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Every year, the Old Florida Celebration of the Arts in Cedar Key selects a piece of art to become the design motif for the festival’s posters, postcards and T-shirts. This year, that honor was awarded to mosaic artist Valerie Bretl for her stunning and deeply felt mosaic depicting the icons and lore of the historic shellmounds just outside Cedar Key. Using hand-made tile, Valerie captured the birds, tides, sea grass and Native American spirit whose ancestors created the mounds millenniums ago. OFCA is proud to have such a beautiful image representing the 49th annual arts festival.
By Sandra Buckingham
Maybe it was a literal interpretation of the old expression, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” or maybe it was a deeper musing about the cycle of creation from destruction, either way, Valerie Bretl got her start as a mosaic artist by smashing dishes on her driveway.
“I couldn’t not do it,” she says now, reflecting back on a time when she found herself at personal crossroads.
Throwing plates and saucers to their fractured doom was certainly cathartic therapy. On the practical side, she said, it was also an effective way to make ceramic shards because she didn’t yet possess a pair of nippers. The next step of putting the pieces back together in new forms generated a sort of artistic endorphin – infinitely satisfying.
So it came to be, after earning a Masters of Fine Arts decades earlier, then raising a family, Bretl reconnected with her love of art, although not in any field for which she had been trained. In fact, she didn’t know that a mosaic craftsman might be considered an artist until later, when she discovered the American Society of Mosaic Artists and found, as she says, “Five hundred people just like me.”
In the meantime, instead of ordering pigments and brushes from an art supply store, Bretl hunted the yard sales and thrift stores for cups and saucers, plates and teapots, anything breakable that offered the colors and shapes, patterns and textures she needed. She recalled the key principles from her academic art training and translated them into the design of mosaics, all the while learning and perfecting techniques of handling her new medium.
The type of mosaic work that uses broken and found objects as its raw materials is called pique-assiette. This French term means “scrounger” or, literally, “one who eats from someone else’s plate.” Today’s environmentally conscious world would undoubtedly have coined a more admirable phrase for the ability to re-purpose broken or discarded materials into a work of art.
Pique-assiette was the first phase of Bretl’s mosaic repertoire, one which lasted many years and one in which the design of her mosaics was constrained by whatever found materials she managed to collect. The last piece in that line of work, fittingly titled “Last Dance,” marked the end of Bretl’s pique-assiette period. At this point she began purchasing deliberately chosen materials, so she could free the design process from material constraints.
Thus she began working with stone, more or less in the style of classic Roman mosaics, using tiny rectangular tesserae and the neutral palettes of marble, travertine, granite and onyx. When her supplier died and her hands could no long take the punishing load of shaping hard stone, she began using a softer Portuguese tile and expanding her color horizons. When that source of material dried up with the European economy, Bretl looked to her own backyard and commissioned glazed stoneware from Amy Gerhardt of Cedar Key Pottery. Eventually, that stoneware also became too difficult for Bretl’s hands. Then she discovered so-called “skinny tiles” from Arizona – which are lighter and easier to shape. Through this evolution of materials, she has created more than a hundred pieces over the last 15 years.
When it comes to home, Bretl’s taste leans to small and quaint. She and her husband spend summers in Bristol, Rhode Island, a small historic town with an artistic sensibility not unlike that of Cedar Key. There Bretl bought a little bakery and converted it into both studio and gallery space.
Winter means a return to their tiny Cedar Key cottage, an abode that just might come close to 600 square feet if it stretched out and took a deep breath. It seems more spacious than it is, however, and I mention to her that it reminds me of living on a boat. She laughs and says how fitting that is, given that her husband is a ship carpenter. The cottage’s screened-in front porch is her almost plein-air studio. It is flooded with natural light that filters through the garden’s canopy of oaks, pines and cabbage palms.
Her mosaics hang in every room, and showcase her range of style and materials. Two portraits are propped in the kitchen when I visit, one of a cat, one of a dog. I can’t stop looking at them, and when I remark how the eyes draw me in, Bretl gives me a quick rundown on her design process. Whether it’s abstract or realistic, she starts with a sketch and zeroes in on one particular part in great detail, getting it perfect before doing anything else. With the cat and dog, for example, that particular focal point is made up of the eyes and nose. Once that key part is finished, the rest of the design evolves as a process of improvisation, much like jazz, with the piece itself – its colors, shapes and flow – taking on a life and direction of its own, albeit with an occasional deliberate tweak from the artist.
These mosaics are inherently expensive to produce. They require a custom-built substrate and wood surround. The tiles are handmade and specially ordered from an American artisan. Once the design has been finalized, Bretl spends 100-200 hours shaping and assembling thousands of tile or stone pieces to create the final mosaic. In order to avoid the overhead of gallery commissions, she prefers to sell directly to buyers, both in Rhode Island via her own gallery and in Cedar Key. Her works are displayed in the Island Hotel and Pat’s Restaurant.
Bretl has also garnered an international reputation as a mosaic artist, with her works selected and honored at major exhibitions. She and her art are also featured in the recently published coffee table book, “Mosaic Art today,” edited by Jeffrey B. Snyder.
The 2013 Old Florida Celebration of the Arts will mark the sixth year that Bretl has been part of Cedar Key’s arts festival and the first time one of her mosaics has been chosen for the festival’s poster and T-shirts. She has graciously donated the Shellmound Mosaic to OFCA for fundraising and it will be included in the silent auction held on the Jan. 27 Acoustical Afternoon Fundraiser for the art festival, hosted at The Island Room restaurant.
The 2013 Old Florida Celebration of the Arts festival is April 13-14, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., on Historic Second Street. Along with fabulous, original art, the festival features homemade goodies by the local non-profits and the freshest seafood in an eclectic, historic atmosphere with special entertainment in the Gulf front park. Mark your calendars to meet Valerie Bretl and see her mosaics in person in the unique village of Cedar Key. For more information: www.cedarkeyartsfestival.com or call Laura Matson Hahn at 352-543-5400.