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An artist’s pilgrimage with Mary

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lr mary mosaicI’ve recently returned from a pilgrimage with Our Lady of Guadalupe. It did not involve traveling to Mexico however. Rather, it was an artistic pilgrimage that took place in the basement of my parents’ home, where for the past six years, I have worked to create a life-size paper mosaic of Our Lady. 

I inadvertently started on this journey when I was a senior studying art at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. My studio art professors encouraged us to study the works of the Old World masters, but I thought, why not study a work by the Master? I turned to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, miraculously created in 1531. Armed with what I had learned from the late professor JeanAnn Dabb’s mosaic art history class, I set out to make a mosaic of massive proportions. 

Making a mosaic out of discarded print media is similar in concept to how the first mosaics were made from pieces of broken pottery. I see it as a metaphor for how God creates beauty out of our own brokenness.

Unfortunately, the project was too ambitious for my last month of college. I only managed to complete her face before graduation. Normally, I would not have given an unfinished student project a second thought, but this was Mary. You can’t quit on Mary. Thankfully, my parents agreed. They enthusiastically helped me transform the basement into a studio, and the project was launched officially.

Working from where I left off, I drew the rest of her veil and dress, along with the angel and moon beneath her feet. For each section, I drew row upon row of paths for the tiles to follow and filled them with hundreds of squares and rectangles. Some pieces were as small as a holly berry. 

Some of the more notable paper sources were the National Geographic photo spread of the ocean that I picked up at an estate sale, the Andy Warhol calendar I found in the hall of my dorm building and many Christmas cards, wrapping paper, magazines and junk mail. A special thanks goes to the person who threw away a whole bag of paint samples in the university’s art building. One person’s trash is another person’s art treasure.

The repetition involved in assembling the mosaic could be very meditative at times. It allowed time for my mind to wander and often I found myself thinking about the colossal impact this image has had on millions of people.

Other parts of the project were more penitential. 

Applying the tiny rectangles needed for the intricate designs on Mary’s dress was so painfully tedious and slow that I was tempted, several times, to just draw over the paper tiles, instead of cutting out each one.

In retrospect, I can say that it is amazing what one can accomplish in six years — a new job, new apartment, engagement and marriage. It certainly has been a very fruitful time and Mary has been very patient.

This past summer, while expecting my first child, I put on the final piece. Shortly after my son, Stephen, was born in October, Mary was placed on the wall in my parents’ living room. She is one of the first things that is seen when entering the home.

Having now spent many hours passing by Our Lady’s image on our living room wall during walks to comfort a fussy newborn, I am convinced, all the more, of the need to make and surround ourselves with art that is both beautiful and inspiring. 

This pilgrimage has left me with a renewed appreciation for Mary’s role as a mother in my own life. It has also brought me closer to the artist behind Our Lady of Guadalupe, who, as the Master of the greatest work of art — life — chose to make each one of us his masterpiece.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018