Designs and pictures made from many pieces of stone or ceramic material, held together in a cement, have been used to decorate floors and walls since the most distant times. Each culture which used the art of mosaic employed only those materials which were available and which lent themselves to an art expression that was typical of the time. Some influences in style and technique originating in one nation spread to other nations of the same period; and some were still evident in cultures of later periods. Many times the craft died down, only to be revived centuries later on some rising tide of human feeling. Today we are witnessing just such a revival--and in California there is an unusual activity which is writing a new chapter in the history of this age-old medium.
This ancient craft is the heritage of the contemporary artist. In the twentieth century, artists exploring for a means of expressing the spirit of their age, and being concerned with the creative elements beneath representation that live in all great art, rediscovered the richness and strength latent in the mosaic medium. In California--so like the Mediterranean lands where rich glowing decoration seems to fit the brilliant skies--many artists, in their search to find the media best suited for walls, simultaneously rediscovered the potentialities in mosaic.
Ray Boynton introduced mosaic ten years ago in a manner which met contemporary aesthetic criteria. His mural in a Los Gatos patio was done in glazed tile arid marble. Then, in 1934, under the PWAP, Helen and Esther Bruton executed two gracious figure-and-animal panels, in irregularly cut pieces of glazed tile, for the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco.
When the WPA/FAP was established in 1935, Joseph Danysh, regional director for the western states, encouraged a number of artists who were interested in mosaic to carry out decorations in that medium with material that was at hand One of the most original types of mosaic technique that has been developed is that of textured surfaces. Its inspiration was due to Stanton Macdonald-Wright, formerly supervisor of the Los Angeles area, and now state director for Southern California. Something of the effect of Persian geometric tile work has been incorporated in this mosaic technique Certain simple geometrically shaped cuts of tile are so assembled as to form ingenious textural patterns giving a varied and rich surface to a flat-patterned mosaic. The method has been applied in both glazed and unglazed body-colored tiles. The range of color on the glazed tile is wide, and with this medium the most brilliantly colored mosaics have been made.
These texture patterns are developed for the purpose of creating a pleasing surface variety, as in the design in the lobby of the Santa Monica High School, and also for imitative significance, as in the large glazed-tile mosaic of the facade of the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium. In this mosaic, which pictures activities of Long Beach, the water, grass, leaves, clothing, and other details have been simulated in tile texture The mural is probably the largest single unbroken surface of mosaic in the world.
Other mosaics in California have followed traditional methods to some extent in the manner in which the pieces of material, or tesserae, are cut and laid, but the designs are expressive of our contemporary art.
Many beautiful marble mosaics have been executed in San Francisco under the supervision of William Gaskin. From a vast store of mosaic marble left over from the 1915 Fair, and with the help of an expert marble mosaicist and of artist designers some significant contributions have been made. Notable among these is the facade of the San Francisco State Teachers' College, designed by Maxine Albro. It is a rich pattern interpretive of California life. The design, on a background of creamy white, is reminiscent of the patterned marble pavements of Syria, but in spirit it is purely western.
Arthur Ames and the writer have developed a technique for the unglazed semi-vitreous tile in a variety of low-intensity colors. The tesserae, generally cut in squares about the same size as those of the Byzantine glass mosaics, were so placed as to accent the linear rhythms. Two panels of "Youth" and "Sea" are in the patio of Newport Harbor Union High School.
The contributions the California artists under the Project have made in mosaic through the new use of materials have benefited many other western mural artists who have been looking for a beautiful material which is at the same time permanent inexpensive, easily obtained, and practical for outdoor use, and above all has an inherent material integrity for architectural decoration. In the mosaic medium, the California artists have met new demands to create a noble form of decoration, expressive, not in the ancient manner, but in teens of moving line, form, and color that interpret modern life