Will you please try and make a mosaic?

Interview with the head of the mosaic workshop of St Elisabeth Convent Demetrius Kuntsevich

As we all know, St Elisabeth Convent will be 17 in August 2016. Numerous workshops, including the mosaic workshop, have been opened in the Convent. Could you please tell us how your workshop was established?
It all happened with the blessing of the spiritual father of the Convent – Father Andrew Lemeshonok – when the church inhonor of the Reigning icon of the Mother of God was being built. This church had been designed in accordance with the Byzantine style, so mosaic seemed to fit very well into the general concept of how it was to look. Father blessed us, saying, “Please try and make mosaic.”
I called my acquaintances – the guys I studied with. Some of them had already become practicing Orthodox, some were not regular church-goers yet. These were the people who formed the core of the workshop and have been working here ever since. We started from scratch: reading books, looking for materials. We would travel to St Petersburg and Moscow to find professional mosaic artist, of whom there are few. However, they did not have the skills we needed. We borrowed some experience from Christian artists. We would invent some know-hows ourselves.
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Hadn't you been making mosaic before that time?
My friends and I studied at the Belarusian Academy of Arts and majored in public decorative art, where they study mosaics. The skills that we had learned there served as the basis for our work. However, church art calls for special skills that we had not received while studying at the academy. This was a serious trouble. There are certain requirements and consistent patterns of church mosaic. Icons and frescoes in the church are a world of their own. You do not have the right to invent anything new or to make mistakes. Church art is supposed to preach the truths of the Gospel, not folklore of any kind. You have to know and understand what you are doing.
Did you have to learn on your own?
Yes, we tried to learn and comprehend as much as we could. We read a lot. We travelled to Archimandrite Zinone (Theodore) who is an acclaimed icon painter. We borrowed something from him, namely, his approach to work, the process itself, and his technique of painting. We asked questions, looked for ancient sources such as books and photos, and used them in our work. It was in 2001-2003. We did not have the technologies that we have today.
Someone would travel to Serbia or Greece and take pictures of church mosaics, and we would call that person asking them to give us their photos for some time, and then went to Moscow. However, these films were not intended to be used too often for fear of ruining them. So we had to print the photos for several days, and then bring these piles of photos from Moscow. We had to pay money at each stage of the process. However, we were glad to have the opportunity to use not only clips from the “Ogonyok” magazine and old Soviet-era black-and-white photos but also these new photos.
Suppose someone wants to work in your studio? What are the skills a successful candidate must have?

New people come to our workshop from time to time, and they have various backgrounds. Often they want to work with us but do not have abilities and special skills, even the basic ones. We hire them nevertheless. Father Andrew used to say, and I agree with him, that if people really want it, and if we have vacancies, we must gladly accept everyone. If we have vacancies, we hire everyone who applies. We do not go out searching for highly professional workers; we do not select a team that would suit us from the professional point of view. Among our staff are only those who came to us because they wanted to work with us.
Who works in your studio?

Some of the guys, especially our first workers, have artistic education: they had graduated from the Academy of Arts with majors in public decorative arts and painting. Kirill came later. Dima majored in graphics and “publics”. Half of the staff are girls and boys who have a school of art or art classes background. There is Uncle Vanya from Kazan, a hippie in the past; he turned to God long ago and he wants to do something, to serve God, to be part of the team, but he does not possess special skills. Two guys from Kiev wanted to work at our workshop – and they do work quite well. One of the two guys has artistic skills, he even studied icon painting in the Kiev Caves Lavra, while the other guy (Oleg) never did anything like that before; well, he does have an inclination and love of art but in fact, he is not an artist. Yulia, who is over 40, has come to our workshop recently. She cannot do anything but she is very eager to learn so she tries hard to do auxiliary and basic work. I believe that if she is persistent in her desire to learn, she will learn to do something more difficult. Perhaps, she will not be able to work without supervision but she is already capable of doing some of the essential work in our workshop. Attention, intuition, and obedience is everything one needs.
So you believe that willingness to work is more important than skill?
Yes, I do.
What are the materials traditionally used for mosaic?

The majority of our works are Byzantine mosaics. Traditionally, this style makes use of smalt, opaque colored glass, gold leaf, and gold tesserae. There may be inclusions of various stones, marble, insignificant insertions of granite. Smalt and opaque colored glass are cut into cubes and laid on a prepared surface. We often improvise by using various beautifully-looking kinds of colored glass, various kinds of peddle (sea and river peddle, black and white peddle), natural stones, nicely cut marble, granite, semiprecious stones, bricks and limestones.
All this may be combined to decorate surfaces. These materials have interesting structure and create a special atmosphere, and they can be combined in various manners with mosaics, frescoes, and icons.
In order to make the interior design look like a single whole, you have to pay attention to every detail because it has artistic value and importance of its own, even the gaps between the stones, the lining, and the profiles. All this is mosaic, even the decorative surfaces. We try to make sense out of all that.
What is the technology of mosaic? Could you please describe the entire process from choosing the topic to the completed artwork?
I could answer to this question both in a simple way and in a more complex way. The simple answer is: first, a draft is drawn up, based on an idea, which can even be abstract, for example, “divine glory and beauty”. In fact, this is an abstract idea but the central one: a portion of the God's Kingdom, the celestial world, reborn by the Holy Spirit, transformed by grace. There is no such idea in its pure form in our life because it is mixed up with chaos, ugliness, terror, and distortions.
The idea may give birth to a composition, to a traditional image of a feast or a saint. The image must fit well into the interior and the exterior, thus becoming a part of the building. It may be a church wall, nicely decorated by some natural or unnatural stone — everything may be inspired by God's glory.
We work both with the interior and the exterior decoration; both of these types of design are public art, which is inseparable from architecture and forms an integral part thereof. This is a holistic approach.
When the initial idea is embodied, for instance, in the images of certain saints in a certain place, then the sketch is drawn. It is not big, the size of a small sketch board — not larger than a meter in size. After the sketch is finalized, it is tested in the architecture of the church. We try to see how it fits — this way or that. Now there are good modern technologies: we can project the sketch directly onto the wall, using a computer and a projector, and get the accurate vision of how it is going to look when it is done. We can print something out, glue it and fit it, and draw something. We can examine the surface, measure it, and touch the wall. Once the sketch is tested, all dimensions are clear, and the composition fits well into the interior, we go on to make the mosaic.
Here we have to decide what colors and hues of smalt we are going to use, and how we are going to combine them. A color scheme is developed with colors for the given artwork. The artist may vary these colors as he likes because this is the stage of working with the abstract color scheme. If we apply this color scheme to the images, we amplify its effect, impression, and expressiveness.
Then the mosaic is assembled. As a rule, the first attempt is a preparatory one: we assemble parts of images or whole images on modelling clay, as if it were the finished mosaic. Sometimes we make a simple sketch, sometimes we make a more detailed image, and finally, all that remains to be done is re-assembling it on glue, cement or gesso.
After the preliminary assembly we see what we get, what we miss and what we lack. We can make an experimental assembly in concrete, and place it into the architectural context where it will live. If everything is fine, and the piece on the wall does not contradict with the original idea and the sketch, we proceed with the mosaic. We go on and correct mistakes on the go. Sometimes, if something falls below our expectations, we have to remove this section of mosaic and re-assemble it, changing the tint or the module or the size of the stone.
Mosaic has certain nuances: for example, the position of the rows of stone, and how the size of the stones changes — from bigger stones to smaller ones or vice versa. The gaps between the stones are also an important element. All this works for the sake of the intended effect, the feeling, and the expressiveness of the image. God's image must be in everything, not only in the image of Christ. God's image may be reflected even in some tiny stones, in the way they are put together. If everything is done with love, in an attempt to surpass oneself, to exceed one's current pathetic skills; if one tries to do more than he is able to in an attempt to let God act instead of the wretched man — everything will be alright.
The Lord acts, even though sometimes it seems that we do not succeed, do not like some things, that it is meaningless. However, if we go on working with the blessing, hoping that the Lord sees and knows everything and will interfere when necessary, then everything will obtain its completeness somehow. In the meantime, you may be looking at what is done and think, “Well, it wasn’t bad. Glad that we did it.”
The art of mosaic is a very labor-consuming process. It demands extreme concentration, patience, and attention. What helps you to concentrate during work and to remain peaceful and calm?
This is not an easy question. Every day we have lots of responsibilities and duties, lots of things to do for our relatives, friends, or someone else. I cannot say that after praying, lighting up a vigil lamp, I forget about everything and sink deep into the ideal world... It is impossible, perhaps. Everything is mixed up.
Anyway, you've got to forget about everything else and make something ideal, not in the sense of what I can do, but how it could be if it were done ideally. You have to do it in spite of the fact that you cannot or do not know how to do it, have a headache, feel tired and unhappy. This is the disposition that one should have.
I believe that no matter what, we always have this disposition because we know that we do something divine, something that exceeds our abilities. So we have no right to do it thinking that “whatever we get as a result is fine”. It does not matter if you want it or not, if you can do it or not; this has to be bigger than the things around you, the world you live in, and yourself as a person. It is this perception that creates the breakthroughs. One cannot have this kind of concentration all the time. Nevertheless, if you try really hard, if you want it and see that it is necessary, the Lord will give you power to do that.

By Elena Makeyenok