The Vogeltreppe Mosaic Project, Pirmasens, Germany 2019
The pure energy, excitement and ambition of her ground-breaking projects made an enormous impression on the audience of the BAMM Forum in 2013 when many of us met Isidora Paz Lopez for the ﬁrst time. Her presentation, showing the extraordinary scale of public art projects that she had recently spearheaded in Chile, had an immediate impact and many of us were ready to rush out to join her at the ﬁrst possible opportunity.
In 2014, a handful of UK BAMM members keenly accepted Isidora’s invitation to take part in “The First International Urban Mosaic Intervention.” This project involved a total of eighty artists travelling from twenty two countries, together with twenty local artists, and took place in the beautiful town of Puente Alto in the south of Santiago, Chile. Each artist created their own section of a long “Magic Garden” mosaic mural that breathed new life into the façade of the town hall building that it was directly installed onto.
Fly forward to 2019. Isidora has relocated from South America to live with her German husband and family close to Pirmasens, a town traditionally associated with Germany’s shoe industry. The town is economically depressed but Isidora is ready to launch her public art business locally with a project that has the potential to act as a catalyst for regeneration. Successful negotiations with the municipality of Pirmasens lead to the commissioning of the “Vogeltreppe Mosaic”. Not so big compared to Isidora’s previous commissions but at a scale and budget that the authorities are comfortable to start out with.
The title of the project, “Vogeltreppe”, refers to the theme of birds and the site for the mosaic: an external concrete and steel stairwell, literally “Bird Stairs”. Pirmasens sits in a valley with streets at different levels, so hills and staircases appear frequently. Isidora announced the project to her friends, fans and Facebook followers in autumn, 2018. She invited artists to join two teams for stages of mosaic production taking place in February (Team Alpha) and March (Team Omega), 2019. There was also an invitation to make a native bird in mosaic on mesh and send it to her for inclusion in the mosaic. Some artists did both. In no time at all, a contingent of chirpy, colourful characters was winging its way to Pirmasens from all corners of the globe. More than one hundred birds have now safely landed ready to take up their position on the mosaic staircase.
Katy Galbraith, Jan Johnson and I were the three BAMM artists from the UK who ventured to Pirmasens to be part of Team Alpha. We arrived in the town ready to begin work on the morning of Tuesday 4th February, making our way to the workspace inside the Dynamikum building for a 10.00 am start. Having travelled on an icy cold evening, trudging through snow the night before, it was an absolute delight to be welcomed on our walk to work with glorious sunshine. Best foot forward, as we entered the former shoe factory building that now offers an interactive science museum experience with the key topic “motion”. Aptly enough.
Our week began with an introduction to the project, a brief introduction from each of us to the rest of the group followed by the presentation of gifts: a fabulous green Vogeltreppe work apron and a pair of ‘Brutus’ compound nippers – both practical and desirable. Enthused, we then set to work.
Large sections of the design were set out on table tops, covered with plastic sheeting and mesh. The core team, who had been working and preparing for two weeks in advance of our arrival, were on hand to guide us with the colour scheme and instructions for each panel. Amazingly, she explained to us, Isidora carries the whole design in her head and draws out the cartoons at full scale. That surprised many of us but we understood her logic for being able to see the final size of the smallest details to ascertain at the outset that they cut be achieved in the mosaic medium.
The meticulous approach to realising this beautiful design will contribute decidedly to its finished elegance. Isidora stressed that we should take our time to make each part of the mosaic accurately and neatly in preference to completing areas quickly. She supervised our work with a keen eye and a collaborative spirit, ready to allow artistic freedom but intent on ensuring that her overall vision was achieved and, to this ends, made quality control interventions as required. Isidora was constantly re-assessing all aspects of the work: colour combinations, the direction of the light, the shape and style of cuts within every element in the composition. Somehow, she seemed to keep her attention simultaneously on the tiniest of details and the ‘bigger picture’. Isidora is an exceptionally skilled project manager as well as being an accomplished mosaicist.
During the next few days locals responded to fast spreading news about the project that encouraged them to pop in to visit. Happy with the warm, friendly welcome that they received, quite a few were inspired to stay and work alongside us. On the Wednesday, Team Alpha was booked for a complimentary two-hour session to explore the Dynamikum’s science museum and on the Thursday, we had a day trip to a Villeroy & Boch showroom and on to their museum and factory outlet. Work continued the next day and then in the evening we were special guests at the private view of a new exhibition of work by Salvador Dali at the Arts & Culture Centre. The Mayor and town officials of Pirmasens were overjoyed to receive an international delegation of artists. We were treated as VIPs and they held a champagne reception for us, showering us with gifts and keepsakes to show their appreciation.
Fifty-two artists from twenty-one countries will have contributed to the Vogeltreppe Mosaic by the time that work is complete. In the workroom, you could mostly hear conversations in French, Spanish, German, English and Hebrew and yet none of these languages were the mother tongue of some of the artists amongst us. Gordana had travelled from Serbia to join the project – the first time she had ventured out of her country for twenty years. As an art teacher and a caring member of her own neighbourhood in Belgrade, she has discovered the positive power of mosaic to bring together and heal communities that have faced difficult social challenges, with its mindful and therapeutic capabilities. This was echoed in the projects that Dalia Grossman presented to us, where she had brought Arabic and Jewish communities together, uniting them in their shared efforts to create public art mosaics and attempt to create a sense of harmony in Israel. Both participants had also overcome personal obstacles to get themselves to Pirmasens for the project in terms of health and opportunity.
On the first day Isidora made a pertinent comment about the value of the project. She said that it would be much more about the interactions we would have connecting with each other than it was about the work produced. She was spot on. We all left the previously unknown town of Pirmasens enriched and re-energised not so much by what we did but by the depth of friendship, laughter and love that we shared and enjoyed throughout the week. This was the true value of taking part in the Vogeltreppe Project.