Friday, August 19, 2011

DIY: How to Mosaic Like Isaiah Zagar

Okay. Get comfortable. This post is a doozy!

So... I toyed around with my fantasy of wanting to create a mosaic similar to the one from The American Visionary Art Museum since I was in Baltimore last year. Since that fateful visit, I have been stealthily collecting objects to put into my hypothetical mosaic. I've collected objects from geocaches, seashells from beach trips, even old mugs that had chips. Anything that is not degradable, I kept in a bag over the past 8 months or more.

A few months ago, I saw In a Dream. In a Dream is a documentary about Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar. He's a self-taught visionary artist who creates some AMAZING mosaics using mirrors, tiles, and other objects. I am not certain, but if I had to guess who mosaic-ed the outside of the American Visionary Art Museum, I would put my money on Zagar. I've never really researched the artist who did the museum, though I probably will now that it's sparked my curiosity.

So, Zagar's work:

It's beautiful, isn't it? I was so inspired by the movie (though it was tragic and more about how personal struggles of artists influences their artwork rather than the work itself... the creative process is so interesting, isn't it?) that when we decided we were moving into a house without a neighborhood association, I was going to go for it.

My steps are my latest art project. They were concrete, providing a perfect surface for my experimentation. Instead of doing the smart thing and testing out my methods on the stairs at the back of the house, I just went for it and began on the front stairs.

I spent literally *hours* at Home Depot, throwing questions at the poor associates who had never seen anyone so gun-ho about trying to mosaic junk onto a VERTICAL surface. At first, my internet searches suggested liquid nails. The lady at HD suggested a grab it adhesive that fits into a caulk gun. I ended up going with AcrylPro. It's a ceramic tile adhesive, which we figured was made for vertical surfaces anyway. I also bought glass tile mortar. For this type of project, you want a non-sanded grout because people will be walking on it/touching it. A sanded grout is not ideal for this project. I got a white grout so I could mix in colors. I'll get into this later.

If you're going to do this yourself, you will need the following:
- An adhesive for your objects to go onto your surface
- A grout for your mosaic
- A pair of rubber gloves
- Paint stirrers (or a stick. I used a piece of castaway wood)
- A bucket
- Access to a water source
- Acrylic paints (if you want to add color to your grout)
- A mirror
- A hammer
- Glass cutters (people use it for stained glass/glass fusing, if this helps)
- A sponge
- A bowl of water
- Lots of time
- Lots of patience!

So, I pulled out my bag of funky objects. I took a hammer to my $4 floor length mirror (thank you, Home Depot clearance!). I took a hammer to my old ceramic mugs, plates, and other objects. I had a ton of "dragons tears" (those iridescent, glass melted marbles) in different sizes. I added in funky objects to the mix, like old keys, a water spicket handle from my parents' house, even some beer bottle caps and resin shapes I no longer needed.

I used the adhesive to arrange my objects how I wanted. I started off by doing it without a pattern, so I could get used to the method.

When the non-pattern part was finished, I tried to find a chalk pastel to draw out a pattern for the next one. I ended up using an oil pastel (which is fine, because the grout covers it anyway) and drew out some spiral shapes. (you can see the plan for the wavy stair (the third one up) that I drew with the oil pastel on the photo below)

Then, I used the adhesive to arrange different materials within the parameters of the shapes. For example, the mirrors are in arch shapes and the dragon's tears are in rows of stripes within their own arches, too.

this is what it looked like while the adhesive was drying.

This was the most fun part of the project thus far. Laying out the objects in creative ways was a blast! It's also one of the most time consuming parts of this project. On average, it took about 4 hours per step. However, it's very enjoyable!

I waited 24 hours for the adhesive to dry completely before I mixed up the grout.

The grout instructions were vague, so I tried mixing it on my own. I added water a little at a time until I got the consistency of peanut butter.

I wanted to dye my grout like Isaiah Zagar does in his work. I spent hours researching online to find the best way to dye the grout. Some companies make concrete dyes, which is what was highly suggested. I wanted to do it as soon as possible because if it rained, all of my work with the adhesive would undo itself... I wanted to use food coloring. It is water-soluable so it wouldn't have stayed long. I found one website which suggested acrylic paint. I had toyed with this idea, but didn't think about it long. I had some low-grade acrylics in baby blue that were almost full. These are those cheap acrylics that are about $1/bottle at craft stores.

I poured the whole baby blue bottle into the grout and mixed it in (using a piece of old wood) with the peanut butter consistency already made. It turned out a little gray, so I used a heavy body blue acrylic to even the color out and it turned back to baby blue.

Next, I had literally NO IDEA what I was doing. I had NEVER mosaic-ed before. I have never even seen grout in malleable form before. I saw someone mosaic just once, but didn't really pay attention. My biggest help was the Isaiah Zagar movie (at least what I remembered of it) and this Flickr collection of photos of Zagar working with students.

I ended up using the grout to completely smother everything I had laid out the day before. Literally, you want to cake this stuff onto there. Cover EVERYTHING, every nook and cranny, and be sure to get the sharp edges covered, too.

Next, I used a bowl of water and a sponge to take all of the grout off of the surfaces of the objects. Some of them smeared and left marks, but as long as it's minimal, it's okay. I used my finger to wipe off each surface. Doing one step took about 2 hours to grout and wipe.

this is what it looked like after i grouted, then wiped it with a sponge for 2 hours

Next, let it dry for another 24 hours. I went back every once in a while during the drying process to rub surfaces with a toothbrush to make them shinier.

I haven't done this part yet, but I plan on going back tomorrow to use a sealant. You ABSOLUTELY NEED to seal your grout, or it's no good. I got lucky because it didn't rain! :)

Once it's done, you are, too! I plan on repainting the surfaces of the stairs since the grout fell in places and looked messy.

At this point, I have only done the bottom stair and the one above it, but I have already begun laying out mirrors for the stair above it. I also plan on mosaic-ing the sides of the stairs, too, and if I have enough motivation left, I plan on doing all of the stairs at the back of the house, too.

So, to summarize creating this...
1. Glue things to surface. Wait 24 hours.
2. Grout the surface. Wipe away, leaving grout in cracks. Wait 24 hours.
3. Seal the grout.

I hope that this helps! If anyone has a question about my process, has comments to share with me, or suggestions to help save time/effort, please e-mail me at

Update on the mosaic 9/26/11- It's complete!

Finish up the process by applying a fresh coat of paint over the main steps.

The top step says "welcome" in dragon's tears.

A close up of the funky objects. Do you see the gnomes?

Old pieces of glass from my fusing class years ago made a nice pattern.

The mirrors are so eye catching!

If you are interested in reading more about Zagar, check out his Wikipedia page, as well as his website for Philadelphia's Magic Gardens! Happy crafting!

-Katie B

1 comment:

  1. I volunteered with Isaiah for a week where he wanted me working with him by 7am but also crashed a wedding with him at the Magic Gardens and it was a great learning experience. You can learn something from a 70 yr old still mixing his own cement.