Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mexican Diary # 2: “To the Water!”

You can see pictures of my mosaics on my website: www.martincheekmosaics.com
The Barbados work is shown on page:
www.martincheekmosaics.com/html/barbados_floor.html

Mexican Diary # 2: “To the Water!”

Luigi, the Byzantine master
The most important man here at the Korolines' Byzantine studio – by far – is Luigi (or Lewis) – the ‘Byzantine master’. He is 88 years old and looks about 70 – tops. He has been making mosaics since he was 14 - so for me to beat that I will have to keep at it until I’m 105!
Luigi is indeed ‘the maestro’ and runs the Byzantine studio with a rod of iron. Francisco explained to me that I must treat him like a master chef in his kitchen. Francisco also liked the metaphor of customers waiting for their plates with Luigi making sure that they all got ‘fed’ on time. I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to respect Luigi – that there was only room for one ‘chef’ or ‘chief’ and it was him. Any comments I needed to make about the mosaic have to go through Aida – Luigi’s PA. This suits me fine – I don’t really want the mosaicists asking for my advice and approval every five minutes.
When we met, Luigi was frosty; annoyed that I didn’t speak Spanish (he speaks Italian and Spanish – but no English) and said that I MUST learn Spanish. I realised that I would have to earn his respect if we were going to work together and the sooner the better. I said that I needed him to see the full size design and we went to a large area to lay it out. He quickly changed his attitude when he saw the design – realising, for one thing, that I could draw- and I must admit that the design DID look good when spread out. It transpires that, astonishingly, Luigi cannot or at least DOES NOT draw. He was trained in traditional mosaic technique in Italy. He had worked on the mosaics I had admired in Venice train station. He told me that this was made in the late 1930’s under Mussolini – whom he had met along with Neville Chamberlain and many other political notables of the day.
Luigi now lives in Mexico City where he awakes at 5.00 am every morning, when he is drivien in each day to the Byzantine studio here in Cuernavaca for 9.00 am when the workers arrive – and yes, they DO have to clock in – this IS a factory after all! Apparently Luigi never misses a working day and on the occasions when he had HAS to stay at home, such as weekends, bank holidays etc. his wife says that he gets restless, frustrated and tetchy. Many years ago Luigi came to Mexico, intending to stay for a few weeks, but met his future wife, fell in love, and they have been here ever since.
Luigi’s most impressive mosaics must surely be the works executed with Diego Rivera – who Luigi told me knew nothing about mosaic - and why would he?, until Luigi taught him. There are quite a few examples in Mexico City, about 90 km away. I have asked for a ‘works outing’ to see them with Luigi. He has agreed to give me a tour of these, plus some others, once our mosaic is under way.
Naturally, I was keen to show Luigi MY mosaics, starting with the books and moving on to a slide show of more recent work on the laptop. He WAS amused and impressed by pieces like the leaping frog and made pertinent and insightful comments. But we really connected when I mentioned the 4th Century mosaics of Aquilea, which I said were the best example of Roman work that I’d seen. Well, by pure chance it transpires that Aquilea is Luigi’s home town. He returns about once a year to see friends and family. Amazingly (for me) I’d remembered quite a lot about the history of Aquilea – which I’d only chanced upon two years ago, so that was a lucky coincidence. I also told him the story of how a roll of 2 inch sellotape had saved me $500 in excess baggage and he liked that too.

I realise that I’m making Luigi sound a bit fierce which he isn’t really – he’s a pussy cat, but he’s DEFINITELY the top dog around here. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?!) The worst punishment dished out to the workers is when he declares “To the water!” to one of the mosaicists - who are mainly women of all ages – I have only seen 2 x male designers, 2 x marble mosaicists and 1 x supervisor who also makes the mosaics – the other 35 or so are all female. Anyway this pronouncement means that the lady in question, hanging her head in shame, has to take her piece of mosaic, soak it off in a bowl of water and start again. Due to the slow process of mosaic, this could easily represent 2 – 3 days work. I can’t help but be reminded of Josiah Wedgwood, who famously walked about his pottery with a big wooden stick. If he felt that, say, the painting on a particular vessel wasn’t up to scratch, he would lift his stick above his head and send it crashing down on the pot - with predictable results - shouting “That’s not good enough for Josiah Wedgwood!”
I haven’t actually witnessed this Dickensian scene yet – but I’ll let you know when / if I do – you never know - it may even be ME who has to go “to the water!”

You can see pictures of my mosaics on my website: www.martincheekmosaics.com
The Barbados work is shown on page:
www.martincheekmosaics.com/html/barbados_floor.html

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