I love making mosaics: deciding on subject matter, drawing my design, deciding which materials I will use, learning new techniques and then seeing the finished product after many hours of work. It is always a good feeling to complete a project. I learn something new every time. Although I love the process it can often get lonely. So, from the very beginning of my mosaic experience I knew that I wanted to work on collaborative projects. Whether working on a community mosaic project in Madison or during several mosaic marathons at annual mosaic conventions I found that whether talking to another, or silently getting lost in the work, one never feels alone.
This sense of friendship, found in creating something as a group, was especially strong in a project I led at Grand Avenue Club of Milwaukee. In late fall of 2017 I approached Rachel Forman, its executive director, about doing a community mosaic. Grand Avenue Club is a community which provides an array of opportunities for people who have experienced mental illness. Rachel was enthusiastic about the project. I had several ideas that I presented to a large group of members. They decided by consensus that they would like to do a mosaic on the theme of “Lake Michigan”. By the spring of 2018 the studio was set up and all supplies were ordered.
Grand Avenue Club is in a former bank building and is Milwaukee’s oldest extant building. The studio where we worked was not huge but it had high ceilings and a view that faced another beautiful historic building.
The night before the first session to work on the mural I did not sleep so well. “What was I going to tell everybody, did I really know what I was doing?” Once I sat down surrounded by a small group of mostly men and held the tile nippers in my hand and a plate in the other I felt calm and confident. “You know what you are doing. I said to myself.” One by one most of the men got up to leave but all I could do was smile. A staff member apologized but it did not matter to me because we had begun. A group of seven worked hard and did a beautiful job on creating eleven fish. Community volunteers helped to complete the background.
I was coming there for about a month when I walked in one day and many people started to greet me. I heard “Hi Miriam, Hi Miriam” and I immediately thought to myself, “Oh, do I know you? Have we met? Everyone seems to know my name. What is that person’s name?” So I started to make notes. “Joe, dark hair, dark skin, works on 3rd floor; Sami has a dog; Tim helps to run the kitchen. Is Tim a member or staff?” I couldn’t tell and then it didn’t really matter because everyone was so warm and welcoming.
There were times when I came to Grand Avenue Club in not the best of moods. Then we would start working on the mural and people would be joking. Members would make choices that were different from mine and in the end those choices were so much better.
I have learned that the vision and skills of the lead artist are important, but are not the most important element of a collaborative art project. Community art is a flower that blooms out of inclusion and openness to the creative ideas of everyone.
Before becoming a mosaic artist Miriam Sushman worked as a photojournalist in the USA and Israel. Her passion for mosaics was ignited seven years ago while working on a mixed media table. Having learned to work with a variety of mosaic methods and materials, she has taught workshops and classes to children, teens and adults. Her Riverwest home includes several interior and exterior mosaics.