It’s an art whose power lies in the sum of its parts, made whole through a creative medium, or bond. The process behind mosaic art could just as easily describe building a community, which is exactly how artist Amy Salerno sees it.
“My ultimate goal is to bring people together,” Salerno says. “The thing about mosaic (art) is that all these people bring something to the table, without necessarily having artistic training. I love seeing everyone come together to be part of something bigger. Then, if they live in the community, this creative collaboration will become a part of their everyday lives.”
Salerno recently launched the Mosaic heART Project to realize her dream of bringing people together to create and conversate, share stories and make new ones as they complete public murals. So far, with the help of community donations and volunteers, the project has brought two mosaic murals to life. One is at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y., where Salerno teaches art. “Creativity Takes Courage” was completed earlier this year by more than 200 students, faculty and staff with donated tile and mirror. Last month, the second mural, “Food for the Soul,” also created with a donated cache, was welcomed to its perch at the nonprofit Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury.
The latter work is seen nearly daily by dozens of people who come through the doors for a hot meal. Held together by a cobalt blue webbing of grout, thousands of shards of glass and tile fragments depict a pair of hands reaching to the sky as a dove rises. A golden halo gleams above its head.
This past winter, Salerno, who has lived in Danbury for about five years, made her acquaintance with the organization. With an armful of coats and blankets she emancipated from her closets for donation, she stepped into the building where guests are fed. Moved by the volunteer’s work, she became more involved.
“I wanted to provide hope to people,” Salerno says. “I want (the guests) to know they are loved and important. And, I wanted to put art in a space where it might not normally be.”
She also hopes this latest mosaic work raises awareness for the organization, which solely relies on volunteers for time and financial support. It has served the hungry and the homeless through its kitchen and dining areas, as well as its shelter, for more than 35 years. There is uncertainty as to whether its shelter can continue to operate at its downtown location because of a years-long zoning dispute.
“The space just immediately resonated with me as a bastion of hope,” she says. She hopes all parties can reach a workable solution.
Most artists can cite inspirations in their lives that fuel their creativity and for Salerno, there are a few. The first being her late parents, Jeanne and Frank Salerno, who encouraged her to help others. There are the trips she made to Venice, followed by a journey she took to Philadelphia. Finally, she counts the people served by the Dorothy Day Hospitality House and its volunteers as the creative fuel that helped get her latest project off the ground.
As to her parents, she recalls their outward perspective while growing up in Ridgefield in the 1980s. “My dad was the king of the underdogs. He wanted us to be grounded,” she says, adding that her mom was a generous soul who sought opportunities to help those in need.
Venice became the place she became enamored of mosaic, particularly during the Venice Biennale in 2011, when she discovered the work of Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas. Mas, utilizing her culture’s tradition of Pysankas, or painted Easter eggs, had asked thousands of people from around the world to paint wooden eggs that she later assembled — pixel-like — to create old masters’ works. That was the same year that Salerno spent time at the Domus Orsoni, a bed and breakfast connected to the Orsoni glass factory, which has made glass mosaic tiles since 1888.
In 2016, she returned to the Orsoni glass factory, with the support of a grant from her school district, to learn about this centuries-old art and bring back that expertise to build community. It all came together, she says, after a 2017 visit to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on South Street to see the public murals and installations that were created by mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar. She returned to that world of “donated mirror, tile, bottles and unwanted objects,” in April to work for a week in Zagar’s studio. He remains a mentor and is one of the driving forces behind her mission to install even more murals in the greater Danbury area.
As she sits beneath the “Food for Soul” mural on a recent afternoon, before doors open for the afternoon meal, Salerno recalls a few stories from the creation of the piece — the way it inspired some guests to share prior artistic achievements or pitch in with the work. One guest, Wayne Brown, offered an integral suggestion.
Salerno had received a clutch of keys from the property manager at her building and planned to use them as a halo. She had not thought to polish them. Brown saw that as a potential problem.
“I knew she needed to shine them” says Brown, 75, who has lived in the Danbury area since he was about 15 years old. “If you have a halo, it’s supposed to shine.”
Some brass polish and elbow grease later, the keys shone — a ray of hope in a piece of art aimed at getting people to think of higher ideals. As guests streamed through to find seats for the afternoon meal, Brown appeared and took a spot at a corner of a table beneath the work.
When asked about his contribution, which included peeling some of the tiles, he stresses he isn’t artistic. “I can’t draw stick figures.” But as an observer notes that he had an integral impact on the final product, he grows quiet, then smiles. “I guess I can take some credit.”
For more information on the project, as well as businesses and organizations that donated supplies, visit ilovetheheartproject.com