Peace in tiny pieces

Fiddly, absorbing and very rewarding. That was the verdict on a mosaic-making course, as Sally Staples found out.

Mosaics keep Michelle Heydon awake at night. Since she tried a two- day course in the art of cutting up tiny pieces of tiles and arranging them into intricate patterns, she spends sleepless hours planning her designs, and has seriously considered changing her life.

Michelle, who works with computers in Cambridge, longs to give it all up and earn her living making mosaics. "It's my aspiration. I like all sorts of craft, but I really love the idea of doing something that will be here in years to come," she says.

She is sitting at a table in a large, airy studio in Sussex attending a four-day course in mosaics run by West Dean College. In front of her is a 4ft by 2ft wooden frame for a bedhead, displaying an elaborate design of flowers, stems and leaves. She is planning the painstaking job of filling in the design with tiny pieces of mosaic.

"It's taken me three days just to do one corner. It's a big project, but I'll take it home and keep at it until I've finished," she says. "I'm a full-time working mother and this is my escape. I'm planning brown and yellow lillies, cream tulips, a terracotta background and black stems. This is my second course. After the first one I got so carried away, I bought pounds 70 worth of glass."

All around her other men and women are busy working on more modest mosaics in ceramics, glass, marble and terracotta. Monty Raphael, from London, a retired businessman turned psychotherapist, says that what he enjoys most about the process is breaking a material up into fragments in order to rebuild it into something whole.

"Originally I was attracted by the colour of the mosaics I saw in Italy and Cyprus. The richness captured me. I had been groping around to find some sort of craft ... Then I came on a mosaic course and decided this was it."

Monty is working from a photograph, copying a 16th-century mosaic he admired outside a church in Crete. "I find it unquestionably therapeutic. I don't know what meditation is, but I imagine it to be rather like making a mosaic. It is so absorbing that after a certain time you forget everything else."

The college at West Dean is, in fact, a splendidly preserved Edwardian house set in 6,000 acres. It offers a number of full-time and short residential courses. During their stay students may wander the huge rooms, use the library and admire the pictures, antiques and big game trophies.

Sophie MacKinnon, who is on the mosaic course with her sister-in-law Fiona, is full of enthusiasm. "I'll definitely be back. The atmosphere here is so relaxing - and I've discovered it takes the most incredible concentration. I've decided that one day I'd like to do my kitchen floor in black and white lizards."

Sophie and Fiona are designing mosaic patterns around a circular mirror, exploring patterns and colours with glass and ceramic pieces. Fiona, a nursing sister, said she had previously had no idea how much time it would take, or how absorbing it would be. "It's so peaceful and undemanding - not a bit like work. And yet there is something growing in front of you. It's great fun being able to try different materials and colours, and getting such helpful advice."

Also designing a mirror surround is Stephanie Schofield, who used to work in banking in Surrey, and her lawyer husband Brian. Both had been interested in classical mosaics and decided to have a go themselves. Stephanie began by decorating a 6-in-square tile, to get the feel of cutting, sticking and linen grouting to give an even surface. "I needed a bit of advice on what colour the grouting should be," she says. It comes in black, white or grey and whichever you choose makes a huge difference to the overall finish.

Brian is happy to leave the more ambitious mirror to his wife, and contents himself with working on a selection of tiles. "I rather enjoy using the tile nippers. It gives me a sense of power," he says, as he demonstrates how to cut a 1-in-square tile into 16 tiny squares. "Having done this yourself, you look again at the classical patterns and realise just what those workmen must have gone through."

John Ball, a retired lecturer from Cambridge, tried mosaics after enjoying a course on stained glass. "l wanted to do a mosaic for a set of paving slabs in the garden," he said. "The tutor here, Emma Bigge, is absolutely terrific, and she has brought old bits and pieces of tiles and pebbles as well as some expensive cut marble. She has put up an exhibition of her work, which is very inspiring."

Emma herself says many of her students have no experience of any other craft. "I get all ages on the courses, and tremendous enthusiasm for mosaics from both men and women. When they start, they find the technique takes over and they are so busy cutting and sticking and arranging that they have no time to question their own creativity. The results are often very encouraging. I find that men tend to be more geometric in their designs, and women more naturalistic."

Emma was originally inspired by watching a TV programme about mosaicists in the Italian community. She took up her calling with enthusiasm and has since won commissions from the Sultan of Oman, and Terence Conran, for his London restaurants Quaglinos and Mezzo. She has also just completed a mosaic at the entrance to The Groucho, the artists' and writers' club in Soho.

Emma Bigge takes courses at West Dean College, Went Dean, Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 OQZ (01243 811301). A four-day residential course costs pounds 222 (pounds 143 for non-residents). She also teaches at Missendon Abbey, Great Missenden, Bucks (01494 890296) and runs her own mosaic workshop at Unit B, 4431449 Holloway Road, London N7 (0171-263 2997).

Correction

On 29 November the feature on silk painting at the Wye Valley Arts Centre contained a mistaken telephone number. The correct number is 01594 530214 or 01291 689463.

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