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Under the Desert Sun

Legendary mosaic artist Gary Drostle pays homage to the Southwest in Lake Havasu mural

Gary Drostle designed and installed the 20’ x10’ mural featuring native flora and fauna for the Hampton Inn in Lake Havasu, Ariz. Photo credit Warren King Photography
Drostle visited the area in 2019 to learn about the native plants and animals, then returned to London to develop designs. This final design featured a Hopi sun and Peregrine Falcon as well as native animals paired with area plants and the flow of the Colorado River feeding Lake Havasu.

In our country and around the world, there is a consensus with the public at large that the Covid pandemic is “over,” despite people continuing to contract it, most often with mild infections. But for legendary mosaic artist Gary Drostle, the pandemic put the kibosh on a project two years in the planning. 

Drostle (www.drostle.com), a professional artist/mosaic maker for over 30 years specializing in large-scale, site-specific works and working around the world from his studio in London, UK, was approached about creating a landmark mosaic for the Hampton Inn in Lake Havasu, Ariz., at the end of 2018. 

Drostle was a prestigious artist to engage for this project. His work has garnered many awards including in the USA the 2019 NTMA Honor award; 2019 Hamilton Award for Art in Healthcare; 2019 FCI Magazine award Tile & Stone; three separate awards from the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA), and the TileLetter Award in 2011 in the Commercial Mosaic category. Drostle is also a former President of the British Association for Modern Mosaic and has been a visiting lecturer at The Chicago Mosaic School for over 15 years. 

“The construction starts with the full scale cartoon drawing which is made in reverse/mirror image, and painted in monochrome onto brown paper,” Drostle said.

Drostle and the client agreed on a 20’x10′ tall mosaic project that would highlight the natural features of the Lake Havasu area. In early 2019, he visited Lake Havasu to inspect the site and carry out local research into the landscape, wildlife and fauna of the lake, Colorado River and Mojave Mountains, and desert. 

“Of course Lake Havasu is also the home of ‘The London Bridge’ which, coming from a family of Thames River workers, a number of my family worked on dismantling,” he said. “In a way I’m the second generation of Londoners sending broken stones to Lake Havasu!”

Drostle returned to London to develop designs from which the client would select. “The final design features a Hopi sun rising above the Mojave mountains with the Colorado River feeding into the lake,” he explained. “Panels either side of the river depict the plants and animals of the area including many endangered species.” 

Each panel has a border design of a carefully matched local flower or plant:

  • Peregrine Falcon
  • Yuma Myotis Bats
  • Black-tailed Jackrabbit with Desert Paintbrush border
  • Bighorn Sheep with Devils Claw border
  • Greater Roadrunner with Globe Mallow border
  • Saguaro with Fishhook Cactus border
  • Freemont Cottonwood with Creosote border
  • Bell’s Vireo with Mesquite tree border
  • Yuma Clapper Rail with reed border
  • Diamondback Rattlesnake with Coulter’s Lupine border

Drostle also paid homage to the life in the lake by depicting these species: 

  • Razorback Sucker
  • Desert Pupfish
  • Green Sunfish
  • Largemouth Bass

A border that runs around the entire piece hearkens back to the typical traditional Chemehuevi First Nation basket pattern.

After the cartoon is drawn, the slow and careful process of hand cutting and gluing the tesserae face down onto the paper cartoon begins.

Crafting the mural

By June, the design got the green light from the client and construction began on the mosaic, using the traditional Paper Faced Reverse Technique. 

“The construction starts with the full scale cartoon drawing which is made in reverse/mirror image, and painted in monochrome onto brown paper,” Drostle said.

Once this is ready, the slow and careful process of hand cutting and gluing the tesserae face down onto the paper cartoon begins, with each piece precisely placed to build up the design. Drostle worked with a high-fired through-body porcelain manufactured by Winckelmans of France for the mosaic, cutting down the pieces from their 3/4″x3/4″ range.

Over 100,000 hand-cut pieces and many months of careful work later, the mosaic was completed at the beginning of 2020. Here, the lake is being formed.

Drostle said “I chose the porcelain for a few reasons. Of course, it is an extremely tough material well suited to the wide range of temperatures it will face in Arizona, but this range also cuts very nicely and the color palette is particularly harmonious. I felt the palette went very well with the particular colors of the Arizona desert and mountains.”

Over 100,000 hand-cut pieces and many months of careful work later, the mosaic was completed at the beginning of 2020. Once complete it was carefully cut into sections and packed for transportation, with intent to install it on an exterior wall overlooking the hotel pool.

Covid brings the mural to a halt

No sooner had the crate carrying the mosaic shipped out to Arizona than the worldwide Covid pandemic hit, Drostle said. The borders were closed and everything ground to a halt, leaving the crate sitting in the Hampton Inn in Lake Havasu, waiting for the borders to re-open.

“The mosaic sections are laid paper facing outwards into the bed of wet adhesive and then the paper is dampened to release the temporary glue,” Drostle said. “The paper is peeled off, leaving the tesserae embedded in the adhesive.”

The installation

Covid left a lot of chaos and delays in its wake, and this project was no exception. Drostle couldn’t assemble his team to install the mosaic until the end of 2022. But finally, installation commenced, with the mosaic installed with a system specification drawn up by MAPEI USA using Ultraflex 3. 

“The mosaic sections are laid paper facing outwards into the bed of wet adhesive and then the paper is dampened to release the temporary glue,” Drostle said. “The paper is peeled off, leaving the tesserae embedded in the adhesive.”

Speaking after the completion of the mosaic, Drostle said, “I am really happy with the final result. Our plan succeeded to bring something that is both beautiful and completely unique and specific to this area. The mosaic creates a new landmark for Lake Havasu and the hotel, and will be appreciated and admired by hotel guests and visitors alike.”

After a two-year delay due to the Covid pandemic, installation commenced, with the mosaic installed using a system specification drawn up by MAPEI USA using Ultraflex 3.
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Editorial Director and Senior Writer for TileLetter and TileLetter ARTISAN

Lesley Goddin has been writing and journaling since her first diary at age 11. Her journey has taken her through a career in publishing and publicity, landing her the editor position of TileLetter and its special publications in 2006. Her goal is to educate, inspire, recognize and encourage those in the tile industry -- especially the tile and stone contractor.

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