Just after I turned 39, I started making mosaics.
Suddenly I began buying tile trivets, ceramic figurines and odd pieces of old china at thrift stores, smashing the objects into pieces with a hammer, and reassembling the shards into two-dimensional images that I then mortared or glued on anything I could find.
The urge first struck when I was seven months pregnant with my son, so I figured it was some sort of hormonally induced nesting instinct, this desire to arrange shards of busted crockery into landscapes, animals and abstract designs. But the baby came, and the mosaic thing only escalated.
Shop. Smash. Adhere resulting shards to any surface on which you can put grout and thinset mortar. The pattern was set.
I made dozens of stepping stones. I made a backsplash behind the stove in the kitchen of our 1930s home near downtown. I tiled the cinder-block wall around the gate that led out to the alley.
And did I mention that I did much of this in the blazing desert sun, during the summer of 2005?
I spent that entire season on my patio, cutting plates and tiles into rectangles and circles and squares with the sort of compulsive single-mindedness of a folk artist receiving visions from God. I crouched over my work table, hands stained with grout and bloody from countless tile cuts, sweating in the oven that is a summer afternoon in Phoenix.
Yes, I could have worked in the shade. Yes, I could have worked at night by studio light. Yes, I should have worn gloves. (I did wear goggles. I'm not a total idiot.) But the pain was part of the pleasure.
Making mosaics had become a sort of ritual, a purification by arts and crafts. The sweat, the dirt, the dangerously sharp pieces of tile scattered all over the patio, and the four-foot-high piles of yet-to-be-broken crockery teetering from my worktables were a welcome physical escape from the head work of writing. It was art project as purification ritual, studio as sweat lodge.
Mosaicking was also the perfect metaphor for my life as the working mother of two children under the age of 4. Juggling the needs of kids, career and myself had broken my waking hours into a million pieces of time. I couldn't focus on anything longer than 25 consecutive minutes before having to go on to the next task, so figuring out ways to turn tiny stuff into large visions made perfect sense. Rearranging the shards of a couple of chipped Fiestaware plates into a sea turtle was a way of acting out my life. If I could master the chaos of thousands of pieces of tile, I could carve order out of my overscheduled life.
At first I broke the tile and plates with a hammer, and just worked with whatever chance handed me. As my ability to bring images out of piles of plates improved, I started using tile nippers and glass cutters to carve my thrift-store finds with surgical precision.
I studied books on mosaicking I checked out of the library each week of that long, hot summer, and taught myself about the different ways to lay tesserae, the elegant-sounding Italian word for the chunks of crap from which you make mosaics. I pored over art book photos of pre-Christian mosaics in Istanbul, classic Roman murals from Pompeii, Antoni Gaudi's funky serpentine bench in Barcelona and the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.
I cruised eBay for unusual mosaic materials like sea glass from a Maine beach, vitreous glass tiles from Japan, and smalti, a handmade glass from Italy. I cruised Craigslist for sets of old dishes; I bought an entire set of Miami Vice-pink plates for $2 from a woman who lived in a bungalow in the Coronado neighborhood and was happy to hear I planned on smashing her dishes.
"My ex-husband left them here when he moved out," she said. "Hit 'em really hard with that hammer."
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I bought more than 300 old plates from a mosaic artist in Tucson. She'd spent years combing thrift stores and garage sales from Bisbee to San Francisco for the stash of ceramic that filled two of the three rooms in her apartment. But all that tile and plate cutting had left her with arthritis, and her mosaic career was at an end. She sold me the lot.
The transaction ended up taking all day, because the woman was lonely and interesting. She showed me photos of her grown children. She played with my kids. She told me about living in Berkeley in the 1960s. She gave me a quick lesson in cutting plates and recommended I buy a tool called a Leponitt cutter. (A great steer. Accept no substitute.) Then she took me across town and showed me a cinder-block wall she had mosaicked in better days, when she could handle her tile nippers the way a surgeon maneuvers a scalpel. The wall was covered in brilliant purple shards she had cut from broken tile scavenged from a construction site, with yellow swirls of tile swooping through the purple. The work danced with energy, and it shone in the August sun as if made of liquid metal.
We went back to her apartment and she helped me stuff all 300 plates into my Volkswagen for the long, hot ride back to Phoenix.
"Don't break them," she called out between sobs as I drove off, plates rattling.