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VO L U M E 8


The Journal of the best in Victorian, modern and contemporar y mosaic



The Art of Community Transformation Monumental Mosaic Murals in Chile Nancie Mills Pipgras “When it is in the streets, art belongs to everyone.” Isidora Paz López


his is a story about transformation; the story of how one man’s vision to instill a renewed sense of pride in his community’s natural treasures and rich cultural heritage sparked a project that would become one of the largest public art projects in South America. This is the story of how 4,000 square meters of drab, graffiti-covered concrete was transformed into a glittering, shimmering outdoor natural history museum that educates and inspires a population.  This is the story of how one artist’s passion, audacity and ingenuity made this stunning transformation happen in just 23 months and how, in the process, she herself was transformed. This is the story of Manuel José Ossandon, the mosaics of Puente Alto and Isidora Paz López.

Puente Alto, a city over half a million, sits at the base of the Andes and is the southern-most suburb of Santiago, the capital of Chile. In 2011, as Mayor Manuel José Ossandon was nearing the end of his third and final term in office, he determined that he wanted to leave behind a gift to the community – something big, something bold, something that would be a permanent, daily reminder of what makes Puente Alto special. His eye went to the Elisa Correa metro station – a ponderous, utilitarian hunk of dark concrete that was often slathered with graffiti and promotional posters.  Elisa Correa was many visitors’ first impression of Puente Alto and the mayor knew that it wasn’t a good one. Ossandon’s time as mayor had been

2. Puente Alto Station. Andes Sunrise, 2011. Mural, 130 Sq.m. Design: Isidora Paz López. Top: Isidora Paz López by one of the pillars supporting the Puente Alto metro line. Photo: Chris Lukhaup.

3. Andes Sunrise, detail.

Showing the ‘special cuts’: 4. head of woodpecker, pillar detail.

The Art of Community Transformation


Showing the ‘special cuts’: 5. Pelt of wolf and background; detail, lower frieze, Trinchera wall.

noteworthy for a number of civic improvements including a new sports stadium. It was there he first met López who had been hired to embellish the stadium’s entrance with mosaic. Ossandon liked these mosaics. They were colourful, permanent, easy to clean and the people enjoyed them. What, he asked López, might she do with Elisa Correa? López looked no further than the beauty of the Chilean landscape for inspiration. One side of Elisa Correa, she proposed, would show the majestic Andes Mountains at sunrise, the other those same peaks at sunset. Ossandon was delighted with the idea. López’ desire to “wake up!” the people of Puente Alto to the natural beauty around them matched his own long-held goal of instilling pride in the community.  Thus began what would become the largest contiguous public art project in Chile’s history and the largest mosaic project in South America – 4,000 square metres across three metro stations, 83 track support pillars and kilometers of concrete wall lining the tracks. It was the first time that mosaic was used to embellish metro stations and it employed over one hundred artists for almost two years. The mosaics would come to educate, inspire and unite the community they represented; and, the project would be led by a woman who had absolutely no formal training in the art. 

Destiny Trumps Training Isidora Paz López is a 38 year old sculptor, ceramicist, visionary, wife and mother of two. A graduate of the University of Chile (1999), López is the third generation in her family to pursue a career in art. After graduation, she established her own successful atelier, teaching and exhibiting her raku pottery sculptures and decorative objects. When López took the sports stadium commission, mosaic was something entirely new for her (there is no formal mosaic training in Chile), but the artist was intrigued and undaunted. She never anticipated the impact that first project would have on her life.   “When I got the chance to start my first mosaic project, my notion of mosaic was very basic, but I took the challenge” she says. “Once that project was finished, I knew I wanted to continue exploring the mosaic technique and to continue making public art that would bring life and hope to a community.  It was two very strong revelations that came to me at the same time and the feeling was so strong that I could see it as my destiny.” Destiny trumped training and, in the end, López’ lack of mosaic experience turned out to be of little consequence. In fact, one could say her lack of knowledge about mosaic traditions,   combined with her passion, chutzpah and natural gift for leadership, freed her up to make the impossible possible.



6-14. Puente Alto track-supporting pillars. A natural history museum in mosaic.

The Art of Community Transformation


Above: 15, 16. Pillar Process. Stages: inspirational photos; drawing; execution of principal figures. Right: 17. Pillar Process: background.

In the very nature of the work to be done, Artistic Director López tackled all of the same problems that the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines mosaic makers faced. Her solutions to the issues of design, process, time constraints, availability of materials and project management were ingenious and often mirrored ancient practices.    A Natural History Museum in Mosaic   When completed, the elegant vistas of the Andes Mountains on the walls of the Elisa Correa station were enthusiastically embraced by the community.   López and the team of eight artists she had recruited from the University of Chile had created a sensation. Encouraged, Ossadon turned to López with a new challenge – to cover the 83 pillars that supported the metro’s tracks – 2,500 square meters of concrete – in just 12 months.  At first, the artist was daunted by the scope and deadline.  “Impossible!” she told the mayor, “Too ambitious!”   But, once again, she was driven to create something that would inspire the people of Puente Alto to appreciate their heritage – this time she would create an outdoor natural history museum. “In Chile” says the artist, “there really are no books or guides to the amazing nature around us. I created the concept of showcasing the flora and fauna of our region where the people of Puente Alto would see them every day.  There would be images of all sorts of animal, insect and plant life and at the bottom

of each pillar would be the scientific and common names for each species so that the project would be an educational contribution to the community as well.” López quickly expanded her team to a total of 32 artists all of whom became immediately engaged in the project. “I have so much admiration for the artists I am working with”, she wrote in the midst of the Pillars Project. “They are making the mosaics with so much love that we are taking more time than we expect with every one. The challenge is to do it the most fantastic and efficient way that we can.” The pillars of Puente Alto are indeed fantastic – alive with a vibrancy and joy that is captivating. Insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, flowers, herbs, cacti – the large the small, the intimidating the adorable – all are represented in a distinctive graphic style that is born from a passionate commitment to create the most beautiful representations of the subject matter possible within a specific set of limitations.   Visual Harmony and Design Efficiency Even while the surface of all of the pillars is quite smooth, the colour palette limited to available industrial grade tile, the only tools used standard hand-held tile nippers, all of the work done on-site and the timeframe for completion ridiculously short –  there is nothing cartoonish about these columns.  The eye reads texture, depth, shading, form; they are accurate and powerful representations



of Puente Alto’s living treasures. What was learned in creating the pillars served as the aesthetic and procedural norms for completing the 4,000 kilometre-long cohesive body of work; how this was done follows. – Each pillar has the same number of coloured ‘bands’ running from top to bottom in like proportions using similar colours: a blue, a green, a brown/ochre. When possible, small bits of a second, corresponding colour of tile were worked into these large colour fields, creating a greater sense of depth. Thus, each pillar is a part of a whole and there are no visual non sequiters as one looks down the line of them.  – A special ‘language’, as López calls it, was developed to describe a limited number of cuts to be used in each central figure. These included “feathers, scales, amoeba, circles, strips, pizza slices and squares”. Again, with the repetition of these smaller elements came continuity and harmony.  Equally important, this language of codified shapes would prove to be critical to designing striking mosaics full of detail that could both be produced quickly and make efficient use of available materials. Beyond their obvious beauty there is a surprising visual unity in these 83 individual pillars, each of which contains multiple images. Where there could have been visual cacophony there is instead a splendid harmony. This is because López and her team quickly developed their own set of ‘rules’ that drove every design decision.   – The central figures of each pillar are outlined with a thick black line of black grout – a sort of optic ‘pop’ – that separates them from the patterned  background.  Ancient Roman mosaicists achieved the same visual goal by outlining main elements with a row of tesserae that follow and emphasise the form. – Proportions for how a central figure sat within a background were also codified; the ant takes up the same amount of space on its pillar as the woodpecker and the frog do on theirs. – A limited colour palette – initially the simple a matter of which tiles were available in the quantities required for the pillars – was agreed upon and adhered to even when more options became available. Even with this set of rules, there was

always room for new thinking. “Of course”, López says, “like in all art, there was space for improvisation, but with these mosaics, it was very important to us to align with the previous visualizations.”   Work Dynamics Develop   López and her crew quickly developed a dynamic for working together that, not surprisingly, closely echoed what we know about the way Roman mosaic teams were organized. López stated in 2012:  “Everything about this project is an experiment –­ a school on the street. We learn as we worked. Now, in teams, we are four groups:  The Artists who make the designs and execute the principal figures in the mosaics; the Helpers who work alongside the Artists in creating the principal figures; the Background Group, most of whom are students, who fill in the solid colours; and finally, the Grouting Group.” One could easily think of the Artist as the modern day counterpart of the  pictor imaginarius  listed in Diocletian’s Edictum de Pretiis  (Edict on Maximum Prices, AD 301), probably the person responsible for designing and painting the cartoon for a mosaic. Likewise, the Chilean Helper’s role was no different from Diocletian’s musearius, the worker who executed the finer mosaics and the Background worker corresponds to the tessellarius  who did the ‘plain’ work of Roman pavements. (Katherine Dunbabin, Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World, CU Press, 1999.) The work on each pillar began with a photograph, sometimes one taken by López’ husband, German naturalist and photographer Chris Lukhaup; the pillar was then assigned to an individual Artist who was called the ‘Head of The Pillar’. He/she was responsible for the final agreed-upon design and for managing the team of four to six people who comprised the Pillar Team.  The work on the pillars is so fine, so exacting, it is difficult to believe that everything was done on site – sun, rain or snow. The teams worked five days a week, six hours a day and each pillar took approximately two weeks to complete. López is quick to credit her core group of

The Art of Community Transformation

18. 19. Sótero del Rio station, details. “…trying to create a space of peace and healing.”.




20. Trinchera wall (overall 80m), 2013, detail. A ranch from the 1800s. Designers: Sebastian Garretón and Isidora López. Drawing: Claudio Gacitúa.

Artists and Heads of Pillars – Claudio Gacitúa, Carolina González, Paulo Meyer, Javiera Melo, Hector Velozo, Alejandra Guzmán, Valeria Merino, Gonzalo San Martin, Sebastián Garretón and Francisco González, – for their passionate devotion to the project and constant drive for innovation and artistic excellence. “We work as one”, she says. The City itself provided significant manpower to the project. Municipal cleaning crews helped prepare the pillars for the artists – power washing them and removing all the graffiti. City personnel helped with the transportation of heavy materials and provided security; they also worked behind the scenes handling contracts, procurement of materials and payment of the artists. Says López: “We couldn’t have done it without them.”   Two More Stations and a Wall   Even before the Pillars Project was completed the public response was so positive and so strong that López was approached by Ossandon to begin work on the next station on the metro line:   Hospital Sótero del Rio. But, there was a catch to this new assignment: the work would need to be completed within

the same deadline as the pillars – November 1st, Election Day 2012 – which marked the end of Ossandon’s final term as mayor. López geared up once again and now 60 artists were under her direction, the experienced teaching the newcomers on the job. Even with this new infusion of talent, the goal was missed by several weeks, but an astonishing total of 3,100 square meters of mosaic was completed by the end of December 2012. For the Sótero del Rio station, López was inspired by the people who use this stop to get to the nearby public hospital.  The imagery includes a lovely stream flowing past orchards and forests vibrant with the colours of Fall. “There is a lot of traffic in this station – people going to and from the hospital – and most of the time, they are very sad.  We decided to take a deeper look into the mountains and their waters, trying to create a space of peace and healing.  Recently, an ancient bridge hundreds of years old was discovered.  We included it as a symbol of the passage from life to death – the light at the end of the tunnel.”  In Sótero del Rio, López began her visual homage to Puente Alto’s human history.  This continued with the third station, Protectora de la Infancia, which references the town’s

The Art of Community Transformation


21. Trinchera. The Mapuche Machi (shaman).

agricultural heritage and an important local charity, The House of Orphans. Begun by a group of nuns over 100 years ago, the charity provides for the welfare and education of children in need. The final stretch of metro mosaics, completed in 2013, is a long cement wall called the Trinchera that follows the metro as it goes above ground. López devoted the first portion of the Trinchera to icons of Puente Alto’s social history. Among these are the area’s first railroad, a ranch from the 1800s, a mariachi band, and the city’s coat of arms. It was the inclusion of imagery of the indigenous Mapuche Indian population in the Trinchera design that marked another transformation point for López. “This wall was not completed when the Mapuche community came to us and asked us to design a wall for them. They had an interest to be represented in this project. We said, ‘Yeah, okay, if Puente Alto really is the district of Santiago with the largest Mapuche community, we should do it.’ One day, the Machi (shaman) came with her family and was thankful, moved, very emotional. And

we have received a huge amount of comments that make this wall the one with the greatest public response. This wall, something that could have been polemical, has instead become a very great experience for us. It was the first time we integrated the requests and inquiry of the community in what we did. This design now makes more sense for the public because they can see us honoring their roots. When people can see themselves in art, it is more than just a nice thing to look at, it becomes a transcendental experience.” The second portion of the Trinchera is an underwater wonderland showcasing the aquatic fauna of the Maipo River that flows through Puente Alto on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Here are trout and crustaceans, snails and shellfish – all so vividly captured that the walls seem alive with movement. Transformation

The response to this monumental public art project has been tremendous. While the teams were working, residents regularly stopped by



22, 23. Trinchera. “… an underwater wonderland…” Fauna of the Maipo River.

The Art of Community Transformation

to check on their progress and comment on how beautiful the mosaics were. Some, like Maria Cristina Soto, were even inspired to gather shards from the worksites to create mosaics that now adorn the outside of their own homes. The Municipality of Puente Alto has adopted mosaic as a major point of identity; the home page for the city’s website uses mosaic graphics and the town’s logo has been adapted to include mosaic lines. A town once discounted as being a ‘poor relation’ to Santiago now has a point of pride in kilometers of world-class public art; it is quickly becoming a mecca for mosaic lovers. López says: “The results of the project absolutely exceeded our original expectations. We never imagined that this work could change the identity of the community and make the people proud to live in Puente Alto.  The effect is amazing! I get emotional when I see that some of the houses now have walls filled with mosaic.  It is visual therapy. Because of this, the new mayor, German Codina, wants to continue with more mosaic projects and continue to invest in urban art that will improve the life of the town. There is creative inspiration that will never stop!  It is wonderful!” A woman on fire for the possibilities that mosaic has as an agent for community transformation on a global basis, López’ next project is the 1st International Mosaik Intervention scheduled for January 2014.   Puente Alto is commissioning sixty mosaic artists from around the world to mosaic a large portion of the exterior of the Town Hall.  Participating artists selected by López will be paid a stipend of $1,000 (US) and each will be hosted by a resident of Puente Alto who will work closely with them for the entirety of the two-week project. “We want to bring these artists together with their individual styles and different cultures to show the world the amazing unifying force that art can be to a community”, says López. Like everything else that López has done, the concept for this event is unprecedented, audacious, passion-inspired and deeply rooted in the belief that art can transform. It will happen and much, much more than the walls of the Town Hall will be changed forever.


RESOURCES To learn more about Isidora Paz López and the mosaics of Puente Alto: Facebook Page: facebook.com/isidorapazlopez Video: Urban Mosaic Intervention:  http://tinyurl.com/ n6d3869 Video: Isidora Paz López at the BAMM 2013 Forum:   http://tinyurl.com/kt8tp7e  (includes Urban Mosaic Intervention video) mosaicartnow.com:  Search word ‘Isidora’ http://www.mosaicartnow.com/2013/03/update-fromthe-mosaic-mecca-of-south-america-puente-altoisidora-paz-lopez/

 ILLUSTRATIONS All photos: Isidora Paz López and Chris Lukhaup.

24. Maria Cristina Soto outside the home she transformed with mosaic.








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1. Elissa Correa station, Puente Alto, Chile. Andes Sunset; completed mural : 130sq.m. 2. Sótero del Rio station: mosaic team at work on the river scene. 3. Team at the Puente Alto city emblem. 4. Working on the pillars that support the metro track. 5. Pillar team at work. 6. Isidora at work on the dragonfly pillar. 7. Former Mayor Manuel José Ossandon and Isidora Paz López at Trinchera. 8. Sótero del Rio: The ancient bridge, a symbol of the passage between life and death. Back Cover, Upper: Elaine M. Goodwin, Chemassiatt II, 2008. Photo: John Melville. Centre: St George’s church, Jesmond, (Newcastle on Tyne), the Apostolic Procession, chancel south side. L-R: Peter, Andrew, James the Great, John, Philip, Bartholomew. 1889. Design: C.W. Mitchell; execution: Messrs Rust & Co. Photo: Neil Moat. Lower: St George’s church, Jesmond, (Newcastle on Tyne), the ornamental frieze below the clerestory string-course, south side, 1889. Designed by the architect T.R.Spence, execution Messrs Rust & Co. Photo: Neil Moat.

Profile for Mosaic Art Now

The Art of Community Transformation: The monumental mosaics murals of Isidora Paz Lopéz  

This is the story of how 4,000 square meters of drab, graffiti-covered concrete was transformed into a glittering outdoor natural history mu...

The Art of Community Transformation: The monumental mosaics murals of Isidora Paz Lopéz  

This is the story of how 4,000 square meters of drab, graffiti-covered concrete was transformed into a glittering outdoor natural history mu...