All in Pieces

posted on Feb 9, 2021

Passing by my art room, students and teachers couldn’t help but peer through the windows or peek inside the door. They were drawn by the sounds of electric jigsaws gnawing through plywood, the buzzing of electric sanders scraping the edges of prickly wood, and the breaking of glass against metal nibblers. It was all part of the mosaic art-making process and students loved it!

Student artwork from All in Pieces, a Middle School art lesson
Finley H., grade six
Student artwork from All in Pieces, a Middle School art lesson
Lillian B., grade seven
Student artwork from All in Pieces, a Middle School art lesson
Alexis D., grade seven

After introducing students to the history of mosaic art-making, I asked them to research a particular geological location and what made it unique in terms of its plants, animals, architecture, and customs. Students discovered native birds, endangered mammals, stories of dragons, iconic landforms, waterways, and more. Through their research, students were able to identify a single or group of iconic elements to portray their chosen location. This open-endedness allowed students to discover who they are as artists and what they want to say through their art.

Authentic Experience
I invited mosaic artist Amanda Anderson to visit our art room to provide students with a contemporary take on this ancient art form. Using plywood, electric jigsaws, and sanders (tools typically used for carpentry), students explored how to transform the plywood into a fine work of art. Decked out in safety gear, students took turns cutting and sanding to produce a unique wall-hanging base for their mosaic artworks, inspired by Amanda’s style.

It’s in the Details
Next, I set out the mosaic supplies: rows of tiles and glass, all color-coordinated in bins for students to easily see. Students chose their tesserae and colors purposefully, keeping in mind their geological location and research. Students also had choice in their design and application. The key to keeping them safe and organized was preparation. I spent a lot of time demonstrating proper safety procedures, making various cuts using the tools, and setup and breakdown steps. Students were also required to pass a safety quiz prior to cutting.

Sealing and Grouting
The last step was to grout the artworks. Students could choose between white grout or dark charcoal grout. Water, sponges, towels, gloves, masks, and bins of grout lined each table as students slopped it on, smoothed it out, let it dry, and wiped off the tops of the tesserae for a clean finish. I’ll be honest, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to do this step, and my students proclaimed this day the “Official Grouting Disaster Day.” In my head, I saw this all going smoothly, but in reality, there were two other art classes in my room to help out, grout everywhere, and a dirty water bucket spilled all over the floor halfway through. What was supposed to be a fifty-minute art class became a two and a half hour disaster!

From that mistake, I learned a few things: (1) It’s okay to make mistakes—it means you’re learning. And I learned to do this step differently next time. (I’ll have a few students grout at a time, not an entire class.) (2) My students are resilient, compassionate, patient, and flexible, and I was so very proud of them. I shared these statements with them the next day, and I truly believe it made our class community stronger.

The final mosaics were hung on the walls of the school and at our local museum next to students’ accompanying artist statements. Each student’s artwork spoke for itself, and the artist statement explained what couldn’t be seen: the tools, creative process, research, artist connection, and personal artistic message.

Jessica Provow teaches the Gifted Visual Arts Program at Virginia Beach Middle School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Jessica.Provow@VBSchools.com

Creating: Generate and conceptualize new artistic ideas and work.

Mosaics: MyModernMet.com/how-to-make-a-mosaic/

View this article in the digital edition.