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A student works on a mosaic at the Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.

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Making mosaics ‘goes a lot deeper than breaking glass and putting it together’

One of the few places teaching this art form in the U.S., the Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater attracts artists from around the world, teaching techniques that date to the Romans.

A student works on a mosaic at the Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.
| Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

Some of the work showcased at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Some of the work showcased at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

An instructor at the Chicago Mosaic School cuts glass tile.
An instructor at the Chicago Mosaic School cuts glass tile.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

To make mosaics, you need plenty of tiles.
To make mosaics, you need plenty of tiles.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times
Sources to tap for inspiration and about technique.
Sources to tap for inspiration and about technique.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

These tiles are destined for use in mosaics. The Chicago Mosaic School bought seven tons of “smalti” glass left over from an installation in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
These tiles are destined for use in mosaics. The Chicago Mosaic School bought seven tons of “smalti” glass left over from an installation in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

Students and teachers at a workshop at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Students and teachers at a workshop at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

Karen Ami, founder and executive director of the Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.
Karen Ami, founder and executive director of the Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

To create these handcrafted and hand-cut smalti tiles, 24 karat gold leaf is mounted on glass, then covered with a very thin, hand-blown piece of crystal and fused into one solid piece. In 2013, the Chicago Mosaic School acquired 13,000 pounds of smalti glass left over from an installation in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
To create these handcrafted and hand-cut smalti tiles, 24 karat gold leaf is mounted on glass, then covered with a very thin, hand-blown piece of crystal and fused into one solid piece. In 2013, the Chicago Mosaic School acquired 13,000 pounds of smalti glass left over from an installation in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.

Pieces on display at an exhibition at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Pieces on display at an exhibition at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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.”

A mosaic displayed at the Chicago Mosaic School.
A mosaic displayed at the Chicago Mosaic School.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times
The Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.
The Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater.
Victor Hilitski / Sun-Times

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