Lower Merion High School alumnus Jonathan Mandell was a history major at Northwestern University, but it was his first fine arts class, in his last semester of college, that changed the course of his life and career.
"It lit a spark," explained the Bala Cynwyd resident, now a full-time mosaic artist of more than 25 years. "… It was one of those things where it was very serendipitous and just fell together."
If you've spent much time around Lower Merion, you've likely seen Mandell's art: the large mosaic in the Lower Merion High School lobby is his work, as is the Bryn Mawr Film Institute mosaic and the recently-installed piece at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
If you're a baseball fan, you might have seen Mandell's art at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Phillies—and both the National Constitution Center and the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center houses his art also.
Once June hits, his current project—a piece commemorating Cecil B. Moore, commissioned by SEPTA—will be on display at the Temple University train station.
"I think of my mosaics as tactile paintings," Mandell said. "It's the one painting in the gallery you can walk up to and handle and that's part of the whole attraction of it."
For Mandell, mosaic is the confluence of sculpture, paint and drawing, and aspects of each art are evident in his work. From a three-dimensional dog shaped mosaic depicting a rendition of Gustav Klimt's 'The Kiss,' to a pool hall themed piece with tiger eyes on the table pockets, outlined in toy billiard balls, Mandell finds ways to employ tiles, precious stones, glass and other objects in creative ways.
Each piece is carefully designed, as Mandell works to show volume, motion and tension through the shape of the tiles and the lines that surround them. (Fun fact: When depicting people, fewer lines make a subject look younger, while more grout lines make the face appear more mature, Mandell said.)
The design stage can be short, or it can continue for months while many sets of eyes review the work, Mandell said.
The length of time to construct a mosaic varies greatly too: depending, clearly, on the size of the canvas—but also on the size of the pieces. The Kobe Bryant piece Mandell created for Lower Merion High School was constructed in about a week, but the 10-foot by 6-foot mosaic in the school's lobby, where almost all the piece is high detail, took three months, working almost every day, Mandell said.
"When you're breaking and fitting each itty bitty head in a crowd, it could be days with tweezers, working with pieces the size of your pinky nail," he explained.
Sometimes, that means that small, fragile pieces end up smashed and have to be re-cut, Mandell said. And, sometimes, people want their piece destroyed on purpose.
"I've had to remove people [in finished mosaics], and I've had to add people back in," Mandell said of some private commissioned pieces. "You take a hammer and a chisel and bash the pieces you want to remove, fit new pieces, and try to blend it in like it never happened."
From "slice of life" tile scenes to color studies and three-dimensional pieces like four-foot-tall mosaic vases, Mandell's portfolio is certainly diverse.
"Students' work can inform it, a Matisse painting can inform it, or the person I'm sitting next to on a SEPTA train can inform it," he said of his art. "If nothing else, my portfolio is eclectic."
It includes a mosaic featuring the Barnes galleries at their former location in Merion Station. The piece was commissioned by a man that collects only artists featured in Albert Barnes' galleries, Mandell said. "He literally put [my piece] next to a William Glackens painting. I was [ecstatic]—I guess that's a pretty good compliment."
Mandell also teaches at Main Line Art Center, Drexel University and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he will be teaching a class come end of May.
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