Norquay Park 2010 Clean Water Mosaic Project

In 2010 I was invited to join Yoko Tomita, a Vancouver East comminty artist in a project that required my skills and experience in design for construction sites. As we were working together I had started posting pieces of blog to document the process. This page is dedicated to that project with all posts related to it set chronologically.

5.7.10: mosaic-art

These days I'm working with Yoko Tomita, a community artist, on the design and delegation of making mosaics for a City of Vancouver park. We started by discussing techniques and researching possibilities.
Around forty grade six kids from a local school have already created drawings of creatures related to water. The theme we are addressing is 'clean water'. We are going to create 18 mosaic pieces of a square foot surface area where tiles will be laid based on the designs we got from the school kids.
After testing with tiles and materials the first workshop will start Wednesday this week. Collingwood Neighborhood House together with a Parks Board matching fund are sponsoring this project. The plans are posted on the Vancouver website. The most prominent features of the renovated park will be a new water spray area and a basketball field.
We are also about to work on two larger mosaic pieces that will become feature decorations located at the entry to the park. Resources on the web for making mosaics are limitless. Still, as you start working on a piece, every detail involved in the creation of this form of art influences the style and quality of the finished tile. It is fascinating to see this collaboration come to life. I'm looking forward to go through the rest of the project.

12.7.10: what people will understand

The design process takes us through steps of exploring options before we start fabricating. We'd like to check grout color, both within the tile and surrounding it; seeing the proportion of a tile on site can give a sense of its impact; understanding what to expect is also helpful when working in a team with a wide variety of skill levels. The Norquay Park mosaic project is a Matching Fund operation. Anyone from the community is invited to participate in workshops designed to facilitate the fabrication of mosaic tiles. Yoko and I will later on install them on site.
The color of grout greatly affects the way a mosaic looks. In this example the exact same design of tiles is completely transformed when illustrated with three different shades of grout.
It's also useful to get a sense of how a piece might look as its surroundings age. A quick test can let us make decisions relating to priorities ranging from choice of tiles to selection of colors. Three sidewalks of different degrees of wear were shot for this spread. The image of the tile was gently manipulated to illustrate a similar process of aging.
As we are making progress with the workshops, it's useful to continue exploring some of the techniques we will be using with the public. Some would step into work without hesitation. Others will express difficulties with unexpected issues. "I'm too lazy today" I've heard on the first session. Another one can't draw. The fact that they come to this workshop by their own choice puts things in an interesting perspective. The challenge in education is in what others will understand, not what they don't.
Other tests are made on the way. Some are merely illustrations done on the computer. But it's always working with the real materials when results start to give you a tangible sense of what things will actually look like. Even then, the tools we have on the computer help in saving time, money, and resources.
Then it's time to interact with our artists - the kids and other men and women from the community. They come to have fun, but are about to create a legacy for their own neighborhood.

16.7.10: mind off; hands on. community building

You can be done with laying tiles for a small mosaic in a short one hour and a half session. When it comes to working with the community this is what most people want on the one hand. On the other, the promise to have them learn is greatly compromised this way.
The hands-on approach allows for a fulfilling experience. The trick is to turn this into a rhythmic succession of learning waves. People can then both make something with their own hands and gain pieces of knowledge through their hands. The opportunity starts with a simple "I don't know how to draw". You never know immediately what makes people say that but with patience and persistence I usually find out that the person had something else on their mind. It could be the task that wasn't to their liking or simply a way to get some attention.
It's hard to predict exactly how a broken tiles mosaic will look like. The hammer strokes randomly produce pieces that are then placed on the design in a process similar to solving a puzzle. Playing with tiles before drawing a design on paper, helps in envisioning a style. This can later on be reproduced with realistic expectations. It would be interesting to see how the image above translates into a mosaic with the broken tiles system.
The same can be said about this drawing. Two variants are the main influence upon the quality of the final piece: the skill level of your audience and each of the participants' degree of engagement.
The sense of ownership that evolves through the process is present within the group no matter what age they are. The real benefit though of this project is getting people to interact in a way that is both fun and educational. A city needs this type of community building to really serve its purpose.

24.7.10: leather based concrete

This week marked a shift in the process of creating mosaics with our community. Technically, we learned how to lay tiles in a way that is both simple and insightful. Socially, this method allows us to better engage with our public. It all started with what looked like a brief encounter with two local mosaic artists, Liz Calvin and Bruce Walther. They are both separately making mosaic pieces and have collaborated in a Downtown Vancouver project.
Concrete on mesh can be cut with scissors
Both were friendly on the phone and provided valuable information that seemed quite a lot and sufficient for any good start of mosaic tile creation. This was a few weeks ago when Yoko and I were experimenting with methods to teach at our workshops. After quickly meeting with Bruce at the New Westminster Fraser Festival I went on to meet Liz in her studio.
Colored concrete is a world of exploration
My own joy of sharing information comes from practical realization that this is one of the stepping stones for our shared success as a society. What I've experienced in my meeting with Liz was something like a hurricane of generosity. Not only did she share information but she also provided us with tiles, materials and tools that are probably equal to doubling our budget for this part of the project. Not enough thanks can be expressed for such an attitude.
Soon to be seen in Norquay Park, Vancouver BC
Meanwhile, in our workshops we gradually feel the growing interest among our visitors, who step into the room and around the tables with curiosity. They start with struggling to fit broken tiles side by side. As Yoko and I guide them through the process, their results begin to show nice little expressions of art. Some of them already show the glimmer of enthusiasm at the side of their eyes. They end their session with an eagerness do to more. I'm looking forward to the tiles we are about to create in the next little while.

2.8.10: learning is one thing. implementing is another.

Facilitating a Matching Fund workshop is a constant process of learning. Whoever joins us for an hour or a few sessions has unique skills, expectations and interests. For us that means we need to be many things to many people. How to do this changes from day to day. 
Yoko on the left with the Renfrew Community Center youth group
Yoko and I are working as a team since we met less than two months ago. I'm really happy with how well we get along. Each of us learns from the other and we both manage to review our process and make decisions following each discussion. Whatever we go through in a workshop generates insights into the steps ahead. This is how we find ways of transferring our knowledge and experience to our audience.
Placing tile fragments on paper is a quick way to feel the process of mosaic creation
The differences between kids and adults are noticeable in terms of ability to concentrate, understanding of language and amount of energy. What I've noticed as similarities is a generality that I'm taking as fact and nothing more. It is an impression that is followed by change that brings me at the end of a process to re-assess my own perception: Most of our visitors start with hardly any ability to imagine what they'd like to create. Through our guidance and leadership a gradual change is taking place in front of our eyes.
One person creates a design. Another lays tiles. Some of our results are thoroughly collaborative
We need that change to happen if we want to generate results that reflect our capabilities. There is no question in our own ability to produce mosaic tiles that people can appreciate. The challenge is in helping our audience succeed in making similar, high quality results we would like to see in the renovated Norquay Park. In itself, this aspiration raises questions over issues relating to art, quality, and authority. It also raises questions over how far we can go within the structure of the Matching Fund.
From a crude freestyle laying start, we moved on to fine details and attentive focus
To judge by where we are at in this collaboration, we have gone very far. We intend to continue improving on that.

13.8.10: community art

When we will look at the process we are going through these days in twenty years, what we will see is a result. The beauty of a fine process is that it can be seen in a result you enjoy looking at many years later. Our ingredients for this are planning, right team and leadership. From how things look up to now we are on the right track.
This week the two first mosaic pieces were completed. Finishing a high quality 1 square foot tile requires more than a two hour workshop session that we schedule weekly for our groups. Instead of waiting with each tile to be completed by the same person who started it, we moved some of them between groups to add pieces to the partially laid surface. This helped in two fronts: finishing tiles quickly without haste and generating a true sense of communal collaboration. 
We got to a point where one of our biggest challenges is people getting excited and engaged. Usually they just put too little mortar on a tile or lay them so that nothing seems to resemble the intended image. Add genuine interest and you can end up with a bunch of small disasters that no one knows exactly what to do with. This is where leadership comes in handy. We have great leaders helping us in guiding youth in one group. The group of adults seems to understand the need to consult our guidance. Our own leadership is then a matter of balancing between keeping a sense of interest in the work and sensitivity to each person contributing their time and energy to this project.
The demolition of the park that started a short while ago is now transitioning into pockets of construction. By the end of this month we might even see some concrete paths being poured. In those paths we will have recesses to accommodate our tiles. Although there's still a lot of work ahead of us, completion feels very close. 

28.8.10: commitment

My perception of the urban environment as a tool for the use of human society brought me to engage with this project. Eighteen water drop shaped pieces are planned for the pathways and two circular mosaic pieces will mark the entry to the park. The collaboration between planning parties is the driving force behind proper urban management. The result can turn into great living conditions.
How does this relate to making mosaics with the public? When we work on laying each small piece of broken ceramic onto the surface of our concrete base, a personal story unfolds. That story will be viewed by other people who visit the park. They will have a chance to go through a journey into their imagination while walking along the pathways. Already I've had the opportunity to notice the many interpretations some of our finished pieces excite.
The light gray areas mark the surfaces where the mosaic tiles will be placed. Click the image to zoom in and see the placements for the mosaic tiles.
The architects have a job to do in designing this park. The builders are in charge of putting it in place. When construction is done, it is the public that will be there to live with the results. Having members of the community participate in putting a piece of their lives into the park is a neat way of tying the ends. Our taxes go into paying for this development. Our hands are still there to be part of building it. It's like baking your own cake instead of buying it in the grocery store.
These forms will be sunk flush into the concrete surface. The resulting recesses will house the mosaic tiles.
As simple as making mosaics can be, the fact that they are going to be part of public space requires a degree of coordination that I find intriguing. Each party has a role to perform. By working together the process promotes an opportunity to make the most out of collaboration. Having a community arts project as part of this maintains a balance between the professional and the personal.
making sense of it all.

3.10.10: the best you can

Urban design might sound like a field that deals with inanimate components of the city: spaces, buildings, roads and other built environments. One of the reasons I've joined the certificate program in SFU is my perception of the urban as an extension of the human, physically and socially. I'm happy to find the SFU Urban Design program delivering an approach that runs along a similar line.
The plywood board is later taken away and leaves a recess
where the tile will be installed
The mosaic workshops are wrapping up to their final days of fabricating pieces. Soon we will start installing them in Norquay Park. Most of the concrete that will house our tiles has recently been poured. Each mosaic piece, as an inanimate illustration of water related creatures, is also a reflection of a person or people who created it. We've had school kids, teenagers, adults and seniors participating in this project. I've had the fortune of following some of them go through an inspiring creative process.
The story behind each tile is personal as well as artistic
There are many ways to work on the things you are currently busy with. There is only one way that I can consider to be right: doing the best you can. This is a decision that is inherently an attitude. As soon as you reach that decision, your work is pretty easy. From there you can only improve.
Some of the more compelling results come from challenges
like this somewhat messy start
Guiding people to embrace this attitude is a challenge I wasn't fully aware of getting into before joining this project. I am now looking at our finished mosaics and can't wait to see them in place. Whether it was an hour that some spent with us or a few months that others labored, each brought a piece of their own life into this. The story of each tile starts with an image anyone can see and extends to the world of the people who created it.
Grouting will probably bring this tile
to an even better expression of art.
Urban design deals with the built world and is concerned with us, living its story.

30.10.10: weather or not

Looking back at the process we went through I see that I can now afford to be a bit more personal. This month felt like a marathon. Giora and Irit, Anat's parents, my in-laws, were with us for two weeks on a visit from Israel. I was interested in reaching the final mosaic making session with as many of the tiles we needed finished. There was also an application package I was working on that needed to be sent. I had two weekends of this month dedicated to the Urban Design classes in SFU. In normal conditions this would have been busy but manageable. Even the weekend in Silverdale, near Seattle was a welcome break from routine.
Great sunny days on the weekend in Silverdale
At the end of that weekend we drove back to Vancouver to start the week. Anat's parents stayed in Washington for a few more days before joining us and leaving back to Israel. I had a few last touches on the mosaic pieces to make them ready for installation. The whole visit was turning into a great familial update with Inbal, our daughter, getting a lot of attention from her gramps.
Inbal enjoying the play, Saba enjoying his grand daughter and the Richmond ice rink
On the first day of gramps enjoying the scenery of Mount Rainier, Irit broke her knee cap . This is one of those minor injuries that change your life in an instant and not for the better. In normal conditions she would have been operated in Washington and started rehabilitation. Being visitors in Canada with a flight back to Israel scheduled just a few days later introduced a whole set of considerations into the matter.
A short while before the accident as shot by Giora
As soon as Saba and Savta (Grandpa and Grandma) were back in Vancouver we started preparing for their flight to Israel. Rehabilitation is the most intensive component of treatment for this type of injury. An operation can be delayed for a few days without harm. Tickets needed to be changed, insurance issues were resolved and an operation had to be scheduled as soon as they landed in Israel.
Inspired by the occasion
At dinner of their last evening with us we raised glasses of wine for the admirable way Giora has managed the faxes, emails and phone calls. I complained that my desire to help wasn't fulfilled. To be honest, my in-law's independence allowed me to continue my daily activities with very little if any disruptions. No one wishes to enhance their lives with accidents and hardship. Still, whatever happens to you is part of your life. A day after landing in Israel Irit's knee cap was restructured. A day later she started walking again.
A short while before the concrete was poured
Our mosaics are waiting for a few days without rain to be laid and grouted. Vancouver weather is part of our life...

26.11.10: always longer than you expect

The concrete was hard enough to step and jump on three days after it was poured. What you don’t see at that stage is the process of curing it goes though that takes about a month. Within that time it’s better not to lay our mosaic tiles in their recesses. Waiting for the concrete slab to cure allows adhesion with the mortar for the mosaic tiles to build up properly.

The plywood board is easily extracted from the recess. An unwelcome puddle of water is exposed underneath.
By the time we could start it was already the end of October. A day or two of rain, and we need to wait. A few days of sunshine and it becomes colder. Proper setting of our mortar is sensitive to moisture and low temperatures. With the first tile we had started laying we realized that the opportunity was slipping away. The rest of the job will have to wait until spring.
A peanut buttery feel to the mix feels good and is a suitable consistency.
Each tile will have a stained concrete band that is our choice for transition between the mosaic image and its surrounding gray paving. In order to achieve a clean line we need to fine tune our method of applying the stained concrete into the gap.
We surround the mosaic tile with a strip of masking taped cardboard to leave room for the grout between the tile and the concrete band.
When we grout this piece we will also have a chance to see what other techniques we have to implement. This is a technically easy stage but it needs the same attention to details as we’ve invested in the process up to now. Grouting can drastically alter the appearance of a mosaic tile. If that happens we’d like it to be for the better. This is why I always tell people and try to remember myself: It always takes longer than you expect.

19.3.11: are-we-there-yet?

The park is slowly being completed. We’ve been away for the cold and wet winter. The forecast for excessive snow was mostly true for regions north of Vancouver. A few days after starting with the first piece though it did snow and from then on the weather kept playing between low temperatures and wet days.
A night walk in December. There wasn’t a lot of
snow this year but it was cold enough to prevent installation.
Yoko and I tried to stick to working together so that we learn from each other as much as possible. Until now it worked vey well. This week Yoko flied to Japan for a family visit. It is too early to conclude the degree of destruction following the earth quake a week ago. Nevertheless this is a moment in history that puts our lives into a grim perspective.
An aerial view of tsunami damage in the Tōhoku region.
From the first tile installed in October of last year we saw that the stained mortar band needs to be applied differently. If any of it rubs out onto the path surrounding the recess we are bound to spend more time and effort cleaning the mess. The solution is quite easy in theory: apply the paste carefully. In reality it was relatively easy but still challenging. A combination of cold weather, wet concrete path and crouching down to work were found to be a nice workout.
Into a one inch wide gap the mortar is applied in small amounts to
gradually create our desired band.
There is no way we can rush things even though we want to. As we move into spring more days are available to work on installation. The world around us is shaking in multiple directions. I think it’s a matter of re-imagining the excitement from last year that will help us shift gears. This is still a celebration of life.
Even with this impressive display of process the
grouting stage is still ahead of us.

1.4.11: engagement

I was halfway through a mosaic laying workshop discussing the fascinating aspects of creating a story through one by one laying of tiles on the concrete surface. As part of my routine I turned to one of the kids and asked him: “what’s the story in your tile?” His response illustrated exactly what Yoko had described as the challenge of working with youth: “whatever…” he said with the most lifeless look on his face.
They’re bored; they’re all over the place; they always want to do something other than what you were committed to deliver. “How do you spell whatever?!” I asked him with surprising breathless enthusiasm. In retrospect I couldn’t really explain where my outburst came from. His response was “aahm, doubleyoo, ‘H’, ‘A’…, whatever…”. So I had to conclude with “Good Job! I almost got you there!”.
Putting this experience in writing reminds me that face to face communications lives in a different universe than that of letters and text. In the written space, texting, typing or messaging have a life of their own. Whoever the recipient might be, my words arrive at the other side without facial expressions and no sounds. I can send an innocent “What’s up?” to my sister and hear the explosions from the other side of the world in a matter of minutes. Or never hear from her ever again.
Sometimes every breath we take is loaded with food for interpretations. When I was a teenager I had realized that no matter what I do or say there is always someone who will be upset. My conclusion was to do whatever felt right to me. If any explanations will be needed afterwards, so be it. You have to trust your own intentions.
Communications can be an adventure. There are people who prefer to avoid confrontation. I can envy them for their choice of calm and composure. Most of the time my patience is that of an educator. Occasionally though I feel like it is that of a rebel: why should I wait till tomorrow for the action that could have been taken yesterday?! But people need their own time to join a "revolution". Put the wrong pressure and something will break. Fixing what went wrong then takes place instead of any sense of progress. Without prior intentions I become a rescue expedition to outer space.
The mosaic workshops were mostly grounded in and around community centers. No extraterrestrial adventures here. The boy who got the attention he needed continued to work on his tile with a new sense of commitment. Whatever he texted to his friends afterwards I have no idea…

21.4.11: stepping-stones

The block on Kingsway between Wales and Rhodes streets has light pedestrian traffic. As we are installing the last mosaic pieces in the two entries to the park the protective fence is still there. Norquay Park has been a construction zone since July of last year. The few people that pass by either slow down beside us or stop.
They are all curious as to when the park will be open again. They also notice the mosaic pieces and seem impressed with their beauty. Along the progress with installation we’ve gradually been able to get the sense of significance this project has in the upgraded park. The entry pieces have a good impact as gate decorations.
The history of Still Creek is one in many similar stories of urban industrialization, reflection and rehabilitation. Today the Vancouver part of the creek is still mostly hidden in underground pipes or behind chain link fences. From its designation as the most polluted stream in BC in the 1980s, much progress has been made and much more is required. Serious work has been taken to bring it back to a liveable natural element in urban space. The Norquay Park 2010 Clean Water Mosaic project is one stepping stone in a long educational journey.
Funding for our part of the journey came from the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, the Vancouver Neighborhood Matching Fund and Collingwood Neighborhood House. The intention of this collaboration between budgetary resources is to facilitate community interaction. Participation in the building process of the park enhances the sense of ownership over the neighbourhood.
Members in the community were brought together to create a visual reminder for all to enjoy. Twenty pieces were created in this process and are now integrated in the concrete sections of the paths in the park. After entering either from its west or east entries you are welcome to explore the park and find the other mosaic pieces. All of them are a result of many hours shared by community members who participated in our workshops. It is our pleasure to thank them all, seniors, adults and youth for their contribution.
Installing our mosaics provided us with the opportunity to work closely with the architects and builders who were responsible for the function of the park. The result of their work is a fabulous space with a great sense of place.
The conclusion of this project brings me back to its starting point. In the research for mosaic making we met Liz Calvin and Bruce Walther. These two mosaic artists’ work can be seen in many places around and out of town. Without their generosity this project would have looked completely different. A sample of their collaboration can be seen in Downtown Vancouver where a set of eighteen pieces are placed.
Many more contacts were made throughout the process. Yoko and I are grateful to all who helped us get to this stage. Our own collaboration started with mutual interest in this experience and ends with excitement over the accomplishment. Just like the small pieces of a mosaic tile tell a story, the whole set of twenty expands this into space and time. This is a reflection on industrialization and rehabilitation.

11.07.11: the-official-opening
The park has been open to the public for about a month now. The upgrade seems to be a huge success based on the amount of people clamoring its features. Despite the coldish summer many even dare the sprinkles of the water spray area.
An official opening event is scheduled for Wednesday July 20th 4:30 pm. I'm curious to see what that will look like.

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