Wabi-Sabi Weekend: We Can All Be Artists

On Wabi-Sabi Weekends, I post excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.

All things are impermanent. My former husband and I mosaic tiled this sunroom floor many years ago. It was covered up by a deck when the house was renovated. Photo by Joe Coca

“Fortunately, people are artists who know it not—bootmakers (the few left), gardeners and basketmakers, and all players of games.” —W.R. Lethaby

Of themselves, the arts of spinning wool, making pottery and weaving baskets aren’t political. They’re satisfying, as they end up in useful things, and they provide a tactile meditation almost impossible to find anywhere else. My friend Katrina tells me nothing calms her more than sitting down at her loom—it cures her worst cases of jitters and blues. Katrina also taught me that “coping knitting” could get me through stressful business trips or family visits. Philosophy professor and knitting teacher M. Joan Davis says knitting is soothing because it allows the knitter total control. “You pick the colors, the pattern. Every stitch is yours,” she says. When you’re focused on knitting, it’s a lot easier to just listen and nod with detachment.

My former boss, Linda Ligon, who published several magazines devoted to fiber arts, says the satisfaction she gets from weaving a long, simple warp is the antithesis of the drudgery she felt when she stuffed envelopes as a kid. Both require long periods of repetitive, monotonous movement, but weaving or knitting results in a permanent, unique product—a piece of immortality that transcends her life’s finite particulars. Setting stitch upon stitch, slowly building something that no machine could make better (or at least, the same) satisfies our primal desire to make things.

I don’t have Linda’s fiber arts brilliance, but I know what she’s talking about. I find that when I tile. My friend Carlos Alves taught me how to make mosaics with broken tiles nearly two decades ago, when he needed help with an installation in New York, and no one else was available. I graduated quickly from assisting with his projects to covering my own flower pots, then walls and floors, with shards of tile (and bits of mirror and whatever else I can find in the free bin at the local salvage yard). I mosaic tiled every available surface in my last house, and I’ve gone to town on the little back patio in my townhouse, with plans to take on the bathroom as soon as a time window opens up.

I like mosaicing because it requires no precision. You can make the broken tile pieces as big or as small as you like, and the spaces between them don’t have to be uniform. One piece leads to another leads to another, and then you step back and admire how they all go together. Carlos was right—anyone can do it—although now that I’m older it’s tough on the knees and the back.

Because tiling truly doesn’t take special skill, I can recruit any willing fool to help (and relieve my knees and back), and some of my best conversations have taken place while I’ve sat with friends, in-laws and family members as we work our ceramic shard puzzles. It’s like a quilting bee, with broken tiles instead of fabric and trowels instead of needles.

You can find my video with simple instructions on mosaic tiling here.


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