was certainly not more than six or seven years old when I began
to feel myself drawn by Matter - or, more correctly, by something
which 'shone' at the heart of Matter." ╣
Tornado Contact, marble,tile,cinca,30x35cm,1999,detail
Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit scientist and seer, and you
can recognise the same spirit in the mosaic artist Vanessa Benson.
Teilhard was in love with matter, especially in the form of rock,
and so is she. Seeing her moving round her studio getting excited
about the colours and textures and veins in various chunks of marble
makes you think afresh about the real nature of matter, and about
mosaics made of stone. Classically defined a mosaic is an image
made up of small neutral chunks of hard material. We enjoy the material
of which the image is made, but in the end it's the image that counts.
After ten minutes with Vanessa, however, you realise that for her
a small piece of marble or a hewn pebble can itself be an image
that counts. So her "fine art" mosaics, the ones she makes for her
own satisfaction, often feature a careful selection of such single
images, idiosyncratic pieces of cut stone, set in high relief against
a flat "neutral" mosaic background.
"On the Table", marble, glass and reversed
silver, tile 21cmx22cm, 1998
that's not all. These mosaics are more than geological specimen
trays. For having found thought-provoking chunks of rock Vanessa
then looks for a relationship between the material and the world
at large. For example, she once beachcombed a few pebbles, managed
to split them open with a hammer and hardie (beach pebbles tend
to be extremely tough) and found that the two faces had an intriguing
mirror pattern. She pondered her pebble halves, enjoying them per
se and as x-rays of the heart of the stone, but also wondering how
to use them. Then one day she found herself in the Natural History
Museum looking at a map illustrating the distribution of butterflies
in Europe, and there was the connection. The split pebbles became
"Tender,Assembled, As Tightly As Possible", marble,
smalti, glass tiles, 14"x14", 1997
again, Vanessa likes food. And slicing marble. So we get On The
Table, a nouvelle cuisine mosaic where slices of marble become slices
of iced cake. Or Tender, Assembled, As Tightly As Possible, where
various stones become mouth-watering kebabs. Vanessa remarks of
this last, "the more real, the more false". The more the mosaic
looks like food, the more of a lie it becomes. A pleasing paradox.
She'd love to do a "school dinner" mosaic and watch the reaction.
again, she was once fascinated by a tv documentary about climate,
and then looking a contact sheet of photographs inspired her to
make a "contact sheet mosaic" of a tornado growing and moving. She
used a series of variously veined "35 mill." marble tesserae as
snaps of the storm in action. The idea was to recreate movement
in static stone, the movement that the marble originally had; it
was born in metamorphic violence and was eventually metamorphosed
by the artist into a mosaic embodying a different kind of violence.
And Tornado offers more - the flat contact sheet has become a three-dimensional
piece; Vanessa relishes the physical depth mosaic offers, the chance
to juxtapose different layers of different materials, where the
colour and the material are identical, as compared to oil paintings,
thin skins of concocted colour on flat canvas.
Homemade Craters, oil, 14"x14", 1999
is in fact a painter as well as a mosaicist; the kebab piece is
actually one of series of 14-inch square works about food, ten of
which (so far) are oils. My favourite of these was Homemade Craters,
an explosive combination of red, yellow and black which as you enter
the studio looks like a NASA close-up of a bad-tempered Saturnine
moon, but turns out to be passion fruit fougasse. Scrumptious and
surprising to me, because I had only previously seen Vanessa's stone
mosaics, using rather gentle colours. Manifestly she is by no means
afraid of bold colour, and is a smalti fan to boot, and of course
uses vitreous and ceramic when she needs to - in commissioned work,
and so forth. (Incidentally we are both fervent admirers of Colour
and Culture by John Gage, Thames & Hudson 1993 hb,1995 pb, the classic
study of the history of colour).
how did Vanessa become a mosaic artist? Back in the seventies she
studied at Wimbledon and Camberwell Schools of Art, painted for
a while, and in due course went to live in a little village in Tuscany,
as you do. Nearby was Pietrasanta ("Holystone".), a town where sculpture
loomed large, along with mosaic, or so she was told. In fact there
was no mosaic there, but somehow the word itself, the idea alone,
effected a Damascene conversion - she had to make mosaic. Off she
went to CISIM at Ravenna for a month, and learned how to make copies
of mosaics using the double reverse method. She still uses this
method when she wants to try out combinations of tesserae - the
first-stage clay or lime putty base makes experiments easy.
The Tree of Life,with hands by pupils,St.George Primary
School, Camden, vitreous & cinca, 2.8sq.m, 1998
basically a big-city lady she next went to Rome to learn more. There
were no courses, alas, so she studied fresco and how to restore
tempera ceilings instead. But then the Vatican mosaic workshop put
her in touch with two practising mosaicists.
Frasquarelli made micromosaics - apparently the street leading to
St. Peter's is to this day lined with tourist shops selling modern
micromosaics - and also normal mosaics in stone and smalti. She
took on Vanessa as an apprentice for six months, working on a church
mural, direct method into sand and cement and lime putty, this last
making the mix workable for longer. Excellent training. Vanessa
still frequently uses the same mix, with marble dust - it's like
sticking tesserae into butter, she says, and it's easy to get tesserae
tight if you want to.
her six months' apprenticeship she went to study with Nello della
Ciana, another highly skilled mosaicist, who taught her the indirect
eight years in Italy Vanessa decided to go back to London. Mosaic
in Rome, at that time anyway, was steeped in tradition and mainly
religious, whereas she wanted to do her own thing artistically.
Nello disapproved - mosaic is a craft, he maintained, and you do
what you are told. She disagreed, and bade au revoir to her favourite
mosaic, the "unswept floor" in the Vatican.
in London she started teaching, which left her free to pursue her
own work and also to pass on commissions she didn't fancy. Teaching
is still important to her: she gives courses at the City Lit, Holborn,
the Working Men's College, Camden Town, and Hampstead School of
Art. She hopes to start a course in mural mosaics, perhaps at City
Lit (please contact her if interested). Indeed, "public" mosaics
interest her more and more.
her return she feels she has developed significantly. It took her
some time to work out a relationship with her mosaic materials,
so at first painting was more personal, mosaic more craft. But now
she's equally happy with either, and uses mosaic when she knows
that it is the perfect medium for whatever idea she has to express.
There has to be a relationship between content and material. Above
all, she needs to feel she is bringing something new to mosaic -
she hasn't much time for sub-Gaudi sticking broken china on pots,
marble,200 x 70cm, 1995
said which, I left her mulling over the possibilities of some ancient
beachcombed broken china. The fine cracks in the porcelain had a
family resemblance to cracks in some abandoned plastic leaning on
the wall opposite. But the result won't end up below a hydrangea,
that's for sure.
Bentley, Autumn 1999
Benson is at 16 St. Peter's Street, London N1 8JG, phone (020) 7226
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of Matter, trans. RenÚ Hague,
Collins 1978, p.17