Sunday, April 19, 2015

TRUE MOSAICS: Interview with mosaic artist Laurel True

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An immensely talented mosaic artist with a humanitarian spirit, Laurel True began her career in 1990 with an apprenticeship with outsider artist Isaiah Zagar. Over two decades later, Laurel has evolved into a master of large-scale public and community mosaic projects, striving to balance her time between private and public commissions, philanthropic projects and teaching mosaic arts around the world. Nurturing a special love for West Africa, she has created hundreds of projects over the years, in Africa and internationally, working with volunteers, assistants, students, trades people and artists of ages on projects that reflect a sense of community pride and cultural significance in the locations where they are sited. I had the great pleasure of “meeting” Laurel True online, where we discussed problematic terms (see “art therapy”), African education and Laurel’s recent mosaic art projects in the Caribbean and in Africa. Hats off.
How did you discover your love for mosaics?
I was a mixed media and textile artist and was on a visit to Philadelphia in 1990. I saw the work of a man named Isaiah Zagar and was totally transported by the work. He was working in whole interiors and large scale mosaics done with broken tile, mirror and glass. It was wonderful. I wrote him a letter and asked if I could be his apprentice and he took me on. I worked with him for several months in early 1991.
You have been active with mosaic art projects in Africa for well over a decades. What fueled your interested in the particular continent?
I volunteered with a group called Operation Crossroads in 1988, when I was 19. I went to Ghana and helped to build schools in two rural villages. I have been interested in going to Africa since I was a young teenager. I used to check tons of books out of the library about African art, textiles, architecture... I went to college when I was 17 and wanted to major in African Textiles (at the University of Wisconsin!). Instead I studied fashion design and got an individual major in African Studies. I have always been drawn to this part of the world, especially West Africa, although I have been fortunate enough to work in East Africa as well. But I do hope to do projects in other parts of the world as well some day, like India and South America.
Do you see the process of mosaic construction as a form of art therapy?
It could be considered that by some. I think art and healing (from personal trauma, environmental damage, social issues, etc..) go hand in hand for many people. But at the same time art therapy is kind of a loose term. I do not purport to be an art therapist. I offer the tools, techniques and hopefully the inspiration for people to follow their own path, hopefully using community mosaics as an opening for healing and fortifying themselves, finding comfort and joy in the act of creating something tangible and working as a group/ collectively or in collaboration to do so. Mosaic is a great medium because it fosters collective creative work as well as provides a slow, possibly meticulous kind of meditative working space for some people.
You started working on a mural in Haiti shortly after the catastrophe. Did you observe a change come about in the youths that participated over the course of the projects?
Yes, over the course of the 7 months that I was working on the project with youth at Art Creation Foundation For Children in Jacmel, I saw the kids become much more self confident and empowered working in the mosaic medium. I can't speak for the kids themselves, but I saw that they became more comfortable working on a massive scale project. The scale of the (1750 sq ft) project could have been daunting, but as they progressed with their skills and took on more and more of the leadership and project management, they seemed to be ready for the challenge.
Where the kids open to you about their experience in relation to the earthquake?
To be honest, the kids did not talk about it as general conversation, despite all having been very affected and many having lost loved ones and their homes as well. I think that this project, and the programming at ACFFC in general provided the kids with a way to feel safe and keep busy and find their way through a very tough time in a hugely supportive environment- that the Foundation provides for them.
How about the beautification of the spaces you work in? Do you think that perhaps it has a more lasting effect than the process of construction itself?
Of course!  The entire community is responding so positively to the artwork. It is public art and there is nothing like this mosaic mural in Jacmel. It is not common at all to see this. The community is so proud and people are always getting their pictures taken in front of the mural. Dignitaries and regular people alike bring visitors, family and frieds to see the mural. It is a point of community pride. And it looks totally awesome!
Are the designs on the mural yours?
Over the course of the project my role as designer and facilitator changed. At the beginning I co-conceptualized the tree of life as a great image to work with with ACFFC board member Nancy Josephson. But we also talked to the kids about how they felt about this as a motif and symbol of remembrance and also future growth. I had the kids draw pictures of trees and then took a kind of general composite tree and presented it to the group. As the design was transferred onto the wall the kids had a chance to make any changes and adaptations they wanted. I just gave them a starting point. And my assistant Erin Rogers was a huge help during all phases of the project.
So did the kids become all the more involved as the project progressed?
Yes. For the second phase the kids also did drawings and these I collaged into a larger mural. For the third phase the kids did all the drawings and I taught them HOW to make an arrangement that would fit on the wall and include as many of the kids drawing elements as possible. I also taught them how to do a grid transfer of the design and how to sketch out an underdrawing / cartoon. By the fourth phase of the project, the kids had it totally handled from start to finish. They had the design already transferred onto the wall when I arrived for the fourth trip down there. It was awesome.
Who was responsible for the selection of colours?
We did not have that many colors to work with, so I made suggestions to help the overall effect look balanced and so one person wouldn’t run out of orange before their bird was done because someone else just started a giant flower with the same color. I tried to teach them about how to deal with this and they are no strangers to limited resources. So they would ask me what I thought about color choice for a certain area and we would talk about it. I wanted to give over as much as possible to the kids but still keep an eye on the overall project composition.
Do you see a difference between working with adults and working with children?
Sure. But I love working with both.  I work with kids, students, adults, passers by, tradespeople, teachers.. I do not see art education or the fostering of creative expression as something just for kids. No way. Its a human thing. I have worked with people as young as 3 and as old as in their 80's.
I read about your plans to develop a mosaic training academy and sculptural playground covered in mosaic in Nungua, Ghana. How are those projects progressing?
Right now we are starting slowly. In November I was there and we built the forms for a series of mosaic benches that will be covered with mosaic designs that look like kente cloth. I did a public project in Oakland, California and made a series of 9 benches in a public park with design input from a group of youth in Oakland and a group of youth in Nungua. It turned out great and we are now creating the Ghana side of the project. The whole project is called Woven Stories, which references not only the weaving tradition in Ghana but also how cultures are woven together by history, culture, creative expression and shared experience. For the full fledged playground, we are in need of a donor so that we may purchase a parcel of land and start sculpting the play-structures. I have a whole Ghanian team of sculptors and of course mosaic artists that I have trained over the past 10 years who are ready to go. 
I believe a common mistake of the 'West' is speaking of Africa as an entity. How was working in Kenya different to working in Ghana?
Ghana and Kenya are very different. I was only in Kenya for one project so far, so I don’t know if I can make a generalization. But the climate is totally different, the culture, the vibe. I have been to West Africa so many times that I kept looking for similarities. In Ghana I work with communities to create mosaic projects with totally open participation. For the project I was working on in Kenya, we were working at a school and the kids were making a mosaic mural during their class time. So there was much more structure. The kids were more serious. But for that one a lot of the teachers and the principal that was fun.
Do you feel there is substantial work being done in Sub-Saharan Africa in relation to creative projects and forms of art therapy?
I think there are lots of people doing creative projects all over. I don’t know if the specific goal is art therapy per se, but creative expression is woven into many African cultures. Unfortunately the school systems in may places, much like in the US, bump art out of the curriculum in favor of academic subjects. 
What would your absolute dream project be?
I am doing my dream projects. I want to keep doing them all over. My dream is to find  an ongoing sponsor so I can continue to do this kind of work. A sponsor for multiple community- based projects in developing areas, all with fiscal agents (read: tax write- off).
Will you be returning to Haiti or has your work with Jacmel Mosaic Mural Project made it's circle for the time being?
I will definitely be returning to Haiti soon. I will continue to consult with the the kids at ACFFC and participate in their advanced training (older teens) so that they may go after commissioned projects. My next project in Haiti will be in partnership with Partners in Health, a wonderful health care organization that has been working in Haiti for 25 years.  I am currently working in the development phase of a multi part project that will bring mosaic public art to PIH's newest hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti. I will be training Haitian tradespeople in architectural mosaic making techniques and we will be creating four large- scale projects for the hospital, which is slated to open in 2012.
You can find my fundraising page for this project here:
Also, I have a FB Page for True Mosaic Studio where I link photos and info about all my projects:
And a blog:
Linked in this blog is a news story that Nickelodeon did on kids in Haiti, ending with our mosaic project in Jacmel and how it has affected the kids. It is wonderful.