Mosaics inspire even the most reluctant artist to have a go. Whether ancient or modern, whether tile, ceramic, glass or stone, the hundreds of pieces that make up a single work of art are captivating. They draw in the eye and are equally pleasing to touch, with different shapes, textures and colours adding to the appeal.
David James is passionate about them, a fact that can be clearly seen through his work. A mosaic artist, he creates stunning designs in both public and private locations across Yorkshire.
He has recently completed a series of mosaics depicting the creation of the world. Using materials including glass, ceramic and pebbles, he has fashioned a number of designs following a ‘discovery path’ through the garden at Burley-in-Wharfedale Methodist Church, home to Little School nursery. The work, which is attracting much interest, includes fish, birds, the sun, moon and stars.
David, who runs Ilkley-based Olicana Mosaics, worked on the project with local garden designer Helen Taylor, with whom he also collaborated on a garden in the same village.
There, David crafted a number of simple cobble mosaics as part of new paving at key points. The grey, ochre and white pebbles complement the stone flagstones and existing walls.
Once complete, owner Janet Squire – who grew up on the Suffolk coast with its cobbly beaches and was drawn to David’s cobble mosaics – opened the garden to local residents for charity.
“When I work with garden designers I look at how the mosaics will fit into the overall look of the garden,” he says. “They add a crafted element of interest.”
A graphic design graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University, David was inspired to try his hand at mosaics after holidays in southern Europe, home to some of the world’s most outstanding works.
“At the time I had moved from graphic design and was working in marketing and product development with the design and print industry,” he says. “I dressed in suits and flew from place to place, and I realised that my job was getting less and less creative. I’d been on holiday to both Italy and Turkey and the fantastic mosaics inspired me to have a go. I came home and researched it.”
David was keen to learn traditional methods. “Many people use ceramics or vitreous glass, but I wanted to learn the classical way,” he says.
There can be few places better to train than the Italian town of Ravenna, famed for its superb Byzantine mosaics. “I learned how to produce classical mosaics with marble and Venetian Smalti tiles – a specialist glass manufactured in Venice which boasts the finest colour and quality available for mosaic work.”
The method – which is applied on a bed of lime putty – involves using a traditional demi-lune (half moon) hammer and hardie upturned masonry chisel which were used by the Romans. Strong, water-soluble rabbit skin glue is used to mirror the traditional technique as well as marble dust as a drying agent. The individual tiles of mosaic – cubes of stone used in ancient classical works – are called tesserae. “Typically, they were cut out of marble with the hammer and hardie,” says David.
Venetian Smalti has thousands of colour variations. “The Romans wanted to show off their opulence so they imported blocks of coloured stone from all over the empire,” explains David, who imports the material from Venice.
“I love the history and tradition, but I also embrace the new,” he adds. David combines the two in his work, making use of computer technology as well as centuries-old applications.
In pebble work, he trained with Lancashire-based expert Maggy Hawarth.
He is also involved in community art schemes and has created pieces for a major regeneration project in Bradford. “I created two large mosaics, one for a local community centre and another for a school.”
As part of the project David held a number of workshops with local primary school children. “They were held at Atlas Community Primary School,” he says. “The children helped me create the mosaics. I was given a really warm welcome and some of the parents treated me to some of the best home-made Indian food I’ve ever had.”
The mosaics he produced were inspired by St Pio’s Franciscan Friary in nearby White Abbey Road. “I took inspiration for the gothic tracery that formed the backbone of one of the mosaics.”
As well as private individuals, David creates mosaics for garden designers, landscape architects, local authorities, charities and companies.
One of his private commissions currently in the design stage is to create a traditional-style Roman pavement in marble. He works on both gardens and interiors across the UK, creating masterpieces in his workshop while listening to Radio 4.
And he is planning to reproduce Roman mosaics at a property he owns in France. “The village was in Roman Gaul and I want to reproduce the mosaics of that period.”
The Roman influence extends to the name of his business. Olicana is the name the Romans gave to the settlement that is now Ilkley.
David has also started to experiment with larger mosaics. “I’ve been combining local limestone with pebble work,” he says. “I’m working with a local authority at the moment and am trying this out for them.” He also holds one-day mosaic workshops for adults.