Dimitra Colomvakou – Keeping a 4000-Year-Old Heritage Alive

Dimitra Colomvakou

Dimitra Colomvakou is an immensely talented artist who through her passion, patience and dedication has succeeded in creating some of the most beautiful mosaic art in Greece. Dimitra, who is of Canadian descent has the remarkable ability to take loose pebbles and turn them into extraordinary decorative pavings that can adorn gardens, courtyards and paths. Here in a fascinating interview, Dimitra, explains how her love of Greek culture prompted her to learn arts and crafts that had their roots in the Greek cultural background and how she was inspired to revive this ancient art form.

Dimitra, tell me about growing up in Canada, your family and then leaving to come to Greece? How did you feel? Do you miss Canada?

I was born, raised and educated in Canada. I am the eldest daughter of three girls. My family ran a chain of restaurants and steak houses and I grew up believing that “if you don’t work hard to get ahead, no one is going to do it for you.” I worked for law firms as a para-legal for 15 years and realized that making money is not so important in life. I wanted a simplified and slower lifestyle, I wanted to live and feel the environment of where my family roots came from. That’s when I came up with the idea to open my wings and take a risk. So, I took a leave of absence in 1996 and came to Greece. I have been living in a small village called ‘Xirokambi’ just 15 minutes south of Sparta ever since. I realized that if you don’t take leaps in life, if you don’t broaden your horizons, it can be quite boring. My only concern was “if my life was so great here in Toronto, why did I want to live in Greece”. I was torn, but something kept nagging me to go back to my roots, that’s where I belong.”
I truly miss Canada, because that’s where I grew up. I have lovely memories as a child and everytime I see pictures of Toronto, I get all teary-eyed.

Dimitra, I know that ‘Mosaic’ is the art of creating images by the assembling of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials and that it was the Greeks who invented this decorative technique and then passed their skills on to the Romans. I believe, Mosaic can be traced back as far as four thousand years BC, where it was found in places like Mesopotamia, Corinth and Tarsus. But, what else can you tell me about this ancient art form?

Greek mosaics were originally made for practical purposes, but beauty also played an important role. Mosaics were used as flooring, to decorate fountains and garden paths, and to decorate and reinforce columns, stairs and walls. Mosaics were also used in ceilings of churches and other important buildings.
Pebble mosaics were made everywhere in the world, in countries like Spain, China, Italy and Portugal. In fact, wherever there was a beach or river bank with pebbles.
The Chinese have parks with pebbled mosaic foot paths where they can walk barefoot, and of course this is very therapeutic because it’s reflexology.

Why did you become interested in it and how long have you been an artist?

I became interested in it because I liked the look of mosaics, the texture, the movement. Also I love the look of old world charm and of course because of the connection to the Greek culture. I was very much inspired by seeing the work of ancient craftsmen.
As I child, I thought Canadian History was boring. Greek History is much more interesting. I loved archaeology and architecture and although I never considered taking my studies in those fields, I believe that this is why I am doing pebble mosaics now. It has a lot to do with what the ancient Greeks created and the architecture.
I believe we are all artists, some of us recognize our talents and start creating from the soul which I believe is the best way to start. I had been making mosaics as a hobby for 20 years with broken ceramic tiles, colored glass and marble. It wasn’t until 7 years ago, that I discovered pebble mosaics which I have continued professionally until today.

Who taught you to mosaic? Is it easy to master?

I am a self taught artist and I learned to mosaic through books, the internet, studying other mosaic works of art and of course making lots and lots of mosaics. It is not easy to master, but if you love what you do, you see your mistakes as you go along and you get better at it. This type of work is tedious and needs lots of patience. However, I don’t see it that way. When I make my mosaics, I go into my own world and forget where I am. It’s very therapeutic.
I learned how to make pebble mosaics with the upside down technique from my mentor, Maggy Howarth from England. She has taught me everything I know, from her books, DVD’s and her valuable advice.

What is your favorite mosaic tessarae to work with? Do you prefer to work only with pebbles?

I exclusively work with pebbles now. I love the smooth feel of the pebbles and at the same time the texture when placed in the mosaic.

What is your process like for coming up with and designing mosaics?

I draw a bold design to scale, deciding on what colour pebbles to use, blowing it up to the desired size, making a wooden mold and start following the pattern by placing each pebble upright on the design and brushing sand up against it so that it stays upright. I continue this until the entire mold is finished. Then, I pour a grout and then, the mortar. Once the cement is cured, I remove the wooden mold, turn over the mosaic (which is the right side up) and brush off the sand and voila…., the mosaic piece is ready. Unfortunately, I cannot change or correct anything after that.

Do you visualize your mosaic before creating it?

Most of the time, I visualize my mosaic before creating it but sometimes, in between custom made orders, I start without a pattern and work with what pebbles I have in my workshop and many times these “spontaneous mosaics” come out better. I believe that this happens because I am free to create without any boundaries. Custom made orders have restrictions to what the clients want, so I feel its not as creative as my “spontaneous mosaics”.

What is your favorite part of creating a mosaic?

My favorite part in creating a mosaic is when the cement has cured and I turn it over, brush off the sand to see the end results. It’s very exciting.

Do you draw complete designs on your bases before you begin and do you use a computer at all for the designing?

Sometimes I draw designs on the base before I begin and sometime not (as for my spontaneous mosaics). When I have a project which is larger than 50 cm x 50 cm, I take the design to a graphic artist, which in turn is scanned, and then a pattern of each piece is created. I am looking into drafting my own designs on the computer, but I need to gain more experience for something like that.

Do you combine this ancient art with modern techniques or see yourself as a traditional mosaic artist?

I consider myself a traditional mosaic artist with a modern twist (technique). In ancient Greece, mosaics were made on site, with artists on their knees, working only when the weather permitted. I make my mosaics in my workshop on tables, which is comfortable, the weather does not restrict me and because of the strength of the mosaics (they are 7 cm thick cement slabs) I can ship them anywhere in the world, they will last at least for 100 years or more and they are perfectly flat to be walked on. Today, artists can work on large projects this way and not have to move away from home for months on end until the project is finished. This would raise the cost of the project, as a result of accommodation, mileage etc.

What is the longest length of time you have spent creating a mosaic and which one has been the most challenging?

The longest length of time I have spent making a mosaic is 3 months. Although It was quite tedious as I followed a continuous pattern. The end result, however, was incredibly beautiful.
The most challenging mosaic I have every made was not because of the size or the complexity of the design, but because it was for a tomb stone for my closest friend who passed on a few months ago. She lost her 7 year battle with cancer. It was a simple design of white margaritas, but I cried during the whole time I created it. She is one of the main reasons I pursued this art, she encouraged me from the beginning to continue to do what I love most and I dedicate all of my work in memory of her.

Which of your mosaic works do you favor most and why?

My favorite mosaic works are ‘The Margarita’ because of the design and the movement of the pebbles and ‘The Black and White Spetses’ because of the different movement of the pebbles, its like a work of needlepoint and a geometrical design which consists of all white pebbles, but all moving in various directions, lots of movement and texture.

In your opinion, what makes a good mosaic composition?

For a good pebble mosaic composition the design is very important and of course, certain rules must be followed:
1.The base. A mosaic needs a foundation which must be absolutely solid.
2.Side restraint. Pebbles will break away from the edges, unless adequate side restraint is provided.
3.Pebbles set vertically. Like teeth in our jaw, pebbles should always be placed vertically – never flat.
4.Tight packing. All pebbles placed, must be packed tightly together, locked one against the other so that
they cannot be dislodged.

Have any artists influenced your work?

Yes. I have been influenced by Maggy Howarth, John Botica and many others. Maggy Howarth is the one person who taught me her upside down technique and I have studied her books and DVD’s carefully to master the technique of precast pebble mosaics. Her designs, as well as how she places the pebbles, give her mosaics uniqueness. She has been doing this for 30 years and is recognized for excellence in this field.

How difficult is it to get recognized as a mosaic artist in Greece and to also get your work seen?

For myself, it has not been too difficult to get recognized as a mosaic artist, because most of my mosaics have been commissioned by word of mouth. People I have done work for have recommended me to others. However, I would like to see the Greek authorities show more enthusiasm regarding promoting mosaic artists. Last year, I was part of a 4-day congress hosted by the ‘AIMC Congress of Contemporary Mosaic’, Athens, Greece. Mosaic artists came from all over the world and although their presentations were inspiring and interesting to view, there were no attendees present (from architects to archaeologists) to speak about mosaics, even though they were invited by the president. That was kind of discouraging in a country where mosaics were and are a very important part of our culture.

Is this type of art funded by the government and do you think young artists have the opportunity to learn the art of mosaic here in Greece?

Art is funded by the government for young artists and yes, they do have an opportunity to learn the art of mosaic here in Greece. I have never been formerly educated, but because of my passion and love for mosaics, I searched and found books, spoke to archaeologists and studied techniques.

What is the one technique that you believe every mosaic artist should try to master? What advice would you give to a new mosaic artist?

I don’t know if you want to call it a technique, but I believe that artwork should come from the soul, without restrictions.
My advice to a new mosaic artist, is to search through his/her soul and just create.To grow as a person within, will also improve his/her art work.

There are many beautiful mosaics in Greece, some of them ancient. How do you think so many of them have managed to survive the ravages of time so well?

Well, because their creators adhered to the fundamental rules that I mentioned earlier; having a solid foundation, adequate side restraint, vertical pebble placement and tight packing. The artists were very conscientious and exact in their craftsmanship.

Where should someone go to see a very extraordinary mosaic in Greece?

Extraordinary mosaics in Greece are everywhere but those that stand out are: Ancient Olynthos, Chalkidiki,
Kos museum, The Archaelogical Museum of Sparta, Olynthos-mosaic-floor, Pella pebble mosaic floor and many many more.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a series of pebble mosaics for a private residence in Mani, the first one is an octopus, the rest are sea creatures etc.
For the future, I would love to continue making pebble mosaics for private clients, communities, parks, theraupeutic centres for pebble mosaic footpaths etc. However, my main interest is to teach children this ancient art form. Children are wonderful because they have little or no restrictions and they create straight from the soul. It is part of our culture that they need to know. My daughter made her first mosaic (which I have installed in my workshop) when she was only 4 years old. I had never realized that she paid so much attention watching me make my mosaics while she rode her bicycle in our courtyard. It was wonderful.

And finally, would you ever consider moving back to Canada as a result of the present economic crisis in Greece?

I’m a fighter, I don’t give up easy. At the age of 35, I decided to come to Greece to find my roots, live a simpler life, and enjoy this wonderful country full of history and beauty. I would only consider moving back to Canada if I was not able to feed my child or if there was a war. If I ever went back to Canada, I would still make my mosaics. I cannot think of any other work I’d rather do.

Final Comment:

As much as I love creating mosaics, my best mosaic creation is my daughter who is made up of many, many pieces from my husband, myself and our ancestors.

For more information on Dimitra Colomvakou and her beautiful mosaic art, visit: www.votsalota.com or www.artofmosaic.com


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