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

A Mystical Quest


Anyone with a taste for the arcane has heard of Kutna Hora, the medieval town 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Prague, with its assortment of esoteric treasures – the Gothic cathedral of St. Barbara, the underground labyrinth of silver mines and the ossuary, or bone church,” in the nearby town of Sedlec. But if you’re willing to explore beyond the obvious, there is a more intriguing route through town encompassing a mysterious chapter of the city’s history. The ossuary is only the first stop on a Philosopher’s Walk” that loops into the heart of Kutna Hora to the Alchemy Museum, the country’s only establishment to pay tribute to an ages-old mystical tradition. Located in Palackeho namesti, the museum is operated by Michal Pober, a former shiatsu instructor with a penchant for alchemical history and a flair for storytelling. At the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, alchemy went through a tremendous boom in Europe. The Prague-based Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II was the highest of many noblemen who employed alchemists in the hope of discovering the secret formula for creating gold. According to museum placards, many of the world’s leading alchemists visited the area now known as the Czech Republic, including Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus, who is said to have acquired his vitriol in Kutna Hora. A museum placard displays the alchemist’s goals as if they were a checklist for those considering signing up for a lifetime quest: first and foremost, to discover the elixir of life,” a rejuvenating concoction that confers immortality. Other goals include finding the secret formula to convert base metals into gold, and the general preparation of remedies of great quality and purity … achieved by separating the pure from the impure to achieve perfection.”

Back in time

The museum’s location – in a grand stone building complete with massive creaking doors, an underground laboratory and a Gothic tower straight out of an Edward Gorey drawing – is no coincidence. Legend holds that Jiri of Podebrady’s alchemist son Prince Hynek – who conducted experiments in a basement laboratory – also once inhabited the place. The building’s architectural layout supports this theory: The tower contains a round, majestic room that appears to be a small chapel or oratory, and the basement harbors a deep pit that could have been used by a black” (illegal) metallurgist sifting through metals for forbidden secrets. All alchemy laboratories contained a separate space for working and praying, as dictated by the Latin phrase Ora et Labora (Pray and Work), which alchemists abided by. Only by balancing their quest for material wealth with spiritual transcendence could they achieve success in their experiments. Walking through the museum corridors feels like a time trip back to King Arthur’s castle library, with framed illustrations from old alchemy books hanging on the walls. In one, representing the fusion of two substances, a tiny bird flutters up from the mouth of a glass bottle where a pair of naked lovers lay intertwined.
Pober is well cast in his role as museum curator and guide. With his shaggy white hair, beard and glasses, he resembles the drawings of alchemists in books. His British lilt echoes eerily as he explains the assortment of objects, meant to invoke an alchemist’s study, laid out on the chapel table: candles, a feather and an inkwell, a first edition of an alchemy book with recipes for various potions, a human skull (no one in particular) and a small, shriveled crocodile the size of a Czech sausage. Reptiles, Pober explains, represent the first stage of experimentation, reflecting alchemy’s ancient Egyptian roots. He admits that the crocodile, given to him by a taxidermist friend, is a bit of a joke and then points to two large metal rings dangling from the ceiling overhead about six feet apart. We have the perfect spot waiting for when we get the real one!”
A spiral staircase winds down into the basement laboratory, where a massive bellows is bathed in artificial red light from a nearby fireplace. The clay pots and vessels crowding the shelves are modern reproductions that have been carefully arranged to tell an ancient story. Pober brings them to life, explaining how each strangely shaped vessel – fashioned after different animals – had a specific purpose . The containers with the long, sloping swan necks, for example, were like ancient cocktail shakers for mixing ingredients. In the next room, rows of glowing glass cases filled with odd-sized bottles bring back memories of biology class and floating gray cow brains. Upon closer inspection, these jars reveal less-grotesque contents – metal instruments, dried lavender, mustard seeds and other herbal treatments. There is only one museum room barricaded from visitors: a prison cell Pober has recreated at the foot of a small stone staircase. Here, with Pober’s thin finger gesturing at the tiny window, you can almost make out the haggard remains of a wizened alchemist who died after stubbornly refusing to reveal his secret formula to his patron.

The Philosopher’s Walk

Begin at Kostnice, or the ossuary, which is an inconvenient 45-minute walk from the center of Kutna Hora. The easiest way to get there is by bus from the main train station. There’s only one bus, so hop on and get off at the Tabak” sign near the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. Walk up Zamecka street to the ossuary and feast your eyes on the chandelier, coat of arms and other creepy sculptures made of human bones. Hop back on the bus or hike into the city center to the Alchemy Museum (Palackeho nam. 377). You can get a map of the city and brochures at the adjacent tourist office. Next, head to the Museum of Medieval Mining (Barborska 28), where you can tour the tunnels of an ancient mine while wearing an oversized jacket and a real miner’s hardhat, complete with headlight. The tour should help you work up a good appetite, which you can satisfy at Pivnice Dacicky (Rakova 8), a medieval-themed Czech restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is reasonably priced and includes a special alchemical section,” with dishes reputedly created by alchemist Bavor Rodovsky in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that he traded them to get out of prison. Pober’s favorite is the alchemical chicken, which comes adorned with chopped almonds in a white wine and garlic sauce for 89 Kc ($3). Finish off dinner with Horka laska (hot love), a magical concoction of hot raspberries, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. After dinner, stroll the main streets of Kutna Hora by night and admire the buildings illuminated in subtle blue and gold light. The Gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara, the tall, upright St. James Cathedral, the Italian court and the silver museum all seem to glow with a supernatural light.

“A Mystical Quest” originally appeared in The Prague Post