Anyone interested in learning how to lay mosaic tile is invited to help create panels to adorn the four pillars of the pavilion in the community garden behind St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Woodstock. Guided by Curt Boll, who has studied mosaic-making in Italy, church members and friends meet once a week to lay out tableaux of the four seasons in a meticulous process that has yielded, so far, one-fourth of the winter scene.
“We’d like to get this done before we die,” remarked Marie Duane, one of the church members who began the project with no experience of mosaics. “I’m in my late seventies, and this work keeps my brain going and my mind moving. It’s a new skill, and I like giving something interesting to the church. And we have a good time.”
Boll, who is retired from a career installing refrigeration facilities and alternative energy plants, has been making his own art for many years. A decade ago, when he was feeling stuck with his painting, he decided to veer off into mosaics, using a new medium to stimulate his creativity. He went to study in Ravenna, known for the high quality of its mosaics since the Byzantine period. His house and studio are adorned with several of his creations, which follow classical Italian patterns.
Several years ago, Boll did a fundraising project for the Woodstock Library, rendering Michael Hart’s painting “Woodstock Air Force” in mosaics, as well as a work based on John Cage’s silent composition “4:33.” Both pieces were auctioned off, with proceeds going to the library. Landscaper Jim Dinsmore, who designed and maintains the gardens at St. Gregory’s, learned of Boll’s efforts and asked him to help cover the columns of the pavilion.
Artist and church member Julia Russell made four seasonal drawings of a tree with its surroundings, and Boll and his volunteer crew set out to reproduce them in stone at his studio off Glasco Turnpike. He started by having each person create a small personal piece, just to learn how to work with the materials. Then they began to depict the leafless tree with an owl on its branch, the focus of the winter scene. Now, over a year later, they are mid-way through the second of the four six-foot-high winter panels. Each panel will cover one side of a masonry pillar, wrapping each pillar in a seasonal tableau. Spring, summer, and fall scenes await.
It’s partly because the crew are beginners that the process has been taking so long, but Boll also blames his early perfectionism, which he has now relaxed. “The mosaic is supposed to flow,” he explained. “The pieces should not touch, and people were putting them right up against each other.” After taking out several sections of the first panel, he decided to let the work stay, even if it wasn’t perfect.
Boll is providing all the materials for the work at his own expense, including the backing for the panels, made of honeycombed aluminum, sandwiched between fiberglass sheets, a component of airplane wings. The stone does not come from Home Depot but direct from Italy, small rods of marble that have to be chopped still smaller. Chopping with hand tools is tricky for beginners, so Boll bought an Italian machine that slices the marble, guillotine-style. The stone comes in colors that are created with recipes used in Italy for a thousand years. Some sections of the first panel, including the moon and a pond, are rendered in smalty, a type of glass, providing a reflective surface.
“My husband and I do lots of jigsaw puzzles,” said Duane. “In a way, making mosaics is like that.” The bits of stone or glass are laid in plaster, a small section at a time. Then grout is applied between the pieces. Boll rubs the finished panel with coffee grounds to darken the grout and seals the panel with wax.
When the first section was completed, it was brought to the garden and propped up against the pillar for viewing. “When we stepped back, it was marvelous,” recalled Duane. “You could see the perspective.” Dinsmore said the first panel will be bolted onto its pillar when the weather warms.
The main part of St. Gregory’s garden was created ten years ago, when Dinsmore designed a memorial garden. “We had to raise money for it,” he said, “and one way we did that was to suggest people buy plants in memory of someone.” Next, after extensive research, he planted a horticultural therapy garden, with plant textures and aromas that are meant to promote individual well-being. These qualities are particularly soothing for autistic children, and raised beds allow elders and people in wheelchairs to enjoy the pleasures of gardening.
Last fall, a columbarium was added, a structure for the interment of ashes. In the back corner of the garden is a labyrinth for those who like to walk its circuit as a spiritual tool for insight and self-development. “It’s intended to be a community garden,” emphasized Dinsmore. “It’s all open and can be used by everyone in the community. We’ve been conducting horticultural therapy classes the last few years, working with autistic kids, and we’d like to expand the groups we work with. In particular, we’d like to have people from nursing homes, people with Alzheimer’s, and people in wheelchairs.”
In addition to overseeing the garden, Dinsmore has participated in creating the mosaics. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s like a quilting bee, all us working on the same project and gossiping.”
If interested in joining the mosaic-making process or proposing a garden tour for a school or group, contact Jim Dinsmore at 845-657-7180. The gardens, open to the public, are located behind St. Gregory’s at 2578 Route 212, just east of Woodstock.