From Italian-American Icons mosaic exhibit at MarinMOCA

Ask the Expert: Appreciating Mosaic Portraits

Since 1922, the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli has been a hub for the mosaic arts in a region known for this medium. The school, located in Northern Italy near Venice, offers a comprehensive three-year training…

Since 1922, the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli has been a hub for the mosaic arts in a region known for this medium. The school, located in Northern Italy near Venice, offers a comprehensive three-year training program that begins with ancient practices and culminates with modern techniques, including the contemporary mosaic portrait. 

The Italian American Icons exhibition at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art (MarinMOCA) brings together a collection of mosaic portraits created using centuries-old practices. Tiny tiles made of various materials— from stone and shells to glass and even plastic— are set into the grout.

Marin welcomes back a mosaic portrait expert and curator Guglielmo Zanette from Naonis Cultural Association, which organized the exhibition at MarinMOCA and owns the featured collection. Mosaic Young Talent is the competition created by Zanette and Naonis to curate the exhibition.

“We’re trying to help the younger artists,” said Zanette, who is passionate about promoting emerging artists. “Our mission is to promote these artists and help them launch their careers.” 

The exhibition at MarinMOCA is up through November 7. Here is some information Zanette shared about the works:

  1. Start by standing 4 meters (13 feet) from the artwork. Zanette suggests standing at this distance to appreciate the entirety of the mosaic portrait image truly. The gallery includes the work selected through the Mosaic Young Talent competition, which was open to alumni and the emerging artist at least in their third level at the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli.

  2. Describe or think about what you see? Zanette, as curator, wanted the collection of Italian-American portraits to have a uniform style when appreciated from a distance.

  3. Consider the size of the artwork. Zanette said they commissioned the mosaics small, light enough to travel, and large enough to include background atmosphere details in the image. He also required the portraits to be life-sized, so the eyes of the subject look directly into the viewer’s eyes.

  4. Notice the eyes of the subject.  Portrait artists often use this technique because eye-to-eye contact inspires the viewer to feel the subject’s humanity. Zanette said the artists in this exhibition often selected materials that add a sparkle to the eyes.

  5. Move closer to the artwork so you can see the details. The art competition that led to the exhibition dictated the size of the art and the amount of background atmosphere depicted, but the artist could choose the materials. Moving closer to the artwork, viewers notice the unique aspects of each creation.

  6. Consider how each artist made each artwork. Each artist selected slightly different materials, from traditional materials like marble and Venetian glass smalti and modern materials like plastic, iron, seashells, or anything they chose. Zanette said artists used mosaic tools, like dentist tools, to accurately place the pieces before the grout set.

  7. Imagine the work that went into each creation. Zanette said that the mosaic portraits in the MarinMOCA exhibition took each artist approximately 2-3 months to move from concept to final product.

  8. Notice how to select materials influence the outcome. Notice how the choice of materials and the size of colored pieces and types of grout create a unique effect. Zanette says mosaic artists will often choose marble to capture the skin tones of the face but then use a Venetian glass tile for the hair, eyes, and clothing, which adds a luster because it will catch and reflect light.

  9. In addition to materials, notice how the light in the room influences your experience viewing the mosaic. Visitors may consider going back to see a mosaic many times because the light of day can impact the viewing experience of mosaic portraits.

  10. Consider how the artwork makes you feel?  If you enjoyed the MarinMOCA exhibition, there are many ways to explore the art of mosaics in general and mosaic portraits, specifically. While Art history books can provide an excellent resource for learning about ancient artwork, Byzantine creations, and the making of mosaics today, there is also a catalog available for the Italian-American Icons exhibition. Purchasing the works for sale from this exhibition and a previous collection called 50 Faces supports future projects of Naonis Cultural Association. These pre-made portraits mosaics are collectible items. Some local enthusiasts have commission work through artists associated with the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli. In fact, there was a project at the Canal Alliance in 2019. The Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli offers workshops locally from time to time and has ongoing 1-week intensive programs at their school (materials in English).
keys pacino sinatra
Alicia Keys by Sabrina Kurdic, Al Pacino by Enzo Subiaz, Frank Sinatra by Stefano Marroffino

Pamela Coddington is a writer and editor. Full disclosure: She is a big supporter of the arts in Marin County and has done work with Youth in Arts, Image Flow Photography Center, di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art, Smith Andersen North, and Headlands Center for the Arts. Pamela is a graduate of New York University with a B.A. in Art History, and holds a post-baccalaureate degree in writing from U.C. Berkeley. Pamela lives and works in San Rafael with her family.