Grasping

As we drew to a stop
in the white atrium’s light,
museum paintings swirled around us
like carousel horses,
manes flying
and his words were like mirrors
hung to distract,
yet I did not grow dizzy swirling
among pearls of light,
nor on the mesmerizing grind of calliope.
I reached for what was beneath;
I wanted the brass ring.
Leaning toward him I saw it
in his eye:
a skull staring back,
mute, grinning.

Mister Mosaic

Libor
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

The House Where the Muses Live

Passersby often ring the doorbell just out of curiosity. With its pointed roof and arched windows, the building appears to be a church. But the sculpture of a frowning giant above the door hints otherwise.

Few pass the threshold — the doorbell doesn’t work and the building at 115 College St., in Somerville is usually closed to the public. But those who do enter are apt to feel they’re walking into a Grimm’s fairy tale. Inside, nearly every inch of the church’s walls and ceiling have been covered in frescoes depicting myths from around the world: Dragons, centaurs, genies, goddesses, kings and queens all greet the eye with the glow and vibrancy of stained glass.

Russian-born artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Katerina Sorokina have worked for the last several years to cover the 10,000-square-foot 19th-century Masonic temple in their artwork. The couple purchased the building in 2002 with the intention of turning it into a living, working and exhibition space, however, they say local officials have prevented them from opening it up to the public due in part to lack of parking. But they’re quite content to call the church home. They say it is both accommodating to their large-scale work and cozy enough to live in.

“You feel not like a bug in a box here,” Shaplyko says in a thick Russian accent. “It’s not too big to make you feel small.”

The artists have named their home the Museum of Modern Renaissance and their goal is to transport people back to a simpler time.

“The first Renaissance brought beauty and humanity back to society, and we think it is time to do it again,” says Shaplyko. “A museum [today] is a warehouse where paintings are stored. But the word museum actually means the house where the muses live, not the cemetery where they die and dry like butterflies on a pin. We created our museum so you enter a single piece of art. It surrounds you…You become a part of this world like Alice in Wonderland.”

Through the looking glass

Today, the front door opens.

Shaplyko and his wife, Sorokina, both elegant and dignified, seem like a king and queen who have sprung from one of their own paintings. Shaplyko is tall and dark with a close-cropped beard. And Sorokina, petite and blonde, wears leopard print leggings and lots of oversized jewelry.

The immersion into art is immediate. The front entryway has been transformed into a vast solar system complete with Roman planetary gods. On one wall a pensive Neptune sits, holding a trident between his fingers like a poet might hold his pen, while across the room a blue-bearded Jupiter stands poised to fling a lightning bolt.

In the chapel, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of frescoes painted on canvas, then mounted onto wooden frames and secured to the walls and ceiling. Here, Christian saints stand head-to-head with pagan gods, and lions from Chinese legend walk outside the gates of spired Russian cities.

Behind the chapel is the artists’ studio, an addition designed by Shaplyko in an altar shape because a studio, the artists say, is a sacred space for creating art.

“People come to the church to pray, to concentrate their energy, and get some connection,” Shaplyko reflects. “Many people do it every day. Churches are like a transformer; [they’re] an energy source.”

The room is a tropical paradise with sun streaming in from six skylights and large potted plants lining the bright-painted walls. A fireplace flickers in a cozy corner. It’s made of ceramic plates painted by Sorokina in Sicilian-inspired patterns.

A small staircase leads down to the artists’ living quarters. Two huge tables, recently built by Nicholas, sit in the dining room. They’re so large they seem fit for King Arthur’s feast. The artists often invite friends over for wine, dinner and conversation. “We discuss religion and philosophy,” Sorokina says.

The couple chooses to live without a television, preferring to spend free time reading, traveling or entertaining. TV, Shaplyko says, makes people feel as if they’re participating in life when actually “they’re sitting on the couch eating popcorn.”

Last is the living room with its rows of fiery orange bookcases painted with bright suns. There is a Russian rug on the floor, and Indian textiles draped across a low couch lined in bright pillows. The room fairly glows with all the warmth of a kerosene lamp.

“After we finished this room,” says Shaplyko, “I was always thinking I forgot to turn out the light because through the door it seems like the light is on.”

 

Ancient values, modern times

Shaplyko and Sorokina, both in their 40s, met two decades ago on a white water canoeing trip in Russia. Though they work together to create all their paintings, and consider their styles to be complementary, the two artists come from very different backgrounds. Shaplyko, who is also a skilled carpenter, studied architecture and went on to own a successful design firm in Russia. Sorokina, who designs fashion as a hobby, is self-taught. She grew up in a family of art collectors where she says she honed her eye for color and pattern.

“She feels and dreams in colors,” Shaplyko says of his wife.

When creating a painting, Shaplyko lays out the overall composition and Sorokina chooses the colors and adds detail. The artists, who work on commission, paint anywhere from six to 10 hours a day. Paintings begin on canvas covered in black gesso, which adds depth to colors. When creating art, the two say, they strive to be free-spirited, working without preliminary sketches. “Artists should be like children,” Shaplyko says. “The child has no regulations… A child doesn’t know what it’s all about; he just wants to explore and create. He sees an empty space on the wall, he grabs a crayon and fills it up.”

The couple chooses to create only uplifting images. They dislike the work of artists like Frieda Kahlo, who depicted pain and struggle, saying that art should be an escape from the world.

“We are striving to make people feel good,” Sorokina says. “Sometimes friends ask if they can come in and sit [in the museum] because they need this energy.”

Shaplyko and Sorokina moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s. After a couple years in Brighton, they moved to Somerville when they found the church. They have exhibited their work in galleries around the world, including India, Italy, France and Russia (Vladimir Putin owns a painting). Though they’ve had local gallery exhibits in the past on Newbury Street, and at the Cambridge Multicultural Center, the couple seems in no hurry to pursue more. They admit that creating art — not selling it — is their priority.

“To paint and sell piece by piece is like an 8-to-5 job,” Shaplyko says. “I think art is bigger than that.”

“The house where the muses live’” appeared in Good Life Magazine, 2008

Tintype Photography

They all gathered at the Light Club Lamp Shop on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington to wait for their big moment: a tattooed couple dressed in black. A white-bearded man in a black vest and top hat. A teenage girl with long brown hair carrying a bag with a tiny kitten tucked inside. Though they differed in age and appearance, these strangers shared a single purpose: to pose for tintype photographers Jeff Howlett and Chris Morgan.

The two use metal plates and a unique photo-developing process that dates back to the Civil War era. Like magicians in a traveling street carnival, Howlett and Morgan came to Burlington last Thursday, June 25, carting their own cabinet of wonders: a portable darkroom the size of a steamer trunk, a silver backdrop, a large-format camera and an array of lights and power cords. They transformed a corner of the venue into a makeshift studio and set up their darkroom in a nearby bathroom.

Three quarter portrait, young Civil War soldier in kepi. Cased tintype, ninth plate

This marked the second stop on a Northeast tour for the two North Carolina-based photographers. They visited Burlington on their way to North Adams, Mass., to work their magic at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, which concluded this past weekend. After an appearance in Brooklyn, the Queen City was a natural stop for Howlett, a former Vermonter who played in bands including Five Seconds Expired and Non Compos Mentis in the 1990s. He codirected the acclaimed 2013 film A Band Called Death with Mark Covino.

Howlett and Morgan said they hoped to return to Burlington to teach a tintype workshop in the near future.

Both photographers call themselves “wet-plate collodion artists.” Morgan has been producing tintypes for about 15 years; Howlett for two. Owner of Howlermano Photography, Howlett met Morgan in a North Carolina photography group last year and discovered their shared love for tintypes. They began setting up their portable studio at venues from tattoo parlors to festivals. Their first gig together, Howlett said, was the Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, N.C., last September.

“Truthfully, it’s a blast,” said Morgan. “Jeff and I love meeting people and showing folks the process.”

That process, which employs a metal (not actually tin) plate coated with dark enamel, was invented in the mid-19th century. The metal plate is placed in a large-format camera, and the image is captured upside down and in reverse. It is then processed using a mix of chemicals including ether and potassium cyanide, the latter of which serves as a fixer. Initially used in photography studios, tintypes became a favorite of carnival and street photographers because they could be quickly developed and handed off to customers. The format was used to produce many Civil War and Wild West images.

These days, tintype photography is making a comeback. Why? Howlett said he was attracted by the opportunity to create something tangible that can be passed on. “The plate has a certain smell to it,” he said. “There’s a varnish we have that has lavender oil in it. Being able to hold it in your hand and smell it — you can’t do that with a digital photo.”

At the Lamp Shop, Howlett and Morgan worked together seamlessly. Standing behind the camera, Howlett acted as photographer and director, posing his subjects on a stool. He placed each metal plate on the camera, where the image was captured, then passed the plate off to Morgan, who carried it back to the makeshift darkroom. Morgan’s head and upper body disappeared behind a black curtain as he guided the metal through the developer, stop bath and fixer.

As Morgan set the plates out to dry, Howlett arranged his next subjects on the stool. A screenwriter-filmmaker wanted to be photographed with notebook and pen in hand. A pair of white-haired musicians clutched their instruments. A woman in a long dress cradled fresh flowers in her arms. Each had about five minutes in the spotlight. Though it took only a second to capture the image, arranging props and poses required more time.

By 8:30 p.m., the café was bustling with tattooed musicians, artists and others, many of them decked in vintage gear. While waiting their turn, they sat and observed the array of characters on the studio’s “stage.” The waiting list quickly swelled. Though the line moved slowly, the atmosphere in the bar was light and playful.

People came to pose for many reasons.

For Robert Resnik, a Burlington musician and host of Vermont Public Radio’s “All the Traditions,” posing for a tintype meant an opportunity to time travel. “I love old photos, and I like to dress up in an anachronistic style,” he said.

Jordan Douglas, a photography professor at Saint Michael’s College, was drawn by the chance to witness the wet-plate collodion process. “It’s analog, handmade,” he said. “I love that it’s processed in a little, red-lit space. It’s got a magic to it that technology doesn’t have.”

Sophia St. John Lockridge, age 14, said she posed with her kitten for a tintype because “I want my future children to know where they get their cat obsession from.” Both of her parents — Jim Lockridge, executive director of Big Heavy World, and Victoria St. John, operations director of VPR — got tintyped, too.

Surely many of these images have already become Facebook profile photos, giving the old-school technology an ironic twist. But some will also go on to print: One couple said they’ll use their tintype in their upcoming Southern Gothic-style wedding announcement.

When the plates emerged from their chemical bath and made their way to their subjects, it was fascinating to see how each face translated onto the metal. Gray hair, wiry beards and facial lines added to the complexity of the images. Blue eyes took on a haunting quality, reproduced as almost white. Blond hair glowed with otherworldly light.

Because they’re processed by hand, tintypes have their own unique marks, lines and quirks. In Photoshop, so-called flaws might be edited or deleted; in tintypes, they become beautiful. The best part of the process is having a memento that will live well into the future.

“Nowadays, the digital files we create will be lost in coming years,” Morgan said. “Paper degrades, ink-jet prints fade, but tintypes last. They are real, tangible, something to hold.”

The original print version of this article was headlined “Tin Men: Itinerant Image Makers Bring Old-School Photo Studio to Burlington” https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/tintype-photographers-shoot-burlington/Content?oid=2699329