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Robert Hesketh talks to artist Kate Rattray about her life and work of mosaics

13:13 26 January 2010

The bird

The bird

How Italian architecture, a love of storytelling and an inspiring art teacher played their part in the life and work of mosaic artist Kate Rattray. Words by Robert Hesketh.

How Italian architecture, a love of storytelling and an inspiring art teacher played their part in the life and work of mosaic artist Kate Rattray. Words by Robert Hesketh.


With mosaic as her main medium, Kate has explored themes from nature and mythology through vivid and imaginative use of colour and symbolism. Her work includes both indoor and outdoor mosaics for homes, gardens and public spaces, as well as stimulating school and community projects. "One of the reasons I love making mosaics are the endless possibilities," said Kate Rattray when I met her at her recent and very successful exhibition and workshop in Bath.

Growing up in rural North Devon, Kate - influenced by her father, a drama teacher - developed her taste for storytelling, theatre and music as well as the visual arts. Happily, she had an inspirational art teacher at school, who encouraged his students to go for their own ideas and explore creativity in a personal way.

She moved on to Crewe and Alsager College, where photography and photomontage were among her chief interests on her Creative Arts degree. Inspired by Dada and Surrealism, Kate made and exhibited dream-like photomontages. Her move from photographic collage to the more three-dimensional but parallel medium of mosaic came later.

After she had started her family, she was asked by the Head of a local primary school to produce a large wall mosaic with the children. This proved to be the first of her many school and community mosaic projects, and a turning point in her career.

"I loved the physical challenge of mixing concrete and building a structure," continued Kate. "The whole process began to reveal the nature of mosaic for me - its sculptural qualities, its tactility, its vibrancy and the reflectiveness of the materials.

"Like the projects that followed from it, this one was very rewarding and lots of fun for me as well as the children. The boys most enjoyed cutting tiles, the girls sticking the mosaic together, and everyone enjoyed the immediacy of the thing, the interaction and chat. Making mosaics is a very sociable, co-operative activity. It works especially well for kids with behavioural problems such as hyperactivity and attention deficiency because they get encouragement and quick results.

"There are a lot of good things that come out of working with children and with adults too, as I've discovered running workshops in various venues around Somerset and beyond. Making mosaics takes people out of themselves and the stresses of their lives."

At the James Hopkins Trust, Kate was commissioned to make a kite mosaic for severely disabled children. She worked with a sound engineer, who installed different sound receptors for each bow in the kite's tail. Another memorable project was at The Bridge in Wells where Kate worked alongside patients recovering from mental illness.
Along the moat walk beside the Bishop's Palace in Wells, she led the Worminster Dragon mosaic project, a collaboration of six school and community groups.

According to legend, the people near Wells were greatly troubled by the dragon at Worminster Sleight. It regularly visited the villages of Dulcote, Dinder and North Wootton, picking off tasty children and eating them. Eventually the people went to Bishop Jocelyn. He gathered his retinue and riding forward alone slew the dragon with 'his own bare hands and the power of God'.

Kate's mosaic for the new education building at Wells Cathedral depicts St Andrew and the child bearing two fish and five loaves. Much of her inspiration for this beautiful mosaic came from the basilicas and churches of Venice and Ravenna.

Whether working to commission, as with the St Andrew mosaic, or from her own ideas, Kate usually starts with a coloured sketch, often drawing lines to show the direction and shape of the mosaic tile. From that point, there are two methods of building a mosaic.

The direct method involves sticking the mosaic pieces straight onto the substrate, using either PVA glue, tile cement or mortar, before that dries and hardens, which entails building the mosaic up in small sections and working fairly briskly. With the indirect method, the mosaic pieces are stuck onto paper upside down and back to front, and then the adhesive is poured into a frame onto the back of the mosaic. When it is dry, the paper is soaked off. This gives the work a flat surface, even if the mosaic pieces vary in thickness, something which Kate finds aesthetically pleasing and easier to look at.

Some of Kate's tools will be familiar to most DIY practitioners. Among the less familiar ones are her 'hammer and hardy' and her mosaic nippers, both employed for breaking mosaic tesserae into small pieces. She uses goggles for this process and gloves for handling grout.

In 2005, Kate took a Master of Mosaic course in Venice, a city renowned for art in glass as well as being the inheritor of ancient Rome's mosaic traditions. Orsoni Mosaic, where she studied, is the home of the intensely coloured and lustrous smalti glass. Made in thick slabs to a secret recipe, smalti is cut into fragments for mosaic.

"I use smalti glass for its depth of colour and vibrant nature, along with reflective materials such as mirror, silver and gold. Gold leaf in particular adds another dimension to the work, an ethereal, joyous quality. You can see this in Byzantine mosaics, where smalti was first used.

"I'm inspired by nature, and in particular the sun and the moon, sunrises and sunsets, whilst the bird in flight is a symbol of freedom in my work. In 'Guardian of the Sun' and 'How the Sun Wakes up in the Morning', the bird carries the sun around the sky and so is not so free any more, but a part of the interaction of the universe.

"Ancient myths are another inspiration, especially the way that metamorphosis is often used in the end of the stories. With my triptych, 'Spirit of the Leaves', I show the leaves turning into birds, whilst the sun turns into an eye in 'How the Sun Wakes up in the Morning', a series of nine mosaics.

"In my recent mosaics, such as 'Ruby Sunset' and 'Birds at Dusk', I've used the intense hues of coloured smalti glass not only to interpret the colour of the sky, but as a way to explore the power of colour, what it means and how it makes you feel. Blues, for instance, have a calming and peaceful ambience, whilst hot reds make you feel energetic.
"I attempt to interpret natural elements such as wind and heat by selecting the tones, transparency and textures of the mosaic carefully, I'm constantly looking to find exciting new ways to arrange colour and prepare and set materials. Making mosaics, you never stop learning."

FACT FILE
Contact: kate@rattraymosaics.co.uk
01749 330193, commissions welcome.
Kate's mosaics can be seen at: www.rattraymosaics.co.uk; Somerset Guild of Craftsmen, Somerton; the moat walk of Wells Bishop's Palace and the Wookey Hole Inn. (Please ask first to view the St Andrew's mosaic at the Education Centre at Wells Cathedral.) She also exhibits regularly with BAMM, the British Association of Modern Mosaics.

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