"IT'S JUST YOU IN YOUR WORKSHOP FOR AN INFINITE NUMBER OF HOURS...AND YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO BE ACCEPTING OF THIS WAY OF LIFE."
A creative expression thousands of years in the making, mosaic art has its roots in 3rd millennium Mesopotamia where the first mosaics were made of unrefined stone, pebbles and seashells. In antiquity, the Greeks took the craft to another level, inventing the tessera technique of square and other geometric shaped pieces, which allowed for a more detailed presentation closer to that of painting. And so begins the long history of mosaics.
Today, this rare art form serves a niche demand for the rich, intricate mosaic look. Modern professional mosaicists practice their craft in meticulously precise ancient masterpiece replicas and interior decor for private and public spaces.
Creating out of his Athens-based workshop lined with clear jars encasing thousands of colored stone and glass tesserae, Dimitris Vafeiadis is a mosaicist with almost 50 years experience. A visual artist both by talent and by trade, Vafeiadis spends most of his time in what looks like a small minimal apartment tucked in a residential area...one that hides a collection of exceptional design.
Discreetly peeping through his elevated windowsill is a purple orchid plant, one of many that keep him company in his realm of creative expression.
Art, Vafeiadis explains gazing at his creations, is by nature very much solitary work. “It is just you in your workshop for an infinite number of hours...and you have to learn to be accepting of this way of life,” he says.
Used mainly to create floor mosaics in antiquity, tesserae varied in size and were mostly made of wear-resistant stone, limiting the color pallete to a natural, earthy one. Ceramic and colored marble followed, while glass was introduced in the Hellenistic Period (323 - 31 BC), offering a range of new tints, and exciting possibilities.
In later years, silver and gold mirror glass was widely woven into Christian mosaic art, representing divine light. At this point in time, thousands of years of experimental craftsmanship brought about innovation in traditional techniques and material.
Then as now, mosaic technique generally begins with a sketch, as proven by numerous paintings discovered in layers beneath many mosaics throughout history. Another technique called for the pre-assembly of more intricate pieces, including detailed scenes and faces, prior to mounting. This is something Vafeiadis does in his workshop on the daily.
“For portraits, we usually start with the eyes...as we add on to it, the mosaic expands and begins to take form,” he says.
With a synthesis of natural stone and manmade colored glass, Vafeiadis’ work ranges from ancient replica and traditional ecclesiastical, to painting-like nudes and obscure modernism.
“A piece of art begins with a concept,” he says. “You then sketch your idea in color, usually at one tenth the size you are looking to create...at least that is how I do it.”
Mosaic patterns and images set a signature tone in classical Greece and Rome. A symbol of status, they ornated the floors of Hellenistic and Roman villas, the most impressive of which is arguably the Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this lavish 4th century BC architectural gem houses over 37,500 square feet of exceptional multicolored mosaic art, some of its most popular depicting the famous girls in bikinis.
In Greece, some of the country’s oldest mosaics have been discovered during excavations in Pella, Rhodes and Delos. Most recently, excavations at the Amphipolis Tomb in Central Macedonia revealed a well-preserved mosaic portraying the abduction of Persephone by Hades.
Though mosaics were created in various cultures throughout the ages, it is during the Byzantine era when the technique flourished as a prime art form. Miraculous masterpieces adorned religious structures and important buildings including basilicas, mosques, synagogues and royal palaces.
And while mosaics were later overshadowed by the art of painting during the Renaissance, they constitute some of the most beautiful creative expressions mankind has produced.
Through thousands of years of craftsmanship, the details of mosaic art extend beyond color, texture and shape. A notable example of the evolving nature of this particular art form is that of the tilting technique where gold and silver mirror tesserae are applied on a sharp angle to create an intensified light effect. The mosaics of Hagia Sophia are a stunning representation of this technique’s allure, where tilted metallic tesserae reflect natural outdoor light even in the structure’s darkest corners.
Back in his studio, Vafeiadis is working on a panel that will complete a set of large-scale mosaics comprising the walls of a new church. Spread across a table of great length, a bird’s eye view from above reveals two winged angels surrounded by bright turquoise tesserae, awaiting to join their counterparts in church.
“The front-facing side is actually gold,” Vafeiadis says pointing to the thousands of mirror tesserae surrounding the angels.
As Vafeiadis goes on to explain, the mosaic-making process, from concept to completion, requires dedication and scrupulous attention to detail. Larger projects require an entire team of craftsmen to complete. Over in a corner, he’s picking at bright colored glass with tweezers, creating a picture of a horse head, one “pixel” at a time.
“You analyze your design, and thereafter draw out the image in its proposed real life size, and transfer that image onto a special canvas sheet,” he says pointing to his original pen and pencil sketch. “With your color guide set aside, you begin to lay each mosaic piece directly on the sheet, having applied adhesive to the surface.”
With the soft tone of afternoon radio humming in the background, sunlight creeps through a wide window panel, offering ample light for Vafeiadis to work on projects during the day. Orchids and color-coded jars line this window and the adjacent wall.
“Once the mosaic is complete, the technical part begins...with framing and mounting, after which, we get into the aesthetics of presentation...as in...the detailing between mosaic tiles, final coloring and more. A complete piece of mosaic art is a product of numerous consecutive steps,” he says cutting a bright red glass wand into individual tesserae.
“In the end...my entire life is the work I have created. Granted, there was a time for studies both here and abroad, a time for training and more...but this really has become my life, and I hope to be able to create mosaics for its entirety,” Vafeiadis says.
WORDS + PHOTOS: Portes Magazine
FEATURING: The Art of Dimitris Vafeiadis