Mister Mosaic

Libor Havlicek

Libor Havlicek is accustomed to bleeding on the job. After 10 years of making mosaics, the Brno artist no longer bothers with Band-Aids; he just wipes the blood from his fingers and continues to glue broken bits of tile to his latest work. As for wearing gloves, he dismisses the idea with a snigger. “Making mosaics in gloves is like having sex with a condom,” he says. “You don’t feel what you need to.”

Havlicek is working on a piece in his bathroom, which he has kindly offered as a guinea pig for a mosaic lesson. Two large triangular shapes have been cut out of the white tile wall, to be filled in with bits of colored tile. The mosaic will wrap around to cover the mundane white porcelain bathtub like a rich tapestry.Havlicek demonstrates how to break tiles, cracking them over his knee one by one like Saltine crackers. The triangular pieces fall into his lap, and he trims them to size with a metal cutting tool. Using thick glue, he applies the pieces to the wall, stopping every 20 minutes to smoke. It’s tedious, solitary work. “Sometimes I am quiet for days,” he says.

And so the work proceeds quietly, a pattern slowly emerging from the red and blue slivers of tile, accented in white, black and tea green. During the five hours the project takes to finish, Havlicek finishes off two packs of Lucky Strikes and six CDs, including James Brown and Leonard Cohen. He cracks an occasional joke but does not offer any real instruction. Whatever you do is right,” Havlicek says. Mosaics are free.”When the mosaic is finished, the bathtub seems balanced on its side in the center of a dizzying diamond shape. Climbing into it from now on will be like mounting the Tilt-A-Whirl at a carnival. This optical illusion quality is a mark of Havlicek’s work.

‘I like to work with space,” he says. A mosaic should have some trick, some surprise.”
One can admire this quality at Shakespeare & Sons bookstore in Prague, where one of Havlicek’s pieces is on permanent display. The hallway leading from the cafe to the bookstore has been converted into a kaleidoscope of blue, white and silver tile. The sea-colored glass scattered across the walls and floor makes you feel as though you’re standing inside a glass-marbled aquarium. A spiraling mirror of tile in the center of the floor seems to pull you in.

One of only a few mosaic artists currently working in the Czech Republic, Havlicek is part of a long and storied tradition. The first significant mosaic in Prague was made in the late 14th century at the behest of King Charles IV. Inspired by the work of the great Italian mosaicists he saw during his second coronation in Rome, Charles commissioned a grand mosaic from an unknown artist for the Golden Gate of St. Vitus Cathedral. The Last Judgment contains over one million tiny stones and cubes of glass in more than 30 different shades of color.Karel Spillar is perhaps the best-known Czech mosaicist. His Homage to Prague (1911) adorns the magnificent exterior of Obecni dum (the Municipal House) at namesti Republiky. Decadent blue peacocks on the former Novak Department Store on Vodickova street frame another exquisite mosaic, this one by Jan Preisler.

Accidental artist

Havlicek, 36, was born in Brno, where he has done most of his work. He is thin and wiry, with a shaved head and cobalt-colored eyes. He is soft-spoken, with a warm face given to quick, mischievous smiles. Havlicek did not always make his living as an artist. After a couple of years at technical college studying boring things like physics and math,” he worked as a plumber for two years. In 1990, he decided he’d had enough. He borrowed some money from his parents and opened a pub in Brno. It was there that his first mosaic was born, almost by accident.

“By regulation, I had to have ceramic tile in the WC and behind the bar. It was very expensive,” he says. A friend of mine offered me some broken tile he had at his house. It was a mess, all different colors – so I made a mosaic. When I finished it was good, and I saw what a tool [mosaics are].”Although he continued creating mosaics as a hobby, Havlicek did not devote his energies to them full-time until two years ago, when he sold his pub. When I owned pubs, I didn’t make many mosaics because I was drinking,” he says. I didn’t have the time or the energy for mosaics.”

Last year he assembled a Web site, printed colored postcards of his work and began advertising. He has had 10 commissions since then, including two in Prague.
Havlicek’s work has taken him all over Europe – he’s willing to travel anywhere for an interesting project. In addition to working for businesses, he creates mosaics for people who want to personalize their homes or gardens. His portfolio includes sculptures for the mayor of Brno and a terrace mosaic for Czech singer/songwriter Iva Bittova. The latter took a month to complete and cost about 20,000 Kc ($666), one-quarter of which was spent on supplies. I ask [clients], How much do you have?'” Havlicek says. I try to work with them on finding materials within their price range.” He buys ceramic tile from factories or in smaller quantities from stores in Brno. More-expensive marble mosaics require a little extra travel. Havlicek goes to northern Italy for marble seconds” gleaned from the Dolomites, the mountains where Michelangelo gathered material for his Renaissance sculptures. One of Havlicek’s most interesting pieces, a freestanding sculpture of a bird with a snake’s body and a long, pointed orange beak in white, black and gold, is located on Pekarska street in Brno. Six meters (19.6 feet) tall and perched in the middle of an art nouveau square, the creature seems to have flown straight out of an ancient Greek myth. Havlicek has designed another public sculpture he hopes to build in Brno this spring: A giant replica of his own colored drawing pencils, standing helter-skelter in a mug. A sketch of the sculpture hangs in his downtown studio, awaiting word from the mayor to bring it to life.

Healthy obsession

Currently, Havlicek is working on the interior of a house in Brno he helped design. In the past, he has created mosaic facades that cover the entire exterior of a building. His Web site includes those, along with indoor mosaics, including a bathroom piece that stretches out over the tub in chalky blue and yellow pastels. Coitus in aqua saluti prosit,” it proclaims – Latin for Sex in the water is good for your health.”
Why does someone spend so many hours of his life assembling tedious jigsaw puzzles with dangerously sharp edges? “Mosaics are, for me, like a drug,” he says. My brain needs [them]. Some people think about cars or girls. I think about mosaics.”
Havlicek’s obsessive devotion to his art becomes clear when he finishes his own bathroom mosaic. After the last tile has been glued and set in place, he grins like a kid and runs for his camera. Then he stands in the doorway admiring his work, confiding that he believes mosaics contain the energy of the artist, passed from his fingertips into the tile. To prove his point, he places his palm over the smooth mosaic, as though checking a child’s temperature. It is warm,” he says. And good for your health.

“Mister Mosaic” appeared in the Prague Post, 2003

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