Phoenix artisan shapes mosaics BALTIMORE COUNTY


August 31, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Jacob sleeps, dreaming of a ladder rising into heaven with rungs of faith, hope and charity.

It's a biblical story brilliantly illustrated in 100,000 hand-cut and fitted pieces of marble, onyx and granite in 123 colors by a Phoenix artisan whose family has been practicing the mosaic craft for 11 generations.

"I am breathing life into stone," Santo Navarria says simply.

The 8-by-10-foot Jacob's Ladder mosaic is the centerpiece of nine Navarria mosaics that will decorate the marble floor outside the opulent great hall of what is expected to eventually house the Grand Lodge of Maryland, now under construction at Bonnie Blink, the Masonic Home in Hunt Valley.

For the 61-year-old craftsman, whose formal education ended with St. Anthony's Parochial School in Northeast Baltimore, mosaics are not just a career. They are his life.

Selecting stones for color, then cutting and shaping the tiny pieces and fitting them together to form a picture has been his passion since childhood.

Although he creates delicate shadings with different colors, like an artist using his palette, Mr. Navarria decries comparison with painters, many of whom, he said, have come to observe his work and "left with their minds boggled."

A painter can build up his picture, adding or changing details at any point -- or even give up and paint a new picture on top of the original.

"With a mosaic, unless you have a total picture of what's going to be, you're lost because nothing can be changed, added or removed," Mr. Navarria says. "Once it's set, that's it; moving one stone can change everything."

As a result, he says, "Mosaics are a frame of mind. You've got to put it in your mind and think in color. Concentration is everything; my hands follow what my mind has already picked up."

Mr. Navarria learned the ancient art from his father and grandfather, who learned it in turn from their forefathers in Florence, a center of Italian mosaic art.

"My father told me, 'You see it with your mind, you do it with your hands and you're guided by your heart,' " he says.

The childless artist said he is the last of 11 generations of mosaicists.

His father and grandfather first came to the United States in the Italian labor pool, a system by which the Italian government sends artisans abroad on contracts for special projects, particularly public buildings. In Italy, the craftsmen decorate churches at no charge to win recommendations for inclusion in the labor pool, which still operates.

'The art is dead'

Mosaic art is still taught at a centuries-old school in Florence, but no American school teaches the skill, Mr. Navarria said. He said there are perhaps three other artisans in the country who make mosaics in the traditional way.

Mr. Navarria said he's the last in his family line. "The art is dead," he said. "I'm a dinosaur, a reflection of the past. I'm the genes of 11 generations that just didn't die yet."

Mosaics are still made in Italy, but most are assembly-line pieces turned out in factories owned by American or Japanese conglomerates, Mr. Navarria said. He calls them "jam mosaics" and says that workers, frequently women, "jam" pieces of stone together to form one section of mosaic and smear grout to fill in the spaces. Then they pass it along to someone else to "jam" the next section.

Mr. Navarria's way is labor-intensive and time-consuming. He has crafted mosaics for schools, churches, businesses and private homes.

"They always say it's an Italian mosaic because it sounds better, but the truth is it came from Phoenix, Md.," he says.

His own home, which he built 20 years ago, is a showcase of his talent. Mosaics are on walls, floors and ceilings. Rambling designs of fruits and birds cover walls, and many of the floors are of polished marble. He lined his swimming pool with fish mosaics and installed a large circular mosaic, like a target, just below the diving board.

Jacob's Ladder represents more than three months of 18-hour days for assembly, after more months of preliminary design and preparation.

"Sometimes I come out here after dinner and work all night," he said.

With the 1,200-pound mosaic ready to be moved from his workshop to the new building, Mr. Navarria has begun to cut pieces for the next section, a circular reproduction, 8 feet in diameter, of the coat of arms of the United Grand Lodge of England.

Mr. Navarria follows the same process each time. He glues and screws sheets of marine plywood together as a base and draws the design on the wood, in this case enlarging the coat of arms many times from a small illustration on a greeting card.

Next, using a diamond-edged cutting wheel, he slices foot-square slabs of the stone chosen for the desired color into thin strips. He cuts the strips into small pieces that are washed free of dust and dried in an oven. To illustrate the importance of matching stones for color, he notes that he had to cut parts from five marble slabs to get enough pieces for Jacob's blond hair.

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