Written by 6:42 pm Essay, First Person, Visual Art

The Craft That Serves the Art

A chance Google search leads to a nearly 600-mile drive to see the details in Lilian Broca’s mosaics.

Driving to Toronto, I saw dozens of cairns built on top of the rock outcroppings. One was shaped like a person, if a person consisted entirely of rectangles, and wore a miniature yellow hard hat. I saw street signs indicating Hanging Pot Rd., Seldom Seen Rd., Little Go Home Bay. I saw Lake Superior, the St. Mary’s River, not enough of Lake Huron. On the Canadian side past the Soo, I saw only one restaurant, rustically built, the sort of place you knew not to order anything fancy, ketchup being the best condiment there is.

I drove this way, exactly 583 miles from home, because I wanted to see an exhibit of Lilian Broca’s mosaics, the Judith series. I’d come across her work accidentally, scrolling online for images of Biblical women. Even on a screen, her work was absolutely gorgeous, like nothing I’d ever seen. There’s a long version of this story, of course, but the short version is that we got in touch with each other, thanks again to the internet, and she let me know that she had a solo show coming up in Toronto. From my home in Marquette, Michigan, the drive would be manageable. 

I’ve lived in big cities and small towns, but regardless of my location, I’ve sought out art museums—the Met and MoMA in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Fenimore in Cooperstown. I’ve seen many exhibits that have influenced my work as a poet, shows featuring the Peaceable Kingdom paintings of Edward Hicks, photographs of Japanese internment by Dorothea Lange, drawings and sketches by Edward Hopper. But I’d never driven 583 miles just because I wanted to see someone’s work in person.

All I knew of mosaics is that an artist put little pieces of glass or ceramic together in order to create a larger image. I couldn’t imagine the patience it took, the attention to detail. Most of the mosaics I’d seen previously had been old, discovered by archeologists excavating ancient cities and then displayed in museums. They were impressive for their age but often chipped, with the colors dulled. I tried to imagine the lives of the people who had fashioned them, and I tried to understand what it meant that although thousands of years separated us, we could be connected by these material objects. The art itself, though, was secondary.

Nothing is dulled in Broca’s work. She has completed two series of mosaics featuring dynamic women, each consisting of multiple large mosaics, and she’s currently working on a third in response to Mary Magdalene. She’s also completed similar work in other media. Her first series of mosaics tells the story of Queen Esther, a Jewish woman married to a Persian king. When the king ordered all Jews to be killed, Esther’s actions led to their survival, and her courage is celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Purim. Even on a computer screen, these mosaics took my breath away. After seeing them online, I bought the book that reproduces them even more gorgeously, The Hidden and the Revealed: The Queen Esther Mosaics of Lilian Broca. The mosaics’ colors are rich and saturated, and the characters’ faces and bodies are compellingly expressive. In one, Esther is filled with fear. Though her eyes are widened, she looks down, away from the viewer, and her face is tense, an expression Broca accomplishes by choosing multiple colors for the tesserae, the small pieces of glass from which the mosaic is constructed. Among the tan, brown, and white squares, Broca also includes bits of red, blue, and gray, suggesting an anxious pallor. In one hand, Esther holds the scroll containing the king’s permission for genocide; her other hand is nearly clenched at her side. She’s wearing a red and blue gown with a black and green shawl; both drape across her so that the lines appear in waves rather than rigid stripes, enhancing the sense of quick movement. Before looking closely at these individual elements, I was struck by the figure’s desperation, her need to act now. Her urgency is unforgettable. Yet this mosaic is among the smaller ones, 48 by 32 inches. Several of the mosaics in this series are 70 or 75 inches tall. Their scale emphasizes the significant effects of Esther’s actions.

If I could, I would drive almost anywhere to see these mosaics.

peter ahern

The series I was driving to see during June 2016 features Judith, another Biblical woman who saved her people, this time not by appealing to a king but by seducing a general and then murdering him. This most graphic scene in Judith’s story has been imagined into art by many painters, including Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Artemisia Gentileschi. It’s an unequivocally violent moment, and artists seldom try to camouflage that—compelled by the violence itself, but probably more so by the idea that a woman could act this way. The story doesn’t start out violently. Judith, a beautiful widow, lives in the village whose Jewish residents are threatened by the evil king Nebuchadnezzar via his general, Holofernes. He’ll starve the people into surrender, he thinks—he’s a renowned general after all, and who are they? Judith offers to enter Holofernes’ camp along with her maid, relying on her wits for safety, for what but wits does a woman have? Well, looks. I’m tempted to imagine the seduction scene as camp—Holofernes strutting about, pouring wine, pouring more wine, a theatrical audience smirking as they observe Judith’s falsely meek acquiescence. Holofernes pours more wine, more and more until he passes out. Meek no longer, Judith beheads him with his own sword. When Holofernes’ soldiers realize what has occurred, they flee. To no one’s surprise, this scene—Judith plunging the sword into Holofernes’ neck, or Judith or her maid grasping the head by its black hair—has most evocatively inspired artists.

Judith’s story with its celebration of violence can be uncomfortable for modern readers. It’s certainly uncomfortable for me. The murder is bloody, personal, and premeditated. In earlier times, readers were astonished and perhaps appalled that a woman could do such a thing. All these centuries later, I am on the one hand impressed by Judith’s fortitude but on the other hand repelled by the gore. The story, though, reminds me of my own privilege, living at least so far in comparative safety. Nonviolent strategies of negotiation are sometimes luxuries that victims of violence can’t afford.

I’d seen the Judith mosaics only online, and I didn’t quite know what to expect as I was about to see them in person. The exhibit space at the J.D. Carrier gallery in Toronto is semi-circular, allowing me to step easily from one mosaic to the next and also to see them all simultaneously. Rather than frame the action of these mosaics with gold tessarae, as she had with the Esther series, Broca chose to create them as if they are drawn on a sketchpad, the paper for each piece torn from a spiral at the top. I couldn’t help noticing how casual the torn perforations seemed, and yet also how elegant. The paper looked real but more than real, as hurried as Judith must have been fleeing Holofernes’ tent, and yet also determined, solid, as Judith also surely was. Broca also chose to leave some elements of the pieces in black and white, as if unfinished, the sketch incompletely colored. These choices emphasized the quick action centered in some of the mosaics and also drew my eye toward the rich tones of the garments and faces. I prefer saturated colors in almost all art, and the blues and greens in these mosaics are densely saturated. In one mosaic particularly, a diptych titled Judith Seducing Holofernes, where the body of Holofernes is divided between the two pieces, his gown is a deep royal blue, the deepest and brightest color among the entire series. Holofernes is leaning over Judith’s shoulder while she looks slightly away from him.  I could see more of her face than he could. Her eyes slant toward him, and her lips are closed, almost pinched. She knows, and I knew, that she is not the helpless refugee he believes she is. You don’t even need to know the story to understand that these two people have different agendas.

This exhibit featured Broca’s original preliminary cartoons, paintings that followed, and then the mosaics themselves. As much as I appreciate visual art, I am not trained in drawing or painting, so it was particularly revealing for me to examine the artifice unconcealed by the art. I’d never seen much of any artist’s work aside from the finished piece. Glancing from cartoon to mosaic, I could see the artist thinking. I could appreciate so much more about the construction of the mosaics, how Holofernes’ sword, for example, plunges across or down the space, aligning with the division of the cartoons into thirds. I could understand how skilled Broca is with the basic elements of craft, and I could see how firmly craft serves as the foundation for inspiration and imagination. 

I purchased the catalog for this exhibit, too, and read and reread the descriptions of her process. I became as fascinated by what we might call the mechanics of mosaic production as by their aesthetic result. Glass is so fragile that I sometimes assume it will be light. Thousands of glass tesserae mortared together into images taller than I am become surprisingly heavy, though. She says that part of the magic of mosaic is watching the image emerge from all of these individual bits. It takes a special eye, I think, to imagine the possibilities among the colored fragments. Visual artists began to learn perspective—how to make a two-dimensional space look three-dimensional—only during the fifteenth century. Depth within landscapes and cityscapes became much more prominent in Renaissance paintings. Before that, mosaics in particular look flat, often beautiful but not three-dimensional. Broca’s mosaics don’t feature wide settings—she shows us the inside of Holofernes’ tent, not the entire encampment, so I didn’t think about perspective immediately. But then I began to notice the variation in complexion, the light and shadow, of each of the figures. I noticed how rounded the arms appeared, how muscular. I noticed the tendons in Judith’s hands as she appears before Holofernes in one image and raises his sword in another. I noticed how Broca accomplished this detail by choosing colors to emphasize light’s subtlety.

I’d begun my relationship with these images awed by their visual power, but now I began to fall more deeply in love with them as I more thoroughly appreciated the artist’s craftsmanship. Knowledge is power some say, but for me in this museum and afterward, knowledge became a portal to appreciation. 

I savored my experience during the long drive home, and I’ve remembered this journey frequently, wishing I could return. That’s the trouble with exhibits—they’re most often temporary. Now they reside in other galleries, and on pages of catalogs, on screens, and in my memory. I’ve taken other trips and seen other art, but it’s Broca’s mosaics I hope to see again, no matter how far I have to go.

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