The Conversation: Kate Rouh

Kate Rouh, Owner, Roux Art

Photograph by Olivia Garcia Poyer

With so many public art projects under your belt, do you have a good formula for success?

We always try to understand what the stakeholders have as a vision for their project, including goals, budget and timeframe. Conversations at the installation site help us get a feel for the direction we should take. We discuss how we’ll engage participation: will we invite the public into the studio to work or have onsite workshops, or both? Concept sketches to flesh out some ideas follow. There are many decisions to be made along the way and we try to be very accommodating. Once there is agreement on the design and have a schedule in place we get to work. 

What is it about mosaic art that you love?

I fell in love with mosaic art many years ago while studying art history, particularly those of Ancient Greece and Italy, and the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and the Ukraine. Their enduring beauty over the centuries is so impressive! So, eventually, when I was searching for a medium that would be long-lasting I chose mosaic. I found that it was very satisfying to breathe new life into discarded materials like tile samples or forming my own tiles out of clay. I soon fell in love with the tactile nature of breaking, cutting and shaping pieces to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The practice is also very meditative and therapeutic. The fact that mosaics can live indoors or outdoors also makes it a versatile medium. 

How do you scout new locations for murals? 

Honestly, anytime we see a space that lacks color and interest, a span of concrete wall, for example, I imagine a design for it! However, the more normal scenario is that a client has the space in mind on their property. Otherwise, there are many steps to procure permission to install a mosaic mural on a wall somewhere.

Can you describe the process from a sketch on paper to pieces of tile, mirror, rocks, etc. on a surface? How do you fracture the initial image in a harmonious way? 

Most of my planning happens in my mind as I visualize what I want to accomplish. If it involves something from nature, I look at a lot of photographs. When I plan a piece that I will create by myself (as opposed to a community-involved piece), I make sketches and then draw the outline on a panel. That’s usually the easy part. Then comes choosing a palette of colors and materials. This takes quite a bit of time. For example, I chose to do the kingfisher for The Riverkeeper in stained glass, except for the wooden tiles that comprise his branch perch. Colors are sorted, and decisions made about how to arrange pieces to express the different elements – in this case, kingfisher, perch, water, background foliage and sky. Cutting and snipping glass to shape his many feathers was first. Simultaneously, I played around with the arrangement of the river water glass. I consider the placement of each and every piece with the glass laid in place, waiting to adhere them until certain they are where they need to be. To make the background recede and create contrast with the curved lines of the foreground’s bird and water, I chose to arrange the glass in a series of vertical linear pieces, and the sun was placed in the sky to visually balance the bird. 

For an installation to be accomplished with public participation, once the drawing is on panels, we prepare a “skeleton” outline in tile. This tile outline is mortared in place and creates a three-dimensional boundary. Some of our experienced volunteers have come to the studio to assist with this step. Now when the community is invited to participate there is structure to work within. Palettes of colored tile, glass or mirror are prepared to fill each space. Participants are given direction, but what we have found is that creative people inevitably show up to public workshops bringing their own energy and ideas. Every project bears witness to the creative influence of community volunteers who made their mark on the piece.

What lessons carry over from your past as a Duval County Public Schools elementary art teacher to your public art work?

Making that first mosaic (on West Riverside Elementary School) my goal was to include every student in the process. Assigning certain elements to specific classes or grade levels, we fabricated all of the components for the mosaic. Even kindergarteners got their hands in it (quite literally!) and were successful having been given a limited palette and enough support. I use this approach in working with the public: try to include everyone, set up a framework within which participants, young or old, can try out their creativity and maybe learn a new skill. Give clear instruction, assign tasks within the boundaries, and focus on one thing at a time. This strategy works in the classroom and in making public art mosaics.

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