Pacific Northwest | January 4, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineJanuary 4, home
Home delivery
Search archive
Contact us


Pieces of Art
In mosaics, our memories gain expression
Mosaic flowers "grow" out of the three-dimensional pot on this wall plaque. It's easy to vary the look of the basic design by changing the color or kind of flowers and using a tin pot instead of a terra-cotta one.
Mosaic work is an art of bits and pieces, of intricacy, spontaneity and color. No wonder it appeals to gardeners.

I became enamored of mosaics at the charming little park in downtown Langley on Whidbey Island. When the park was being finished a few years ago, adults and children were invited to bring their mementos to arrange into mosaic paving to form the floor of the shelter. Now slate tiles surround bits of pottery, old watches, cups, jewelry, coins and even a ticket from the Paramount Theatre, embedded as a visual history of the community's variance of expression.

Whether made up of the subtle tones and textures of pebbles laid on their sides (at Portland's Chinese garden) or bright fragments of broken ceramics, mosaics seem such a perfect way to bring personal artistic expression into the garden. Their vivid liveliness holds its own in the most overplanted gardens and during the brown, bleak times of the year coaxes us outdoors. How many art forms hold up in the rain and freezing cold, fit easily into the hardscape of a garden and don't require much expertise?
Illustration Now In Bloom
There's nothing at all common about Galanthus nivalis, the so-called common snowdrop. It's an elegant little flower distinguished by intricate green-on-white markings. One of the first flowers of the year, these snowdrops have a slight honey fragrance and blue-green grassy leaves. They grow to only about 6 inches high and spread to form thick clumps when left undisturbed. Plant the bulbs in autumn in rich soil and partial shade, preferably close to a walkway or near the front door, where you'll be sure to see them when they bloom even during the worst weather.
Anyway, I hoped mosaics weren't too hard to make, because ever since I saw the personal patterning on the floor of that shelter in Langley, I've longed to incorporate into my own garden some shells from Guemes Island, favorite old charms and other trinkets I've been stashing away. Luckily, I ran into local mosaic artist Sarah Donnelly, a teacher who has developed a technique simple enough for nonartists to produce a quite gratifying mosaic in just a few hours. This fall, my daughter and I took a three-hour class from Donnelly, who manages to teach in a noncookie-cutter way. The class wasn't the least intimidating, plus Donnelly brings multiple bins full of cool fragments. Participants ooh'ed and aah'd and tried to refrain from shoving each other aside while digging through pieces of flowered china, shards of mirrors, chains, bolts, all kinds of hardware, pebbles, little toys, old keys and coins. The really fun part was putting on the goggles and smashing things up to see what kind of size and shape you could create.

Donnelly calls her method "mosaic embedding," which means that you push all your bits and pieces into the concrete rather than grout around them. You simply mix, pour and embed. For aspiring mosaicists, this has to be the easiest way, because you have an entire hour to experiment, change your mind, try out different designs before the concrete irrevocably dries. You might change your mind about that half a tea cup sticking up right in the middle, or perhaps the pieces of colored beach glass need a border to pull them together.

It is very satisfying to work out your design not with paper and pencil but with the actual materials themselves, tilting fragments of metal at certain angles or rearranging shattered bits of pottery until they look just right. I'm afraid everyone who comes up my front steps has had the crazy-quilt mosaic tiles we made in the class pointed out to them at least once.

Donnelly is a relaxed and encouraging teacher, perhaps because she's been breaking things apart and putting them back together for as long as she can remember. As a product designer for a mosaic-kit manufacturer, Donnelly was encouraged to experiment with nontraditional materials and techniques. She moved on to private commissions, teaching and writing about mosaics.

You can meet Donnelly when she lectures, complete with her popular "plate smashing" demonstrations, at the Flower & Garden Show in February. She'll also be teaching mosaic garden-art workshops at area nurseries; check her Web site at for dates and locations. Donnelly's book, "Easy Mosaics For Your Home and Garden" (North Light Books, $24.99), has instructions for specific projects, as well as a complete description of the embedding technique. For a quite different and more traditional style of mosaic, take a look at "The Complete Pebble Mosaic Handbook" by Maggy Howarth (Firefly Books, $24.95).

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

More Plant Life columns

Today Archive

Advanced search

advertising home
Home delivery | Contact us | Search archive | Site map | Low-graphic
NWclassifieds | NWsource | Advertising info | The Seattle Times Company


Back to topBack to top