I have no idea what possessed me to sign up for a one-week mosaic-making workshop at Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in Abiquiu, New Mexico. Maybe it’s because Ghost Ranch is one of the most spectacular settings on our planet. It’s where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted, and the scenery, right down to specific trees, cliffs, and mesa tops, makes you feel as though you are in the middle of one of her canvasses. Every time you turn your head or round a bend, you see the way sunlight, at that very moment, illuminates one of the bountiful gifts of nature, forged by eons of sand, wind, water, storms, lightning, flood, heat, cold, and the skeletal remains of sea and land creatures that no longer exist.   

Or maybe I signed up because while covering stories in Tunisia, Sicily, Spain, Greece, or Syria, I was mesmerized by the contemporary portraits of humans and animals, houses, food, baths, flowers, warriors, gods and goddesses, and events that were created from tesserae, tiny pieces of stone, glass, tile, or other objects. I winced a little when I thought of how meticulous and minute the ancient mosaics were, and wondered where I would find the patience to sit on my butt and grout for a week.

When Kathy Thaden, the instructor, showed her eight students images of her work, I felt a burst of joy: she used house keys, building supplies, and fabric in her work, alongside of glass, ceramic, and other more conventional materials. It wasn’t just an adventure in OCD tiny tile placing…au contraire, it could be spontaneous and free.

A few of the students had worked in stained glass and mosaic before, and I, a rank novice, was seemingly at a disadvantage. But over the course of the workshop, it was actually, in some ways, an advantage: I didn’t know what the rules were, so I didn’t know when I was breaking them. With Kathy’s support and technical help, I could do whatever the particular mosaic seemed to want. I could be….a mosaic whisperer.

My first mosaic was done on a mirror; I designed it with many shades, shapes, and slivers of green glass with an orange accent here and there. I cut my fingertips a bit when I got too exuberant with the nipper or forgot to put on gloves when handling glass. When the mosaic was done, I glued a gecko-green pencil across the top.  The title: You Can Never Get Away from Writing. Sounds easy? I started in the morning and finished long after dinner, only leaving my seat to paw through bins of glass looking for whatever shape the piece required. If it didn’t exist, then I cut it and created it. (The white spaces below are actually mirrors--hard to see in a photo.)

Paul Ross, with permission
Source: Paul Ross, with permission

Several days later, I began work on piece #2. I wanted to start with a paper cup from a water cooler, and turn it into a cornucopia. Cathy showed me how I could flatten the bottom and use mortar to create the shape I desired. Then I spent a day finding beads and buttons, cutting the tops of paper cups, searching for a piece of copper wire, and winding a string of glassy drops through the cornucopia, and off the board I was working on. I wanted it to feel like drops of blue water, flowing across the board, around the edge of the board, and ending up in space. When I finished that, I had one day left.

Paul Ross, with permission
Source: Paul Ross, with permission

Once again, I chose a piece of mirror as my base. When I looked into it, I saw the bags under my eyes and got an idea for a piece. I gathered tea bags from the dining room, found swizzle sticks, bottle caps, little stones and glass, and created eyelashes by cutting up the ends of paper cups and coloring them black. I spent hours creating wide eyes from small stones and paper, and arching eyebrows fashioned from glass. The title: Bags Under Your Eyes? I imagined the viewer would see his or her own bags in the mirror, and perhaps smile. Or maybe laugh, as I did when I created the piece.  (Again, the white spaces are mirror...)

Paul Ross, with permission
Source: Paul Ross, with permission

The reaction to my work was both strong and positive, but, more important, it was a thoroughly Zen experience. With nippers in my hand and small bits of glass in front of me, and all around me, I had to be alert every moment, or I would shred a digit or two. I had to apply mortar or grout and wait the correct amount of time before proceeding. I had to wear a mask so I didn’t inhale tiny bits of powder from grout or mortar. I had to watch my fingers when I hammered a bottle cap into shape. I never once thought about the past or the future. There I was, with my mirrors and boards, swizzle sticks, tea bags, and paper cups, firmly, squarely, completely, in the present.

The experience transformed me from someone who had been worrying and feeling anxiety about some of the things that life invariably tosses our way, to a person who only thought about pieces of material, and where they seemed at home in a mosaic. I was not bound by rules and conventions. I could be anyone I wanted to be in each mosaic, and use any crazy or funny or useful items I found. If I had a beak, feathers, and wings, I would have flown at the end of the week.

On the last day, the eight students had lunch together in the dining room. I decided to ask them, out of curiosity and real interest, if the experience had been transformative for them. I was surprised by the responses, and decided it would be best to let them speak for themselves, without any editing on my part, so you can hear directly from them what they were feeling and saying.

Katherine Ireland, a young woman who works as a Starbucks barista, said this: “For a couple of my pieces, I had an idea of how it could go. I tried to force it to go that way, and stopped having fun. I laid down a piece I hadn’t thought about using, and suddenly my whole idea about the mosaic changed. It’s how life sometimes goes. You try to force yourself towards what you think is right or what your future is, then something happens and you realize, ‘I’ll be happier and hopefully more successful—but certainly happier—if I step back from what I am doing and come to it with fresh eyes.’”

Linda Priestap is retired now, but she was a marketing executive and full-time mother. She worked in the financial world and when she retired, she did business consulting for startups. “I came here wanting to improve my creativity,” she said. “Then there was this whole thing about being stymied in your work because there is a block in your spirituality. I never put the two things together before. To improve my creativity, I have to pay attention to my spirituality. I was so busy making money and raising kids and dealing with my husband’s death 20 yeas ago that I never dealt with this. I didn’t pay attention to what is inside of me. I realized I have a hunger for it. Kathy’s readings every day [the teacher read aloud pieces she had selected about art, creativity, and spirituality] connected spirituality with creativity. I thought I wanted to take a spirituality course, not just an art course. I picked out a bird to use as a subject for a mosaic, because I had to do something. Now I have to finish that stupid bird. I realize it’s not just about art, but about having the right mindset.”

Kathy Price is a dietician who worked for a large Catholic healthcare organization, implementing food, nutrition, and wellness programs in hospitals and nursing facilities. She worked with eating disorders, and really enjoys working with the lower level employees, and with people in general, helping to change eating behaviors.  “I will tell you I am not artistic,” she began. “I never picked up a paintbrush and was anxious about coming here. I came because my sister Linda [Priestap] wanted company for the week. I needed time to stop. I was so anxious about my design. I was getting frustrated with myself, doing a very structured, left-brain design. It was too small. Too structured. It was taking too long. I felt I had to break through with something different. I turned my design upside down and looked at it differently. I thought about my surroundings—the beauty here– and I took my inspiration from that. It was a mini breakthrough. I became confident. No one is going to judge me. If I like it, I like it. I am pretty reserved. I am now more open to things coming in. I’m facing retirement. I can’t just have my work. I love work. But life will not always be my work. Here, there is a spiritual aura. I am a simple, basic person. My surroundings are my religion, and I take energy from that. Taking myself out of my comfort zone, doing something different. Stop trying to make things happen. Let it happen.”

Shelby Hennager is a senior in high school and a camp counselor. She talks about her transformation: “In Genesis, God says He made man in His image. He put little parts of himself into us through characteristics like mercy or compassion or creativity. He is such a creative God and he put this in every person here. In each of us is this creative piece of Him. Through creativity, we get to worship with God. We talked about this at Bible study the week before I came. And God imprinted that on my heart. This is the time you get to solely use your creativity.”

M.B. is an outdoor enthusiast who describes her work as “I introduce the richness of the world to those willing to partake.” She is an adventure therapist who does adventure-based counseling, and she uses the outdoors and the wildness of life as a therapeutic container. “There is so much we can’t see,” she says. “But we can talk to others who see what we can’t see. We can take a lot of what’s out there and let the lessons come from there. Trees allow the wind to move them. I have to allow things and not force or push against them. Allowing. Flexibility. Taking what’s out there and letting it transform you.” She reflects on her week with mosaics. “The biggest thing this week is the intimacy the Creator has with creation. I know my piece better than anyone. There may be things about my piece I don’t like. But God is lot like that. Everything is intentional. With God there is no, ‘I wish I had done more of this or less of that.’ I am exactly how God wanted M.B. to be. The intimacy of how the Creator knows the creation. Now I have been a Creator with intention. It causes me to rest in the intimacy with which God knows me. If I had struggles accepting myself, this would be very freeing. It’s mind blowing that God knows each of His creations who ever was or ever will be. It’s really come to life for me. He knew and knows it all intimately. He looked at each of us and said, ‘It is good.” God made us to fellowship with us. He wants to be with us. I made my piece. I want to be with it. I take great joy in this.”

And this from Kathy, the teacher: “Every time I teach, everyone has access to the same materials and the results are as varied as the personalities. When I see people getting it, when I observe the transformation—this is the reason I teach. It’s not just my passion for the medium, but God’s gift of creativity in each one of us. When people who are blocked let their creativity down, it’s just beautiful.”

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Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist, speaker, author, blogger, and workshop leader who sometimes takes people on exotic, immersive trips with acclaimed photojournalist Paul Ross. 

Their website is www.GlobalAdventure.us

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