Giant jigsaw fun

The sun is out, the sea is calm and primroses nestle beneath the birches: it’s that time of year again. So why am I not on my kayak on a beautiful Sunday? I keep glancing outside, and I will get there, but there is a lot of organising to do for my upcoming sketching holidays. The first is a week based in Ullapool, and it’s a new itinerary, so I keep checking and double-checking that I know what I’m doing (it always helps) and that I have ordered enough watercolours, pens and sketch pads for everybody coming – seven in total.

We’ve been enjoying some wonderful, and very seasonal, sunny weather although it’s been quite cool. I have found the time for the annual mosaic repair around the pottery. There were quite a few of them in a very sorry state so it’s a considerable relief to have them finished (or at least, Phase 1 finished) so early in the season. In addition I have handed in my last OU writing assignment which isn’t related to my main project, the 15,000 words of memoir I’m gearing up to write before the end of September. The course work is finished now, and I missed a whole month of it when I was away in March, so had to bash something out quickly on my return. The subject I chose, as it was the first thing I thought of: mosaics, and the repairing thereof. Here, then, is this month’s offering:

‘There are bobbly clouds gathering out to sea, and I study them. According to Eileen’s weather app, it’s not going to rain until midnight, so I decide to risk it. There are so many repairs to do, and just a narrow window of opportunity in which to deal with them; we like to have it all looking spruce by the start of the tourist season, but as this seems to be getting earlier each year and rarely coincides with the dry weather anyway, this doesn’t happen.

For a few years now I have been Chief Mosaic Person at the pottery, in charge of repairing the fun, colourful creations adorning the walls and rocks around the building and, when circumstances permit, making new ones. This is a much more satisfying job, and quite blissful in spring sunshine. Much more often, though, I’m tasked with putting back together someone else’s work and, to my conceited shame, complaining (albeit quietly) about the shoddy workmanship. My own mosaics are not falling apart, because I stuck them on properly. I took care.

The truth, of course, is that much of it is down to the weather; we are on the wet, windy West Coast where the salt spray gets everywhere and frost hangs around in damp corners during the darkest months of the year. Come spring, the works of art lie in ruins.

I find it easier to start with a clean slate. Replacing a single piece that has come adrift is more trouble than it’s worth. Sometimes the cement-like adhesive with which it was once attached remains on the piece and no amount of tapping, then bashing, will shift it, or it will split into fragments in the attempt. Finding a new piece the exact shape and size is like – well, finding a tiny piece of mosaic in a pottery. There are large bins outside full of broken pots; mostly, items which have come out of the kiln split, exceptionally warped or otherwise damaged. Luckily this happens comparatively rarely, but with at least one kiln a week over the fifty years of operation, that’s a lot of broken pots. It’s more efficient, then, in the case of smaller mosaics, to take the whole lot off, clean off the pieces which can be saved, and begin the project again, finding shiny new ones as necessary.

Today I’m working on a simple circle on an outer wall. The bright and funky designs have a retro feel; I would not have chosen to do them this way but they have decorated the outside of the pottery for some years and, along with a giant sofa and television, and a pottery-covered car (yes, there’s a real Ford Escort underneath, we confirm on an almost daily basis), have become quite the tourist attraction. The pieces on this particular circle are in our ‘celadon’ glaze, and all the same colour, taking one potential challenge out of the equation. All I need to do is put them together with the smallest possible gap between them, and arrange them in what has become an intuitively artistic way.

The first job is to take all the remaining pieces off the wall. Most of them fall away easily; I was right in starting this one again, because if I had simply patched it up, replacing the loose or missing pieces, the others would have followed before the year was out. The adhesive is like sand on the damp wall and drops to the ground in a shower when I hold my tool against it. Pieces that remained on the wall were held there by the grout alone, it seems, although that, too has become brittle, and chips off easily from around their edges. I must let the wall dry out before resuming work or it will just lock the moisture in, ready to freeze again next winter.

I sit on the ground, cleaning up the pieces, a bucket of outdoor tile adhesive mixed up beside me. I try to stick the largest items back on first, then I can place smaller ones around them. There are whole plates here, and I think: no wonder they’ve fallen off, they’re much too heavy for an upright design, and I’ll need to hold them in place until the adhesive sets or they’ll just slide straight off again. So what I do is smear the adhesive all over the back of the plate, press it into the wall, and knock it hard with the handle of my putty knife so that it splits into fragments, yet remains circular. It looks much more impressive this way in any case; it takes hold more quickly and will, with luck, stay in place for longer. I don’t want to be repeating the process with the same mosaic next year.

Once the large plate feels firm I begin to work outwards from it. I pick up each smaller piece in turn and let it tell me where it wants to go. Depending on its curve – if it’s from a cup, for instance – there will be spaces where it sits just perfectly, and sometimes it can take a while to tune in to the particular character of the mosaic as a whole. It’s very much like doing a giant jigsaw, but without a reference picture. You need to ‘get your eye in’, which happens quite quickly now I’m more experienced.

Once all the bits are back on the wall and I have rummaged around in the buckets for extra ones to squeeze into those tiny, awkward gaps; and once the adhesive is fully dry (usually the next day); it’s time for the grout. This is the part I like the best. I smother the entire mosaic with the creamy paste, which I’ve coloured with a bright red powder to contrast with the celadon green pieces. When it begins to dry I ‘find’ the buried shapes, tracing their outline with the point of my knife and scraping off the excess grout. After an hour or so and it’s almost dry – provided it has not begun to rain, necessitating a hasty covering-up with a plastic sheet – I polish off all the gunk with an old green scourer and stand back to admire my handiwork. That’ll do. For at least another year, anyway.’