Country – USA
City – Chicago
Mosaic review presents a story about brilliant American mosaic artist Karen Ami. If you know something about contemporary mosaic – then you definitely know Karen.
The artist’s life was not easy, but Karen’s tireless energy and vitality moved all the obstacles that were in her path and helped Karen surround herself with loving family, faithful friends and devoted students.
Karen is an indispensable and welcome participant and curator of many mosaic exhibitions, the founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Mosaic School (CMS) – the first professional mosaic school in the United States, where she is the soul and driver of America’s academic mosaic community As a not-for-profit organization, The Chicago Mosaic School attracts many gifted people from all over the states and from around the world.
With an open enrollment format, it is the most reputable mosaic organization in America. There are many world-famous mosaic masters who hold mosaic workshops at CMS throughout the year.
Mosaic review publishing now an article written by artist Oona DMello about Karen as a person and as an artist:
“Passion is the word to describe Karen Ami. It runs through her veins like blood and takes form in her artwork and her life. Through her drawing, writing or printmaking, her ceramics or mosaics when you look closely at her work, you will understand.
She lives her life and creates her art with spirited energy and fervor. Her imagery has a direct and intense organic sensuality – it is full of pain and strength; stimulating, erotic and exciting. Ami comes to this passion honestly. There is always debate about nature versus nurture, about how and why we become whom we do. In Karen’s case she comes to her artistic passion without question by nature.
Ami’s life has been unconventional and has informed her work throughout her career. Born in Chicago, Ami was taken illegally from her birth mother immediately after she was born and given to a social service agency. Her birth mother, Gilda, was a holocaust survivor who had recently immigrated to the United States, was traumatized and began a search for her daughter that lasted 33 years.
Ami was adopted by a lovely Midwestern family who were not informed of the circumstances of her adoption. As she became older, it was increasingly clear to her that she was not like the rest of her family. From a young age, art was the outlet to express the longing for things she did not understand and for the beauty that she could not express through her words.
After 14 long, difficult years of searching for her roots, she was reunited with her birth mother who had also been searching and aching for her daughter to ‘come home’. This profound reunion became a pivotal event in both their lives.
“Finding my mother affirmed that I was exactly who I was meant to be.” says Ms. Ami.
This knowing is vital and crucial to Karen’s work as an artist, mother and woman. It a reference point – a source of inspiration she constantly visits and explores: love, loss, connection, separation, longing, aching, pain and pleasure. As an artist, her quest is to make sense of and strive to understand those things she doesn’t.
Ami was trained at The Boston Museum School, Tufts University (Diploma, 1985, BFA, 1986) and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA, 1995) majoring in ceramics and sculpture. She believes that education serves her everyday as an artist because her study allowed her the time and space to explore and develop her personal artistic vocabulary and voice.
Her interest in mosaics began with a study trip to Pompeii at the age of 17 and continued later on in her claywork by creating handmade tiles and breaking them. As there was no formal instruction in mosaic arts available in the United States at the time, it wasn’t long before Ami artistically needed to seek out true expertise and training.
American art schools have not considered mosaic an artistic medium – there are still no university mosaic courses offering technical information or guidance (with the exception of mosaics in an art history course). Ami sought to gain knowledge creatively, technically and critically from established, trained artists from around the world.
Her thirst for this education about mosaics would take her on a journey that would eventually lead her to establish The Chicago Mosaic School in 2005.
Today, it is the worlds only not-for-profit school dedicated to the study of Mosaic arts. The school has become a center for learned, practicing mosaic artists. The school educates, informs and supports the next generation of artists coming to learn and to work in mosaic.
Many things including music, poetry, literature and dance influence Karen’s artwork. As a young artist, she was influenced by pre-Columbian sculpture and Greek pottery; the paintings of Dali, Botticelli, Francis Bacon and especially the Chicago Imagists (including Jim Nutt and Karl Wirsum) as well as popular culture via underground comic book artists such as Robert Crumb.
People are often surprised to learn that Karen Ami is a classically trained painter of realism; yet it makes more sense to learn that at 18, she was a young working artist at DC Comics, an American comic book publisher in New York City.
She is President Emeritus of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (2007-2010), and has curated numerous local and national and international arts exhibitions.
In 2014, Ami was awarded First Prize Professional in the International Juried Prix Picassiette Exhibition in Chartres, France and was also given the title of Gran Cavliere Dell Ordine di San Martino, in Udine, Italy for her contribution to Mosaic Arts.
Her work has been featured in exhibitions in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and the Ravenna and Nazzano, Italy. In 2019, Ami was awarded the Jurors Choice Award at The Mosaic Arts International Exhibition at Nashville’s Parthenon Museum. She was also a featured artist at the SOFA Exhibition Chicago alongside her friend and fellow artist, Pamela Irving of Australia, who she has collaborated with throughout the years.
No matter what medium Ami chooses, she always works with an idea, goal or theme. It is an organic process of drawing, sketching and note taking; the goal is to distill the focus before the work begins.
She believes that making art, like living a life, is an evolution with revelation through understanding. It is the act of creating, doing and making -the process that is most important. The finished pieces then help her make sense of her world and this she needs to do.
Mosaic review asked some questions to Karen and cites her answers here:
Mosaic Review – You have started to make mosaics a long time ago, when it was difficult to get an education in this field in the US. Now the situation has changed, and the school you’ve created has been running for a long time. How do you evaluate student’s progress since then? Do you have a students who are perceives mosaics like real fine art?
Karen Ami – The impact of the school (CMS) can be seen in much of the new contemporary mosaic artwork, especially here in the United States. There are also several artists that have become successful and established that have studied in depth at The Chicago Mosaic School (CMS). Yes, we do encourage our students to learn technique and approaches of mosaics, but developing other skills, such as drawing, design, and finding one’s artistic voice- this is how one becomes and artist not just a craftsperson.
MR – Do your schools have completed or planned mosaic projects in the urban space?
KA – We have done many large-scale mosaic installations around Chicago and have collaborated with public schools, universities, community centers and neighborhood organizations. We are now restoring a thirty five year old mosaic for the city that is outside of a Chicago subway station.
MR – Can mosaic be street art as a form of graffiti?
KA – YES. Especially important now in these times in the US. Now than ever that artists must use their power to illuminate issues of social justice by getting their messages out in front of people, in places that have no been sanctioned or approved for art.
MR – Next question related to streets.) The US is now booming events caused by excessive use of force by the police. It seems to me that you, being a socially active person, are involved in it, at least have your own formed point of view on them. Could you talk about this.
KA – I like that you asked me this because it has much to do with the future of my life as an artist as well as the life of the school. For artists to stay silent on issues that affect our lives would be a crime in my opinion- we need to use our voices and talents to bring about awareness and instigate change now, in these tumultuous times.
This involves signs, protests, as well as outreach to other artists and communities – especially artists of color- to work in partnership to create a better world. I can use my position to shine a light on the work and voices of other artists, organizations so that we can work together for the greater good and a better, fairer world for all.
Our country is supposed to be governed for the people and by the people. We, the citizens are being attacked by corrupt, greedy and destructive politicians it is unjust. Change doesn’t happen by screaming at a television or liking things on social media. You need to be in the streets, be seen and heard and be active.
MR – Is it possible to wait for a new mosaic from Karen related to these events?)
KA – YES. I have been doing a lot of drawing, painting, and writing recently because I have been quarantining at my apartment. I contracted the Corona19 virus during the pandemic and was very ill for 4-5 weeks. I was lucky my son was also home with me and I did not have to be hospitalized. This is another huge crisis the world is facing now, especially here where our national government thinks it is a joke when thousands of people are dying daily. So, yes…much new work coming as I am processing these new experiences and events.
MR – I’d like to ask you about your preference in the mosaic. Do you have the favorite material from which you get the most benefit in realizing the mosaic concept?
KA – Yes. I do. I have been working with clay and ceramics for almost 35 years. It is tactile and dirty and malleable until it is dried and fired- then it changes and becomes hard and permanent. But it can break. And using the ‘broken’ and reinventing it in my mosaic work has been a way for me to fix my world’. I draw and write on my clay. I use the pieces broken to embed messages and imagery that can both hide and reveal what I see, what I want you to see.
MR – Do you have any restrictions for yourself in the mosaic creation – material, shape, size, anything else.
KA – NO.
MR – Starting a mosaic, do you imagine its completed appearance, or is it born gradually, as the mosaic plot develops?
KA – I do draw a lot. Drawing is the structure – vocabulary-for any artist, be it a mosaic artist, sculptor, painter, etc. I sometimes I know exactly what I want to create and will render a drawing, a plan, that will ultimately become a mosaic or sculpture or both. In everything there is room for change to an idea.
MR – If you were offered to make a mosaic to your taste and place it anywhere in the world, where would you do it? And what would you like to portray?
KA – I can’t answer ha-ha, but I’d like to visit you in Russia!
MR – Welcome, Karen! We will be waiting for it! And returning to our topic – Is it difficult for you to support your nonprofit project – the mosaic school (CMS). You are a person who has three sons who need to be given attention. Do you have enough time for everyone?
KA – The school started as a small idea within my studio and when I decided to seriously create it I did so slowly and thoughtfully. I did lots of research. I asked for help from those that knew the business side of things as well as artists who were trained classically in art- not just mosaic. The school grew as did the love and support for it. We are now 15 years old and recognized around the world as an important center for mosaic art education. We receive funding and donations and support through enrollments. I consider the school my 4th child. My sons were fortunate to grow up surrounded by artists and a creative community. They all became musicians and they know the importance of speaking out and using their art to connect to others.
MR – Your sons – would you like them to live in art? Do you think that the fate of the artist, musician suits them?
KA – YES!
MR – I know that one of your sons is seriously involved in the guitar (I don’t know about the other two). Are you somehow involved in his addiction to music? Is he a fan of your mosaics? Do you draw inspiration from each other?
KA – Yes -all three inspire me with their dedication to their art, their connection to one another and their beautiful big hearts. My boys, Luke, Elias, and Judah are incredible musicians- I say that not only as their mother but also as someone who loves music passionately. Music and mosaics are very similar – both require great discipline, obsessive and repetitive “note-making’ (tesserae). The notes and pieces make a statement together both in mosaic art and music.
MR – If the definition “badass” can be applied to you, can your sons also be evaluated the same way?
KA – ha-ha-ha-ha. NO!
MR – And the simplest question. ) Will love save the world?)
KA – I don’t know if love can save the world, but I do know love can heal us all and I will fight for that.
MR – Thanks for the interview, Karen. Wish you new ideas, new brilliant mosaics, and most of all, keep your passion to make the world better!
In preparing the article, materials provided by Karen Ami were used, and some photos from the websites: