials, ranging from marble and glass to bottle caps, scraps of metal, buttons, wads of paper and even “garbage on our floor,” according to Ami.
Then, they cut the materials and prepare the base before placing the material carefully onto the base. The artists at the school typically use thinset mortar as an adhesive, similar to what was used in Roman times.
The mosaics made here have been installed in public spaces including Lincoln Park High School and Audubon Elementary School. Some get displayed in the school’s gallery. The artists keep some for themselves. And smaller ones, four inches by four inches, are sold as part of a school fundraiser.
A mosaic featuring characters from TV’s “South Park” is displayed in a classroom. Another, of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, is displayed in one artist’s studio.
The not-for-profit school has done projects with the Chicago Public Schools and the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce.
Among only a few places in the United States that teaches mosaic-making technique, the Chicago Mosaic School attracts artists from around the world, Ami says, and has had instructors from as far as Australia, Japan, Scotland, France and Italy. The school opened in 2005. It sees about 1,800 students a year, Ami says.
Some works include smalti, a traditional material that the school was given seven tons of.
It takes work before the pieces of glass, smalti or marble can come together to create a mosaic. Paula Getman, a North Park resident who’s been taking classes for about two years, is about six weeks into a three-dimensional lion’s head mosaic she says “was just sitting around waiting to be decorated.”
Getman says working with mosaics helps keep her focused and combines two of her interests — glass and collages.
Etty Hasak, an instructor who specializes in using clay, likes working surrounded by other artists. “I have a studio at home, and I still choose to work here,” she says.
Learning to create mosaic art “gave me a language, just like in music,” Hasak says. “When you understand it, you can say anything.
“It goes a lot deeper than breaking glass and putting it together.”