Artist’s style with tile
Kim Emerson breaks down basics of her special art in San Diego Mosaic School
When mosaic artist Kim Emerson talks about upholding integrity, she’s not just talking about integrity of the personal kind.
She’s also talking about the kind of structural integrity she used to create the “River of Life” at Rady Children’s Hospital, a mosaic that starts on the floor of the main lobby and spills under a window into a garden. To test the coefficient of friction (slipperiness) of the outdoor tiles, she had a lab determine if they were abrasive enough to uphold the pounding of millions of feet in any weather.
“People think with mosaics, you can just slap anything up on the wall. But when you do it for commission, when people are depending on your expertise, I really believe in integrity. Well, I believe in integrity in every way, but I want to make sure I use the right adhesives with the right materials.
“Ideally, I want my work to last as long as the Roman mosaics have lasted.”
For nearly 25 years, Emerson has been creating mosaics for public art projects and businesses around the country, and in homes around San Diego.
She’s also created fine art mosaics, both freestanding sculptures and panels that can hang on a wall. Last month, she displayed her works at the Talmadge Art Show, and she currently has works on display at the Santa Ysabel Art Gallery.
In March, she started the San Diego Mosaic School with her husband, Dennis Reiter, to share her knowledge of materials and techniques and her passion for mosaics as fine art.
“I can only take up to seven people at a time,” she said, standing in her Normal Heights home studio and classroom. “I’m finding I prefer a small group because I can really assist them and give them the quality and integrity of instruction that I like to foster in mosaics in general.
Upcoming workshops include using mesh and tape techniques to create garden steps and the “Direct Spontaneous Method” technique developed by the late mosaic master Ilana Shafir to create a wall art mosaic.
Shafir is one of Emerson’s treasured mentors. Her family gave Emerson permission to teach the technique, in which the artist selects from a palette of tiles, stones and other natural materials to spontaneously create a mosaic.
Another mentor, European master Verdiano Marzi, taught her the fine art of modern expression in mosaic and the Byzantine methods of chipping small pieces of special glass tile (called smalti) and stone using a chipping hammer and hardie (an upturned chisel mounted on wood).
“He says that being a mosaic artist can be like being God, where you open a stone that’s been in the dark for billions of years and you bring it to life,” she said. “With a hammer and a hardie, there are magical cuts and magical shapes that you can’t get otherwise.”
(She met both Shafir and Marzi through the Society of American Mosaic Artists, which will host its annual conference in San Diego in April.)
You could say she first cut her teeth in mosaics with her first mentor, Santa Ysabel artist and architect James Hubbell, but it would be more accurate to say she cut her hands.
“My very first day was March 15, 1991,” she said, recounting her volunteer work for Hubbell’s Colegio Esperanza School in Tijuana. “I remember I had bleeding fingers at the end of the day and they said ‘sacrifios de amor,’ sacrifices of love, because I really got turned on to doing it.”
At the time, she was putting her degrees in art and architectural history and historic preservation to good use working for architect Milford Wayne Donaldson at Heritage Architecture & Planning.
But soon she opened her own mosaic business and began working on public art projects and private commissions.
She recently finished two large residential mosaics, a 30-foot-long gecko that snakes along a bench and patio in Del Mar and a glass, ceramic and stone mosaic at Casa de Glory, a 1930s Spanish revival house overlooking San Diego Bay. It starts at an outdoor fireplace and swirls its way over the veranda, into and around the pool and up the stairs.
Her two current residential commissions are smaller. She’s designing mosaics for hallway niches at a home in Poway, an abstract version of wildflowers for the wife and an olive tree for the husband, who is originally from Sicily.
For a Normal Heights neighbor, she’s creating a panel of smalti inspired by Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.”
All of her commissioned work, both public and private, begins with what she calls “treasure hunting.” At Rady Children’s Hospital, she talked to oncology nurses who asked her not to use mustard-colored tiles the shade of the chemotherapy drinks that make their patients feel nauseated.
For private commissions, she gathers bits from her clients, be they stories or broken dishes, so she can press them into her mosaics.
“I say, ‘If you break a dish, don’t get sad. Mazel tov.’ We bring it back to life,” she said, then summed up her commissioned work this way:
“It’s like telling stories on behalf of other people or communities, organizations, businesses, families.”