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Fragments Into Something Beautiful: Social Enterprise Meets the Art of Mosaic at Piece by Piece

This L.A. River article is part of a donation matching challenge grant supported by Newman's Own Foundation. Learn more about the L.A. River and a special thank-you gift of an original handcrafted mosaic necklace that commemorates the river.

Jennifer Caspar watched it begin with a single bird.

“Mosaic,” she explains, “is an art form that lends itself well to community.”

And so it did that Monday, at a downtown Los Angeles class where Caspar observed artisans turning glass into feathers, beaks, and claws, crafting bird upon bird upon bird. They arranged an array of green and brown tesserae to form a trunk, some boughs, and leaves, and the artisans nestled their flock among glassy branches, creating a fertile mytheme, a tree of life that played with the Skid Row light.

LAFLA staff and Piece by Piece volunteers, artisans and staff working on mandalas | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
LAFLA staff and Piece by Piece volunteers, artisans and staff working on mandalas | Courtesy of Piece by Piece

Caspar chairs Piece by Piece, a Skid Row Housing Trust subsidiary which operates as a not-for-profit social enterprise. The enterprise provides low-income and formerly homeless people free mosaic art workshops using recycled materials. Classes are mostly held at downtown Los Angeles’ Star Apartments and are taught by professional artists, all of whom happen to be women.

These artists, who’ve jokingly nicknamed themselves the “mosaic mafia,” develop attendees’ marketable skills. Artisans who achieve the program’s first certification level earn income by selling their work through the Piece by Piece store. Artisans keep 60 percent of the sales while the rest returns to the program. Artisans earning higher certification levels work on commissioned projects for hourly pay. One recently completed commission is a mandala-themed mural which will be installed at Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles’ new Pico-Union headquarters.

Caspar uses mosaic as metaphor, saying that “it symbolizes the story, the piecing together of fragments into something beautiful and useful. You put down a tile, lock it in, and adapt with the next piece and the next piece.” To emphasize the art form’s generative gestalt, Caspar shares the story of June, an artisan whose daughter encouraged her to attend classes. “June has been involved in Piece by Piece for about two years. She lives in a housing trust building. One of her first works was a fantastic Medusa-esque portrait.” The enterprise’s store displayed June’s work and when actress Kate Walsh came to browse, she enjoyed June’s piece so much that she bought it. Soon after, another store visitor saw the Medusa. They asked to buy it and so June received her first commission, a request to replicate her opus.

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Irvine Valley College's Life Sciences Building mural "Entangled Bank" | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Irvine Valley College's Life Sciences Building mural "Entangled Bank" | Courtesy of Piece by Piece

“I taught the very first workshop,” recalls mosaic mafia member and program director Dawn Mendelson. She says that Piece by Piece began as a one-time class intended to give folks pocket money. Eight people signed up for it but by the class’s fourth incarnation, attendance had grown to fifty. “Since people were eager to learn, we developed the certificate program.” The certificate program gives artisans five chief mosaic skills -- tool use, cutting techniques, pasting techniques, andamento (laying styles)  and finishing techniques – and Mendelson orally tests her students to determine their mastery.

Mendelson refined her skills at Berkeley’s Institute of Mosaic Art. She specializes in and teaches trencadís, a mosaic style that relies on found objects like broken china. Some of the most celebrated examples of trencadís include the works of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí and the Watts Towers built by Simon Rodia.

Gaudí and Rodia’s mosaics seem to both tame and celebrate anarchy, blending the choppy, disparate, and broken, guiding fragments into a pleasing visual stream. They move in much the way that a river does and Caspar says that the classes themselves have a sense of being by the water. “People work side by side and they chitchat but mostly, they’re absorbed. It’s like visiting a river. You stand by the river and enjoy it or hop from rock to rock. It quiets you.”

 

United in Diversity mandala receiving final touches. Piece by Piece | Jose Morales
United in Diversity mandala receiving final touches. | Jose Morales

The Los Angeles River features in a series of mosaic pendants designed by Piece by Piece artisan Mike. Mike graduated from a local art school and his use of mosaic diverges from traditional styles, themes  and story-telling. The art form as it’s practiced today was largely developed by the Greeks and later refined by the Romans. Greco-Roman artists often depicted violent or dramatic tableaux, like the feats of Hercules, in their works. Itinerant craftsmen traveled the Roman Empire, practicing the art form, bringing opulence to homes and public buildings. Later, Byzantine churches, like Saint Mark’s Basilica, employed golden mosaics to awe visitors with representations of divine radiance. Mike’s pieces cleanly and elegantly take on the simplicity of water. They elevate it to abstraction as he works in cool, clean lines. His work animates the river via a narrow, five-color palette.

Artisan Mike working on his L.A. River necklace | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisan Mike working on his L.A. River necklace | Courtesy of Piece by Piece

In 2016, artisans like Mike earned a total of $60,000 in wages through Piece by Piece. They completed 243 commissions and orders that transformed 3 tons of donated recyclable materials into murals, vases, sculptures, frames, masks and more. 1,143 individuals participated in community workshops while 29 people achieved artisan-skill level by earning certification. Participants were also surveyed to determine how enriched they perceived themselves. The self-reported numbers speak to success. 96 percent expressed improved self-esteem and motivation. 82 percent said they found a way to develop a creative voice through art.  72 percent felt an overall improvement in wellness and quality of life.

These statistics demonstrate that Piece by Piece creates more than pocket change. “We’ve been able to compete for large, private commissions and are delving into the world of public art,” says founder Sophie Alpert. “It’s very exciting.” During a visit to South Africa, Alpert saw women creating beadwork that they sold through microenterprise agencies. This model inspired her but she replaced beadwork with mosaic as a green strategy. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Alpert parents’ experiences shaped her hopeful vision. “My father was very positive and filled with hope. Hope is one of the key ingredients to getting yourself to a better place. I think that’s one of the things that Piece by Piece does best.”

Artisans at the studio | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisans at the studio | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisans creating pendants | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisans creating pendants | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisans at work | Courtesy of Piece by Piece
Artisans at work | Courtesy of Piece by Piece

Top Image: Irvine Valley College's Life Sciences Building mural Entangled Bank | Courtesy of Piece by Piece

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