Today we are speaking with Sue Coombs, a working and teaching mosaicist whose work has been repeatedly exhibited at the Gallery of Contemporary Mosaics. Originally self-taught and introduced to mosaics through her work in stained glass, Sue has long developed her expertise from experimentation to professional study with some of the world’s foremost mosaic artists.
As she reveals below, Sue has undergone an evolution in her approach to art-making that emphasizes process and relies on material sensitivity. In recent years, this sensitivity is not only evident in the placement of her tesserae, but also in her subject matter. Evocations of natural phenomena, the biological, geological, and celestial alike are expressed using bold color palettes and subtle, rhythmic andamento. Undulating surface volumes created by substrates or by transitions in texture and luster from glass to stone and back again give her work a natural pulse, like ripples in a pool.
We are so happy to have Sue reflect on her creative practice and discuss some of the struggles of developing a vision for her own body of work.
GoCM: What attracted you to mosaic as a medium?
SC: While raising my three children, a good friend and I ran a stained glass business doing custom work. We produced a generous amount of scrap glass with which to use experimenting with glass fusing and mosaics. I began with glass in concrete, architectural projects and 3 dimensional objects. I learned from books but mostly by trial and error. After several years, in 2005 to my delight, I found the Chicago Mosaic School; I took one class and my mosaic world opened up to another dimension!
I knew I wanted to learn everything I could about this ancient art form. The first thing that attracted me to mosaic was the visual beauty of contrasting colors and patterns, simple yet complex. The second thing that attracted me was that I didn't have to be so precise with execution. After window fabrication, I felt much freer using contrasting combinations of material in imprecise ways. I remember deciding that was when I decided I could call myself an artist- that was a big step.
GoCM: Do you primarily work with mosaic or do you work in other media?
SC: Occasionally, I also work in fabric, specifically wool and cotton quilting, which is really similar to mosaic too.
GoCM: Where do you find aesthetic inspiration?
SC: The type of material I use plays a big role in guiding the aesthetic of a piece. My primary influence however, comes from Maestro Verdiano Marzi. The way he uses color and rhythm is something I aspire, too. I feel my work has improved since I have studied with Verdiano. The problem is I don't know if I have enough years left for that level of mastery, but I'll do my very best!
What part of your creation process would you choose as the most important and why?
SC: The most important part for me is, having an idea/sketch on paper and making sure I have enough material. The sketch isn't usually super detailed but during the fabrication I may do a spot sketch of a smaller area to work out a problem. Those smaller thumbnails done on tracing paper are very useful. Making art is all about problem solving and mosaic definitely has a technical aspect that is imperative for sustainability. I'm always thinking about how to make a mosaic that won't fall apart.
GoCM: When you imagine a finished piece of artwork, how do you envision its relationship with the world?
SC: I don't usually think about how my work will be received. I am genuinely surprised when people say they felt something from my piece. Long ago, I used to make work based on what I thought someone else would like, or buy. Working in that way was a huge mistake. Coincidentally, I began to experience panic attacks during that time. That was a "hit me over the head" lesson.
What would you consider the biggest challenge facing you as an artist today?
SC: Today my biggest challenge is when I get in my own way. The inner critic shows up telling unfavorable stories. Getting into the studio to create, no matter what I'm making, is the antidote to this neurosis. I want to keep learning and exploring in the medium of mosaic. I am curious about sculptural shapes and my goal is to have a solo show 2020.
Sue was recently featured in GoCM’s exhibit Variegation at SOFA Chicago 2017 and GoCM at Gallery 1070, 2017. As a principal faculty member at the Chicago Mosaic School, Sue will be featured in GoCM’s upcoming inaugural exhibition Debut at its new permanent location at 1127 W. Granville Ave.
If you would like to inquire about purchasing artwork from Sue, please contact the Gallery of Contemporary Mosaics at firstname.lastname@example.org.