The Intricacy of Mosaic

In Life & Art of Ed Chapman

Born in 1971, Ed Chapman tiptoed into the world of art holding the hands of his artist parents. Playing with pastels or pencils were part of his everyday routine even before he was conscious of his natural gifts. But instead of the more conventional media like acrylic or gouache, Ed Chapman found mosaic to be ideally suited for his artistic expressions. He devoted himself in the exploration of mosaic art and finding his own niche in its illustrious legacy. From ceramic to pieces of paper, smashed vinyl records to plectrums, there is hardly any item with which creating art is not possible for Ed. He mostly uses famous faces from the world of music and art as his subject. He aims for maximum impact by trying to keep the palette as simple as possible and audience is left gasping at beholding the eloquent faces staring back at them from the frames. Watch closely and you will start identifying the fragments of life affectionately preserved in each piece of vinyl or ceramic before being skilfully strewn into a larger picture.

How life was like for young Ed Chapman growing up in a creatively stimulating environment?

All my siblings and I were encouraged with any art we were doing. Both my parents studied art (at Liverpool College of Art, contemporaries of Beatle John Lennon). We even had a family newspaper which recorded the events of the week and I was in charge of pictures (drawings) at age five. Both parents were always creating art, my mother painting and father sculpting and making props for school plays and that sort of thing and my art efforts were always encouraged too. They also were tough taskmasters as they were really good at their areas of art, they expected me to know perspective when I was about four years old.

Mosaic art by Ed Chapman

The ’70s and ’80s England saw newer streams of consciousness enter the world of art and music. How did that affect your formative years, if at all?

You can’t help but be influenced by the period in which you grow up, to some extent. I think the change has come about later though for my work subjectwise. I love music from all periods (and all styles) and wanted to make portraits of the musicians I admire and still do. When I first tried to seek interest in my mosaic icons I was literally told ‘that’s not art’ by a very well known gallery owner. Within a few years the iconic subjects were seen everywhere, as paintings usually, often really badly done in my opinion, yet still selling in galleries. The same gallery owner to his credit has since bought more than one of my mosaics.

When did you first fell in love with mosaic–art? Does having a background in fine arts help in the conceptualisation and execution process of any experimentation?

I had originally always painted and even more created sketches using pencil. Still lives were my forté. I still do them to relax, when I can. In 1997 I created a mosaic in paper for an A–Level project and was impressed with how a mosaic came together. I also was pleased with how relatively easily the medium came to me. I was nowhere near an expert in mosaics — I have since read widely about the medium and studied them up close — but I felt the portrait I made of Kurt Cobain was good enough to pursue. By the second torn paper portrait (John Lennon) I felt it may be possible to sell the pictures.

Ed Chapman’s contribution in the age old tradition of creating mosaic art can fully be comprehended if we briefly look back at its history. Pieces of glass, stones and gold flecks are being used for centuries to create very elaborate mosaic art. It captivated the imaginations of artists and craftsmen in Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, Byzantium, Middle East and antique and medieval Roman Empire with each of them contributing in further nourishment of this art form. The tiny cubes of stones, ivories etc used for creating mosaics were known as tesserae. Splendidly detailed floor, wall and ceiling decorations created with tesserae were no strangers in the houses of Greek noblemen as early as in 4th century BC. Sosus of Pergamon, active in 2nd century BC in Pergamon and Alexandria, found honourable mention in the writings of Pliny the Elder. The author and philosopher described Sosus’s mosaic masterpiece depicting an image of dove at water’s edge to be so realistic that real birds flew towards it. Romans introduced mosaic art to their Hellenistic Villas, primarily seen in North Africa, and later on in Pompeii. Before long the popularity of this art form gained momentum in rest of Europe. A part of mosaic from the floor of a Roman Villa of about 325 AD situated at Woodchester, Gloucestershire is still preserved.

On the far side of Aegean Sea, Byzantium exploited the grandeur of mosaic art to embellish their monasteries and places of worship. Places like Ravenna and Istria became centres for creating mosaic chef–d’oeuvre. Even though much has been perished with time the remaining pieces are still beautiful enough to mesmerise the viewers. Islamic art on the other hand embraced the intricacy of mosaic to create complex geometrical designs and floral motifs. The sophisticated patterns known as Girih were frequently used to decorate the domes of the mosques as seen in Nasr Ol Molk Mosque or the Great Mosque in Corduba. The master artists of Arab countries, Jordan and Turkey used the potential of this art form to the fullest extent in crafting enduring stories in sacred places as well as in private homes.

In recent time, Edward Burne–Jones, the noted Pre–Raphaelite painter, Fernand Léger, the French artist and filmmaker, and Antoni Gaudí, the Spanish architect used mosaic for visual articulations. So everytime Ed Chapman creates a mosaic artwork he adds another glowing tessera to this great and ever evolving mosaic painting adorning the dome of time.

Have you ever drawn inspiration from such historical work? As an artist how do you see the evolution of this art form?

I really admire the ancient mosaics. They are incredible in technique and often in subject and in the way they are preserved so well in many cases unlike, say, paintings. I draw inspiration from it in the skill employed and the accuracy of the results but I don’t try to emulate it … I prefer to use as few pieces as possible to make the mosaic, unlike the equally sized pieces in ancient mosaics. As far as evolution, I have many ideas for unique new and valid mosaic styles, smashed vinyl being a recent one I felt had not really been done properly. I have been asked to make portraits from all sorts of materials, sugar cubes, toys, coins, I intend to concentrate on materials that can make interesting and accurate likenesses of the subject rather than being a bizarre material and the portrait looks nothing like the subject. Computers are playing a big part in interesting portraits in mosaic style and this will continue but they look flat and I think layered mosaics are interesting.

Mosaic art by Ed Chapman

You experiment a lot with the usage of colour in your artwork. Describe the way you use ‘colour’ to bring forth the essence of the subject of your mosaic–art?

Colour is everything to me. I always have admired work by Van Gogh and Lucien Freud and others in their use of colour among other things, the hyper–real of a pale blue or a bright red or orange in a face is very exciting to me.

Through your collages you depict portraits, landscapes and abstractions. In the development of one from the other, does it require a conscious adjustment of your thought process?

If I switch from medium, say ceramic to vinyl there is a definite shift in the thought and work–process. I like to have two or more mosaics in progress at the same time.

Your work often features some of the most well known faces of the world. So far, execution of which piece has given you the greatest of satisfaction?

Creating a portrait of Jimi Hendrix from more than 4,000 plectrums was something I was very pleased with (it sold for USD 35,000). I think the portrait for Lemmy from Motorhead (shown in the movie Lemmy, 2010) could be the single most satisfying one.

If you are requested to form a collage of your journey so far what would the artwork reveal?

Many many hours of trying to improve the mosaic technique. Starting with paper, to ceramic, to stone, vinyl and back to paper with several other media along the way. I like portraits especially as they are a challenge and yet offer a limitless range of possibilities. No two of my mosaics are ever the same.

Mosaic art by Ed Chapman
Portrait of Ed Chapman

When Ed is not creating mosaic art …

He loves being in the sunny coastal city of Torremolinos, Spain. The multifaceted cultural vista of Berlin also appeals to his artistic senses. An artist who adores portraying musicians finds inimitable Bob Dylan’s voice to be most captivating. William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) and Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society (1989) are his two all–time favourite movies. The moving stories of The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro managed to capture Ed’s heart and mind. The flavour, texture and taste of cheese remain unbeaten when it comes to engaging the attention of Ed’s palate.

Find more of his work at his website.

Image Courtesy: Ed Chapman