Visual artists use watercolors, oils and acrylics, pastels, even house paint, and utilize paint brushes, sponges, fingers and hands, spatulas — you name it — to create their works of art. Mosaic artist Rhonda Heisler, on the other hand, paints with glass.
A painter may fashion an image one brushstroke at a time, but Heisler creates the mosaic surface one tessera (tile) at a time, unit by unit. Her mosaics run the gamut from representational and figurative to abstractions, and her materials include handcut opaque and iridescent stained glass, mirrored metallic glass, ceramics, and pottery. More recently she has started to incorporate organic items into her works — geodes, pieces of agate, amber, pyrite, and ordinary stones she harvests at local stone yards.
“Mosaic art has taken off, it’s undergoing a renaissance, so all kinds of new materials are available,” Heisler says. “I’m inspired by the material itself, especially with my abstract art.”
Her studio in the basement of the Skillman home she shares with her husband, Jim, president, U.S. Loyalty, at Harris Interactive in Princeton, is an organized but dizzying array of trays and tubs filled with a rainbow of colored glass. Works in progress seem to be coming alive with just the seeds of a color palette and a few sketches. Heisler demonstrates how she creates the individual tiles, an ancient, simple technique that involves cutting shapes into a sheet of colored glass, then using a special hammer to break off the individual tile. The tesserae fit together like a puzzle and nothing is wasted.
A solo exhibit of Heisler’s recent contemporary fine art mosaics is on view through Thursday, April 30, in the offices of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, 113 Dickinson Hall, on the campus of Princeton University. The exhibit was curated by Princeton-based artist and curator Anita Bernarde, who first saw Heisler’s works at the former Go For Baroque boutique in Princeton.
A self-taught artist, Heisler has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Michigan. She and her husband moved to Princeton in 1993, and Heisler’s first job in this area was in marketing and communications at ETS. She then moved on to an editor’s position with Philip Lief. They have two grown daughters, Laura and Jill, who live in Manhattan.
Heisler has also recently returned from San Diego, where the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA) held its annual juried mosaic exhibition, Mosaic Arts International, on view at the San Diego Museum of Man through Sunday, April 26. Heisler was selected to exhibit a new abstract work titled “Sukkothai.” Inspired by a visit to an ancient temple site in Thailand, the piece is composed of handcut opaque and metallic stained glass, slate, and raku-fired ceramic. This is the artist’s fifth appearance in the SAMA show. (She is also vice-president and a board member with SAMA.)
The Chicago native’s “mosaic madness” has taken on a life of its own in just 10 years. Several years ago when she was an editor at the nonfiction book developer, the Philip Lief Group, in Princeton, Heisler never imagined that she would be making a living creating fine art, and doing quite well, in fact.
It all started with a little mosaic-topped table she found. Heisler, who has had an artistic flair since childhood, remembered how much she used to enjoy doing mosaics in her youth. Her family owned a woman’s apparel store on Chicago’s North Side, and although they had little interest in making art themselves, they encouraged their daughter in her creative endeavors. “I looked at (the table) and I said to myself, ‘I think I could do this better,’” Heisler says. “I found a project book at Barnes & Noble, then started to look around at the Lambertville flea market and other places, trying to find odds and ends I could cover with mosaic. So I just did that for awhile. As I began to spend more and more time doing mosaics, I found I had quite a few things to show, even in only six month’s time. My friends, especially one in particular, really encouraged me. They said, ‘You can do this.’
“I really began to explore it and take it seriously in 2000,” she continues. An early foray into fine art was her representational mosaic tile titled “Meditating Woman,” inspired by a 1913 painting of the same name by Russian expressionist Alexei von Jawlensky. That piece was selected for SAMA’s 2004 exhibit in San Francisco, which gave Heisler tremendous encouragement and motivation to move forward and experiment even more. “Meditating Woman” is prominently displayed in Heisler’s sunny kitchen area.
She was spurred to experiment with more abstract works, and began to feel the technique come through her. In other words, the “thinking” and “planning” side of mosaic art shifted to the background at times and pure creativity flowed into her hands. Such was the case with “Darkness Descends,” a pair of impassioned panels in shadowy hues inspired by the 2004 election. “I had wanted to celebrate John Kerry’s victory but instead ..,” she says, not finishing her sentence. “I worked feverishly for six days, in a fury. I wanted to (represent) my feeling that everything was going in a downward direction. But this was a new thing for me. This was the first time I created a piece without sketching, instead conveying a complex idea. That’s what I’ve been doing since.”
Heisler’s fine art mosaics are in private collections and have been shown in galleries in New York City, Santa Fe, Dallas and Naples, Florida. She specializes in site-specific mosaics for hospitals and health care facilities, and has two installations in South Jersey, at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center near Atlantic City. She has also recently completed an 18-by-8 foot Matisse-inspired mosaic mural in handcut opaque stained glass for a new Hilton Grand Vacation Resort opening soon in Orlando, Florida.
Heisler works spontaneously and expressively, trimming and fitting the glass as she builds the surface, creating a complex interplay of luminous color, shape, pattern and texture. It is also a form of play, a revitalizing break from the corporate world.
Interestingly, viewers she has met, especially when she was doing more craft-oriented projects, have come away with a completely different impression. “People have said to me, ‘You must have to have a lot of patience’ and I’ve also heard ‘This must be so tedious,’” Heisler says. “I tell them no, it’s very joyful, liberating, and even meditative. Once the design decisions have been made (on a piece) I can work down here in my studio for hours. It’s very peaceful and highly creative. And when I’m done, I know that I have added to the world’s share of beauty instead of contributing to the confusion.”
Heisler is excited to be a part of what she describes as a genuine rebirth of mosaic art, with artists from a number of other media discovering and “coming over to” the art form. Take, for example, the fact that although SAMA was founded just ten years ago, it has grown to an organization of some 1,200 members.
‘People familiar with ecclesiastical mosaics or classical mosaics seen on travels to ancient sites may be surprised to learn that mosaic work is experiencing a significant revival in this country and abroad,” Heisler says. “The special quality of a mosaic is the interplay between the individual tiles and the composition as a whole. Mosaics invite close-up inspection, and you can lose yourself in the tiny details of the work. Then you draw back and the full composition comes into focus. It’s this interplay, this tension, that opens up a universe of expressive possibilities and makes mosaic art dynamic and fascinating.”
Naming a variety of influences in art history — Van Eyck, Derain, and especially Matisse — Heisler also draws energy and ideas from contemporary mosaicists such as Matteo Randi, Lynne Chinn, and Ilana Shafir. One of the highlights of the annual SAMA gathering for Heisler is the opportunity to take workshops with some of the top talents in mosaic art. “Mosaicists are very open and sharing people, happy to tell you why they did something, what materials they used and whatnot,” Heisler says. “The community is very generous.”
Mosiac Art Exibit, 113 Dickinson Hall, the offices of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, on the campus of Princeton University. A solo exhibit of works by Skillman resident and artist Rhonda Heisler. On view through Thursday, April 30. 609-258-5430. For more information on Heisler visit www.rhondaheislermosaicart.com.
Gallery hours: Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment