Debora Aldo: Working with Elemental Materials
By Carolyn Battista/Photo by A. Vincent Scarano
On a wet, chilly day Debora Aldo sits at her work table using tweezers to gently place bits of glass into swirls of pebbles and glass on a small piece of slate. On other days (including wet, chilly ones), she might be outdoors overseeing much larger projects. A mosaic artist who works mainly with stones, pebbles, and glass, she’s also a teacher who engages people of varied ages and interests in an art that’s thousands of years old. She loves the long history, rich materials, tools, both low-tech and high; and seemingly endless possibilities of mosaic art with all of what she calls its “tactile, reflexive, pixelated surfaces.”
Aldo, who lives in Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner,” divides her work basically into three categories—installations, personal projects, and teaching. “Architectural installations are the real focus for me,” she says. Her company is called Pietre Dure Design, Architectural Installations and Sculpture in Mosaic. “Pietre dure,” which means hard stones in Italian, also seems to mean hard work—but very satisfying work for Aldo. Her interior and exterior installations are for sites that include homes, hotels, and hospitals, public parks, and private gardens. She shows a maquette–a preliminary model–of an installation that she did for a hospital. “It went into a cancer floor,” she says, and it means a lot to her because she has lost friends to cancer. A photo shows the finished work in place. “There’s a bench around it,” she points out. “People can sit down and touch the pieces.”
Her personal projects include wall pieces and sculpture. “I’ve been doing mandalas—a visual form of meditation,” she says, eyeing the mandalas of pebbles that stand on shelves near her work table. “Working with mosaics can take you out of yourself and deeper into yourself at the same time. I’ve been teaching mandala classes for that very reason.”
In the late 1990s, mosaic art took her out of a job that felt all wrong to her. She’d studied art, and had a degree in landscape architecture and horticulture from the University of Connecticut. “I was working for a high-end residential landscape architect,” she says. “It turned out I was not a good office worker. I felt very out of place.” One day a landscape architecture magazine arrived at the office. Its cover photo showed a “mosaic rug,” an arrangement of pebbles that resembled a Persian carpet. That showed Aldo a new path—one of pebbles, stones – what she calls “elemental” materials.
She wanted to move around, make art, not be a “CAD monkey,” stuck at a computer screen in a noisy office. “I went home and told my husband I was quitting my job,” she says. “A few months later I got a commission for a terrace in Boston. I have not looked back.”
She did look ahead. She began to read, study, and train, soaking up information and developing skills. Her everyday vocabulary came to include such terms as “tesserae,” from Greek, for the little pieces of a mosaic. She studied with masters like Maggie Howarth, an expert on pebble mosaics. Her art education helped her understand design and composition. Her education and experience in landscape architecture helped her “understand space, create space, create objects within space.” It also taught her well that her kind of work “is not a fly-by-night process. It requires rigor and detail. You have to start with a plan.”
“I started working with pebble mosaics—the earliest form of mosaics,” she says, noting how history came to shape that form-for instance, as the Roman Empire spread over the Greeks’ civilization and into faraway lands. “When the Romans started to conquer everyone, they got stones from all over,” she says.
Soon she was delving into different stones, glass, and other materials from all over. “The choice of materials is very large,” she says; and selecting just the right ones “is a very long process. I try to use materials that I really love.” These days she especially favors stone and “smalti,” a kind of glass. “Smalti is God in the mosaic world,” she says. “It’s made in Europe and comes in 2,000-3,000 colors.” She shows an antique sample board with rows of little pieces of the beautiful smalti which are still made by processes developed in the heyday of the Byzantine Empire. She also likes thick, heavy Blenko glass made in West Virginia, since the Blenko company came there in the 1920s, bringing a glass-making operation already decades old.
Sometimes Aldo’s works include objects that she finds, saves, and finally finds a place for. Photos of a backsplash that she did for an avid bicyclist show such items as 1892 bike spokes, and the wall piece on her worktable has horseshoes and horseshoe nails worked into the design. It’s for a woman who loves horses, Aldo explains. “I’ve collected materials for 15 years,” she says. “I’ve become a collector of arcane items. Now I’m on a moratorium. I’m not collecting any more, but….”
Besides literally meaning hard stones, “pietre dure” is a term for a kind of mosaic that originated in Florence in the 1500s. Aldo loves that she often works with tools that were used not only then, but much earlier. “I ‘cut’ a lot of things with a hammer and hardie—a tool that’s about as old-school as you can get,” she says. She thinks it goes back about 2,000 years; and as she shows how it works, she’s careful to explain that ‘cut,’ while commonly used for what she’s doing, isn’t exactly accurate. She places a chunk of glass on the hardie (a chisel-like blade that’s embedded in a log next to her worktable) and gives it a sharp blow with a hammer. “I’m not ‘cutting’ it,” she says. “It’s compression. I’m fracturing the glass.” More blows follow. “You can just keep ‘cutting’ until it turns into tiny tesserae,” she says.
The fractured nature of the glass contributes to the beauty of a mosaic. As Aldo works a few more bits into the piece on her table she says, “I’m adjusting the surface. These pieces are canted at different angles to catch the light.”
Although she does much of her work with traditional tools, she also makes use of contemporary equipment and materials. Recently she has added LED lighting and computer art to some pieces. She has worked with Roger Tremblay of New London on pieces in which his computer-generated light patterns illuminate her arrangements of pebbles. A public sculpture that she’s doing for the town of Killingly, Connecticut will include LED lights. “It will be a light sculpture in the evening and a mosaic during the day,” she says.
Those with whom she works on installations include architects, interior designers, carpenters, masons, general contractors, landscape architects, landscape designers, and landscape contractors. Each installation is “a collaborative effort,” she says, and everyone involved is “vital.” Sites need to be prepared ahead of time, and heavy pre-cast slabs with embedded mosaic work may need to be hauled about and placed just right.
Of course, things happen. “There will always be something that goes wrong,” she says, “but there’s always a fix. I have learned to roll with that.” On a recent project, a contractor made a hole too big. “I was on my hands and knees with pebbles for a couple of hours,” she says of the fix. Always, schedules must be met. “We have to do installations regardless of weather,” she says, recalling occasions when she had to have a tent placed over a site.
She often sees working with contractors and others as a way to show what her work is all about. “Mosaics is a very unusual art form,” she says. “Many people don’t know what it is; many have never seen a professionally designed mosaic. Working with others is a teaching opportunity, a way to show how pieces are designed.”
Teaching matters to her. “It’s important to me to get people inspired,” she says. She recently taught a class in mosaic composition in Ontario, Canada and led a workshop for landscape designers and landscape design students in Westchester County, New York. She’s a teaching artist in Connecticut schools, and this past summer she especially enjoyed a project at Wesleyan University’s Green Street Art Center in Middletown, Conn. There she helped faculty, staff, and lively youngsters (aged 5 to 15) create mosaics for spaces around planters for “The Greening of Green Street.”
Aldo’s mosaic art has been featured in exhibits around the state and beyond. One of her works will be among 20 in an invitational exhibit for the international company, Mapei, that will travel in the coming months to several U.S. cites before going to its permanent home in Milan. Meanwhile, Aldo will be designing the Killingly sculpture to be absolutely right for what will be its permanent home on the town’s Main Street. “I need to make it stable for the long term; and its electrical system has to be maintainable,” she says.
For more information: Aldo’s website, pietreduredesign.com, includes numerous photos along with detailed descriptions of the work that she does. Her email is HYPERLINK “mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org”email@example.com; her phone is (860) 617-1795.