As students sit nearby hammering pieces of glass or stone, Karen Ami works on a colorful mosaic of yellow, green and orange that she’s designing in conjunction with Columbia College. As she talks, she fits in pieces, remarking on how the color gradually changes and the way the fluid lines go beyond simple stick-and-glue approaches.
“It’s very addicting,” she says. “People usually do linear movements, but here it flows with the line creating a texture. It’s a difficult thing to do. It takes lots of practice.”
Walking a visitor through the gallery of the Chicago Mosaic School, Ami points out more traditional works alongside others that employ a variety of materials, such as buttons or bugs, to redefine what a mosaic can be. A few of the works have a classical appearance, like something found at the Vatican or unearthed at Pompeii. Others are more modern and abstract. None resembles a kindergarten project or piece of deck furniture found at World Market, and that’s the point.
The school, which opened six years ago, is the product of Ami’s vision to create an institution dedicated to teaching mosaics as an art form. When she first became interested in mosaics as art, she had trouble finding anyone in the U.S. who taught the medium as anything other than a craft or decorative art for toothbrush holders. Many of the artists responsible for producing Chicago’s finest mosaics were Italians who came to the U.S., practiced their trade and then returned to their home country, taking with them the knowledge of their art.
“I had to go to Italy because it was the only place to study mosaics as an art and not in some community center,” Ami says. When she returned to the U.S., Ami found that most people teaching mosaics didn’t have art degrees or a background in art. “To do mosaics, you need to be able to draw. There is a disconnect in education. People claiming to be experts are doing the easy thing. This is just not gluing one thing to another.”
She started teaching mosaics from her art studio, and after an enthusiastic response, decided to open the Chicago Mosaic School in a 900-square-foot studio. She quickly expanded into the school’s current 5,200-square-foot space at 1800 W. Cuyler, and will soon relocate to an even larger site under construction next door, which will top out at 7,400 square feet. The school features classroom spaces, a gallery, a library and a specialty store that sells all of the materials needed to create a mosaic.
“I wanted this for me,” she says. “People are shocked to hear that something like this doesn’t exist anywhere. For many years, I did my own research. I made contacts with artists around the world. I started teaching out of my studio, and after a short time, I had a waiting list.”
Located on the second floor of a converted industrial building, the school shares space with a brewery and sound studio. Students sit at large tables chipping away at bits of stone, glass and china. The sound of talking and hammering echoes throughout the large space. Mosaics hang everywhere: in the gallery, on the walls in the bathroom, on cabinets above a sink. A large mosaic already present when the school took up occupancy (“A sign,” Ami calls it) shares a wall with the construction site next door. When the school moves, the mosaic will be cut out and turned around for display in the new space.
In a city rich in mosaics, with works seemingly decorating every public school and of course the famous Marc Chagall downtown, many people in Chicago don’t know the school exists. Chris Forillo, who has been with the Chicago Mosaic School since its inception, says the school is filling a much needed void. “We had one of the first accredited classes in the U.S. We are here to take mosaics to the next level.”
The not-for-profit school is the first of its kind in the U.S. to offer mosaic instruction for professional artists and designers as well as beginners. In its short time, the list of instructors drawn to CMS from around the globe has been nothing short of remarkable: Verdiano Marzi, who lives in Paris and teaches at the Louvre; Maggy Howarth, who taught her technique of pebble mosaics outside of her studio in England for the first time; Ilana Shafir, who developed a unique method called Spontaneous Mosaics; Carolina Zanelli, a former faculty member of the Spilimbergo School of Mosaics in Italy; and Matteo Randi originally from Ravenna, Italy, who joined the school in 2011 and was named Educational Director.
Education and outreach are important components of the school’s mission.
In addition to partnering with Columbia, the Chicago Mosaic School works with the Chicago Public Schools; one potential project is a large mural for Lake View High School. Teaming up with schools and introducing people to mosaics at a young age is key for Ami. “Our intention is to get young artists interested,” she said. “I would really like to see us foster a university program and have a degree in mosaic arts.”
The outpouring of support demonstrates that Ami’s leap of faith in founding the school has paid dividends. “It was just crazy enough for me to be excited about it,” she said. “I had an idea, and I knew what I wanted to do. I was passionate enough and crazy enough to believe in it.”