Mosaic and Community Storytelling

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Susan Traca Gamble, who received her BFA from UA, MFA from California State and taught art in both university and Sunnyside elementary schools for a decade before beginning her mosaic and public arts career, is the recipient of the 2016 Governor’s (Individual) Arts Award.  Her Santa Theresa tiles are sold worldwide, and her commissioned public arts mosaics are found across the city — from the concourses of the Tucson International Airport, to city libraries and the UA campus.

Mosaic — derived from the Greek word meaning belonging to the Muses (hence, artistic) — is an ancient storytelling traditional art, with decorative techniques for floor, wall and ceiling surfaces. It is an expressive art evolving through history. Greek mosaics are documented from the 3rd century B.C., although mosaics became widespread throughout the Roman world. The Ravenna, Italy mosaics created from bits of glass are dated around the 6th century. Venice cathedrals from the 11th century are adorned with elaborate mosaic art from walls to domes. Over the centuries, mosaics have figured in architectural design as well as decorative embellishment, and are particularly loved for their powerful and accessible layers of public community storytelling.

Santa Cruz River Park mosaic

Santa Cruz River Park mosaic


Susan founded Santa Theresa Tile Works in 1986, and was a founding board member of the Downtown Tucson Partnership as well as the Warehouse Arts Management Organization.  One of her beloved public arts commissions is the four arches of mosaic storytelling in the Santa Cruz River Park central plaza off St. Mary’s Road, created in 1989. Susan spoke with BorderLore about the traditions and the creativity of mosaic art:

On arriving at mosaics as her form of self-expression:
I wanted to work large.  I could not invest in a bigger kiln, so I decided that I could preserve the aspects of wheel throwing that I enjoyed so much — color and surface decoration/enrichment — by breaking down the size to small pieces that would create a large whole.

Moving in this direction revealed to me an important part of my personality — everything is possible.  I can use the same exact tiles, combine them in a different way, use grout or not, and come out with totally different results.  Infinite possibilities!

On mosaic as an ancient and enduring art form, a decorative architectural element:
What I love about ceramic mosaics is its history — social and geographic.  You can trace the human need to decorate, embellish, make meaningful where and how they live.  The enduring nature of ceramics and the flexibility of mosaic tile to clad, to line, to pave and to express, are fascinating to me.

On how the mosaic is an important visual storytelling art form in our region:
I think mosaics, even very sophisticated ones, are very accessible to people (no matter how much people know about art.)  I believe it is both the familiarity of the materials (we see ceramic tile, glass and stone everywhere) as well as the fact that a mosaic is often also a wall, a path, a dome (like a backsplash, a table, a trivet). Its practicality makes it more understandable to folks.  There is a reason for it to exist beyond just commenting on or beautifying our world (both of which, I think, is enough reason to exist — but some folks seem to be uncomfortable with that kind of art).

On how public art in general humanizes a city and adds a layer of community storytelling:
Public art is often seen as a single, monumental, iconic piece — like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, or “Sonora” in front of our downtown library.  I think of public art as “the citizen’s collection,” made up of large, small, commissioned and guerilla pieces that, taken together, show the celebrated and the sorrowful, the frivolous and the serious, the planned and the spontaneous, the political and apolitical, the concerned and the joyful sides of our community.

On the Santa Cruz Park Arches as an example of community storytelling:
I saw how the arches could help create the “plaza” space designed by the landscape architects on the project.  The arches could contribute to becoming a gathering space that actually got used by providing an electric source, color, imagery and a story.

I asked a couple of people who had been involved in the neighborhood to identify some more folks who could help me put together a history.  I received help from the Pima County Cultural Resources Manager, Linda Mayro, as well as representatives from each Barrio that touched the park.  Those representatives worked with their neighbors to write their own stories.  My job was to integrate those stories into the arches.  After the tiles were made, we also had a “tile setting party,” where folks came and participated in adhering the tiles to the arches.  That was fun. I still feel the work tells a story of community and the river.

On an important or favorite artist tool used in creating mosaics:
The two basic tools I use to make tiles is a little hand cutting tool as well as a paint brush to apply glaze.  Of course, my basic tool is my kiln — tiles wouldn’t be without the kiln!

On a favorite storytelling public arts project:
I really like the mural I did at Interfaith Community Services — Its intent was to recognize the donors who helped fund the food (bank) distribution center on their campus.  I feel like the imagery makes a clear statement of welcome to those who use the facility as well as recognizes the folks who helped make it possible.

To learn more about Santa Theresa Tileworks, visit: More about the Santa Cruz Arches on The Tucson Mural Project blog:

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