I have been meaning to share my experience working with former SGG student, Nancy Brzeski, on a mosaic she had set a goal of creating more than 50 years ago. I was acquainted with Nancy when she took a class with me making mosaic lanterns back in 2008. We became friendly when she invited me to an art show, and I was happy to be invited to attend her 90th birthday party a few years ago. She mentioned on a number of occasions over the years that she wanted to create a mosaic portrait she had been thinking about and wanted my help, but none of our classes or studio hours seemed to fit her schedule. But she persisted, so this last year, I began dedicating a couple of days off a month to help her create the piece she had been dreaming of since she first visited Italy in the 1950s. During the process, she would regale me with personal stories about her experiences during the war, living abroad, motherhood, and her lifelong pursuit of art. We finished just a week before I gave birth to my son, who is now 4 months old. We both learned so much in the mosaic making process, and I will always cherish the time I spent getting to know Nancy. She is an extraordinary person, and will always be a great inspiration to me, especially in setting artistic goals and following through! Sincerely, Julie
A Few Words About the Mosaic Portrait
by Nancy Brzeski
When I was very young we lived in a big, beautiful, old-fashioned house in a semi-rural suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was the only child. My father, an electrical engineer at Westinghouse, lost his job during the Great Depression of the ‘30s. My mother, who had just graduated from Pitt Law School, was supporting our little family.
I loved to sit on the porch wing at sunset, noticing how the rays of sunlight illuminated certain houses here and there on the distant hills. They sparkled like diamonds! Now at 92, I love the early morning sunlight striking certain buildings in San Francisco, seen from my condo on top of Russian Hill. My mosaic portrait glitters like that in the sunshine.
This portrait is a collaborative work made with my young teacher, Julie Orchard. I had the concept; she had the know-how. It was partially inspired by two photos of myself at age 22; one, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, the other as the bride of Christian Bay, a Norwegian political scientist. I call it, “On the Brink...” a young woman on the brink of life, full of great expectations and romantic dreams.
This work was also inspired by my love of Egypto-Roman “Fayum” portraits. They were painted by Roman artists living in Egypt from the late 1st century BC to the late 4th century AD, and used as part of the burial ceremony, to identify the dead, mummified person in afterlife.
I became acquainted with these stylized portraits in the late ‘50s, in the studio of an Italian artist, Ugo Adriano Graziotti. I fell in love with them. With their soulful, dark eyes, black hair, and “sunburned” skin-tones, I felt they were “my people”. I had a picture of one of them on the refrigerator door in my Berkeley cottage. The cottage is gone, but I still have the picture.
In Ugo’s studio, I made a large mosaic portrait inspired by a 9th century Roman mosaic which I had recently seen in a Milan museum. I liked its boldness and simplicity, similar to the Fayum portraits. But, I later felt that I could make a better one.
I was haunted by my mother’s words to Ugo: “Nancy can do better than she ever tried to do.” Now, in my old age, in spite of all my duties and responsibilities, I feel I have proven to my long-departed mother that she was right.