The River of Life and LATICRETE flow together in an epic mosaic mural commission
In the “River of Life,” London mosaic mural artist Gary Drostle explores the relationship of a Midwestern American town and its people with the river that slices through it. Descending southeast to join the Mississippi on eventual passage to New Orleans, the Iowa River defines both the history and future of Iowa City and those who call it home.
In a brilliant display of color and craft, the University of Iowa mosaic art mural sparkles with life and wisdom from the floor of the main causeway as the signature design element of the new $59 million, 20,000 square-foot wellness center on the flagship UI campus.
In a story told through elegant andamento (the visual movement created by placement of the tesserae in the pattern), this 2011 TileLetter Awards Commercial Mosaic/Glass winner evokes the inherent alliance between nature and man, river and city, in a mosaic art masterpiece installed with premium materials manufactured by LATICRETE.
Drostle’s spectacular, 12´x47´ (3.6mx14.3m) creation is a testament to the enduring beauty of mosaic fine art, enriched by the spirit of LATICRETE people and the performance of LATICRETE® products. The project, from concept to grouting, touches on the evolution of the centuries-old craft and shines a light on how LATICRETE materials and methods have earned a loyal following among the world’s most-skilled mosaic artisans.
For over half a century, LATICRETE has exclusively focused on driving demand for tile and stone with innovative product design and systems developed for efficient, permanent installations. LATICRETE has also supported the industry with product donations and a host of other free tools and services online, adopting a company-wide approach to the cause.
For the River of Life, LATICRETE co-owner Henry Rothberg arranged to donate the specified products for the mural installation, and then became one of the biggest supporters of the project online and in blogs.
With premium, polymer-fortified thin-set mortar and the latest breakthrough in cement-based grout from LATICRETE, a special team of highly-skilled mosaic artisans completed the elaborate installation using the traditional two-step method direct over masonry. Sent from London packaged in 16 boxes and paper-face mounted on 200 sheets, the River of Life now rests in a cropped field of terrazzo as the centerpiece of the three-level wellness and fitness facility.
The balance of life
In spectacular tesserae, Drostle examines his vision of wellness as a wayfaring voyage through time that parallels the twisting, turning Iowa River. The field of river-blue, hand-cut porcelain mosaics interspersed with Bisazza glass highlights, allows Drostle to weave the River of Life in and out of lighter and darker textile-patterned sections in search of a life in balance. The 3/4” mosaics were hand-cut to a “3/4”x3/8” basic building block,” said Drostle; some were additionally trimmed to fit various joints and the perimeter tiles were left as 3/4” square tiles.
The river encounters well-being when it drifts into an earthen-yellow background of French Winckelman unglazed porcelain mosaics. The earthen background derives its patterns from Native American and Amish quilts, symbolizing the rolling plains of the heartland. In the outer-lying edges beyond well-being, the river flows into deep-gray despair, just as life out of balance will. Each line of tile depicts a single life; some end prematurely or drift away as in real life.
“The river symbolizing life is an ancient image connecting our most ancient cultures: the river as the bringer of life and purification,” said Drostle. “I imagined the ground the Iowa River flows over as the rich pattern of human existence, culture and knowledge. The river travels through light and dark patterned sections of well-being and in some parts, the blue lines break out completely, portraying the extremes of a life not in balance.”
The mosaic team
Given the size and incredible amount of detail involved, the River of Life mosaic mural was a project in every sense of the word. The stunning final creation was the direct result of hundreds of days and countless hours of planning, measuring and adjusting by highly-skilled professionals Drostle hired for the architecture commission. In fact, the River of Life gathered some of the world’s best-known mosaic artists to Drostle’s studio by the Thames. The sum total of their expertise and years of training can be found in the greatness of this true work of art.
The experience for mosaic artist and Texas native Julie Richey began with a two-week trip to London in April 2010, well-documented in her insightful and colorful blog at http://web.mac.com/julierichey/www.juliericheymosaics.com/Blog/Entries/2010/4/10_London_Calling.html. Richey had already been enlisted by Drostle for the final application with LATICRETE® products in Iowa, so this visit was important to get more familiar with the materials and finished design.
Richey worked closely on the mural with Guilia Vogrig, a graduate of the prestigious Spilimbergo Mosaic School in Italy. Vogrig, along with Notre Dame PhD candidate Levente Borvak, Richey and Drostle, arrived on the University of Iowa campus nearly six weeks later as the official mural installers after each sheet of mosaics was carefully labeled and packaged for shipment to the U.S.
The LATICRETE advantage
Before coming stateside, LATICRETE technical service experts worked with Drostle and his team in London to create the right materials spec inclusive of the LATICRETE warranty program. LATICRETE® 254 Platinum thin-set was chosen to adhere “Necco Wafer”– thin porcelain (according to Richey) and 1/8”-thick glass mosaics. The versatile, multipurpose thin-set mortar impressed the team even with the delicate task of fixing nearly three-hundred thousand mosaic tiles.
“We went through six, 50-pound bags of LATICRETE® 254 Platinum,” says Richey. “We loved the stuff. It was sticky, pliable and odorless. We set the mural in an assembly-line process, each with a specific job. Moving in rows, left to right in order to work off the fresh LATICRETE mortar, Levente would hand me a section of the mural and I would place it. Gary would follow, tamp and flatten the mosaics, and Guilia would begin to sponge the brown paper with water to relax the pasta amido flour paste from the surface.”
Since the River of Life was meant to spend forever as a conversation-starter on campus, during the final two days the team grouted the mosaics with LATICRETE® PermaColor™ Grout to protect the long-lasting beauty of the exquisite tesserae. Through cement-based technology, LATICRETE developed the revolutionary grout for both walls and floors, inside or out, offering the unmatched ability to lock in consistent color with Kevlar® reinforcement for added strength and Microban® technology for improved stain-resistance. The color Raven was chosen to help carry the mural’s sophisticated andamento.
“I was particularly impressed with LATICRETE PermaColor Grout,” said Drostle. “It has the strength of sanded grout and the finesse of unsanded grout. I was happy to be using products with the latest polymer-cement technology, and noticed the adhesive had excellent strength for the difficult to bond, high-fired and smooth porcelain tiles.”
More than just the skill of Drostle and his team, the elaborate mural takes a close look at the state of mosaic fine art and its place in modern building. The very real contribution of LATICRETE technology ensured the almost-unlimited range of application and mosaic design endures for the time-honored medium, particularly in the context of sustainable today.
The River of Life is a snapshot Gary Drostle took of a singular moment in time about the endless journey of humanity. It’s a graceful, artistic reflection on life in Iowa City, Iowa, and the ties that bind a river to its people. The struggle for inner peace and balance in life told in a mosaic mural story for the ages. Salvation found only through the journey of the river to the sea.