The Art of Sucking

I highly recommend working outside your comfort zone. That point between the expert and beginner, the place where you step into the unknown, is magical.  The space of “what happens next?”, is where the greatest learning can occur. It is where you can break free of blocks and blockages. It is where you learn to let go, discover and be creative.  Another way of expressing it – go forth an master the art of sucking because when you do that and get through the being bad part, it and you can be sooooo good.  After all, we are all beginners at some point in our life.

By that means, I highly recommend the “Quick Release” mosaic art class I participated in at Seattle Mosaic Arts by Kelly Knickerbocker.  Check them both out.  Kelly’s work are technical masterpieces of both expression and technique.  Seattle Mosaic Arts offers many classes and a friendly and free environment to just be and create.  I get lost just looking at all the materials which I’ve learned are called “tesserae”, the shape, the textures, the sparkle and the endless possibility.

The “Quick Release” class was so much fun.  Aside from literally getting dirty and covered in mortar, I enjoyed listening to Kelly’s opening talk about mosaic arts. She showed some amazing mosaic work by herself and her colleagues and spoke freely of value, color, composition and design. Some of this work had me sitting on the edge of my seat, it was so stunning and absorbing. The way she spoke of art, as form and composition, of line and shape was refreshing and freeing to me. She focused on the art of art.

I love the stories embedded in art. Instead of the composition telling the story, many of the stories of the mosaics are in the actual materials or “tesserae”.  I loved this. It is so fundamentally different than basic painting. For example, she shared how she collected twigs and rocks at Green Lake, became her composition “Sticks and Stones”.  She spoke created with plates and ceramics gifted her from across the world. She used non-permanent paper in a series of work done for an Italian gallery.  She spoke of being interested in what the medium is not.  Mosaics are classically permanent and durable, so why not explore the medium through more delicate means?

So I ask myself, what is painting not? I’ve never asked myself this before.

In this class, Kelly envisioned a “Quick Release” method to point the participants towards more work on art and less work muddling through the big picture hows and whats to get started. In doing so she gave us constraints; only grayscale tesserae, choose one of three basic compositions to work from and we  would work in a series of 3 4″ x 4″ squares.

The first two constraints were to keep us from getting stopped before we started but the purpose behind working in a series was different.  The purpose  was to urge us to create deep.  By staying within the constraints we built and worked creatively within them. The first composition would not be likely be the best, in fact by working in series we could continue to explore and finesse the work of the preceding series.  A series is a practice and exploration.  It is so good for honing and understanding.  A series are stepping stones to expertise.

Finally, we worked in the direct method which means that we laid mortar down and placed tesserae directly into the mortar.  Usually, the mortar is colored and in this class it was mostly black.  With this method, there is no need for grout. The most freeing aspect of this method is that you don’t have to compose your tesserae evenly for grout lines.  Your mosaic can by sculptural!  You can place tiles and shards in any manner you like.  One woman’s mosaic looked like a cityscape from the side.  My projects explored the topography of hills and rivers.

Flower mosaic I created in a beginning mosaic class which used the indirect method. The tesserae is level and grout lines are noticeable. I laid this out of tacky paper first and then transposed it to the mortar. It was a much neater process but not as much of a tactile or sculptural experience.
Flower mosaic I created in a beginning mosaic class which used the indirect method. The tesserae is level and grout lines are noticeable. I laid this out of tacky paper first and then transposed it to the mortar. It was a much neater process but not as much of a tactile or sculptural experience.

It was all very exciting. I willing complied. I approached all of it as an opportunity to explore aspects and components of art that I don’t usually.  I left mortar exposed and embedded words in my compositions.  I got lost in the reflections of glass and the organic patterns in the ceramic pieces.  I loved it.  But sometimes love just isn’t enough.

Admittedly, I’m not so good at mosaics. First of all, I don’t seem to have the gene for being neat.  You know you are unusual when the teacher laughs at you hysterically because you have mortar on your face and even on your teeth!  Good lord!  I didn’t even notice my fingers turning black. I also approached the art like a painter, not a mosaic artist.  I looked around the table at symmetrical and geometrical designs so diametrically opposed to mine that  I felt a bit muddled.   The teacher just said “hmmm…” after gazing at my work, obviously at a loss for what to say or even how to help me.  I wondered what rules of mosaic-ing I had missed in the class.


Direct method Mosaic I created in class.  “See, Feel, Wonder.” You can see the different levels and various textures that are available to the artist using this method.  Notice that these are all basic compositions, a circle in the corner and all monochromatic.


But as I said before, there is an art to sucking.  If I can love it and suck at it, there is true worth in it – if only for the love of it.  Any art can feel punishing even if you are good it. However, I did learn and left renewed by the experience with a new energy to complete a variety of my painting projects. By virture of sucking at something, I appreciated the skill I’ve learned in watercolor and acrylics in contrast. I also love mosaics, there is potential in a personal practice there when the space and time arises for it. I will gladly seize the opportunity to suck again.


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