When artist Mia Tavonatti decided to enter her mosaic at an international art competition in Michigan, she didn't know just how well it would be received due to its subject matter: Jesus Christ on a cross.
Though she, and everybody else in her studio, understood that there was something special about her piece titled "Crucifixion," would others in the city of Grand Rapids see it in the same light, especially due to its traditional Catholic imagery?
It could have gone either way, the initially hesitant Tavonatti told The Christian Post during an interview. "I had no idea."
Her worries were soon dispelled, however, when her piece collected the most votes by the public, placing her first among more than 1,500 artists at the 2011 ArtPrize competition, and proving that there was indeed something special about the Crucifixion, which seems to leave a lasting impression on those who viewed it.
Not her first win from the annual contest funded by entrepreneur Rick DeVos, the Michigan native also placed second overall in 2010 for her self-portrait piece titled "Svelata." Her consecutive wins contributed to a change in rules as well, with the top 10 finalists not allowed to enter into the contest the following year, though they were welcome to participate again in the future.
Originally, Tavonatti did not even plan to enter the competition again because she was busy with a few other projects. Her submitted crucifixion piece in fact was first intended for use as an altarpiece for the Saint Kilian's Catholic Church in Mission Viejo, Calif., which had commissioned her to recreate the particular image for its new building.
But due to delays in the church's construction and loan process, the mosaic never ended up at the church and eventually made its way to Grand Rapids via a Penske truck.
"Circumstances just aligned themselves in such a way that I think you know, I was meant to go," Tavonatti explained to CP.
When she called her friend in the city asking him if the piece would be appropriate for the ArtPrize contest, he told her it would be perfect, to which she agreed as well, though she knew there would be some negative reactions.
"As an artist, you put it out there and clearly not everybody is going to like it, but I've learned that you don't have to like something to be changed by it," she noted.
"Sometimes through your anger, even if it just touches an emotional chord in you that may be more emotion that you've had for months. So of course that's not a lot of fun...from the artists point, but at the same time it's not for me to say who likes and dislikes my subjects. I can't let that determine what I do."
Though the church had directed her to specifically create a piece depicting the crucifixion, Tavonatti had the freedom to make it look whatever way she thought best.
"When I had to design [the piece], I had to give a lot of thought to how I wanted to depict it," she revealed.
"I wanted to depict Christ in the moment of his surrender when he says 'It is done;' that moment of pure peace and surrender of becoming one with God. That's what is depicted in my version of the crucifixion. I'm one of those chronically positive people and I always look at the beauty in the moment."
The mosaic was created using a variety of different methods and materials. First, she created a composition to base her work on by combining several photos together. Photographs of two sunsets previously taken in Hawaii and Italy composed the background while an actual photo of her friend Chris hanging on wood beams from The Home Depot made up the subject.
Hand-cut, stained glass, which she believes took on inherent qualities from her work in paint and "took it up a notch," was her building material.
"The glass is much more responsive to light and so when you're looking at it, it's much more interactive, like if you move the light, on the glass it moves with you. It's like looking at water," the Laguna College of Art and Design teacher described. "I think that's a big part of why it's so mesmerizing."
For example, if a visitor at the ArtPrize were looking at the "Crucifixion" from the center, it would appear like a normal painting. But if they were to move from side to side, the image would transform into an abstract work, with millions of pieces of glass seen through reflections of the light.
"It's absolutely extraordinary," Tavonatti said.
When asked what kind of effect that would bring to those who were viewing the Crucifixion, she stated, "Well, to use a phrase of a critic who was writing about Michelangelo's Pieta, it's moving them to a state of peripheralness."
"I really do feel that the glass in the light and the beauty of the piece pulls people in and it really does take them out of their head and move them into their hearts...a lot of people cry. It's a very powerful emotional experience for a lot of people."
And the experience was not lost on her as well.
"For me, it's a deeply spiritual experience," she commented, at times feeling like she was being crucified in a sense as well.
The morning that Tavonatti won the ArtPrize in 2011, her mother, Anna Marie Bradley, had passed away from pneumonia.
"My mother had been in the hospital all week so it was a very, very stressful time for me," she recalled. "So you can imagine the symbolism for me and the things that were happening for me that day."
"Originally I felt like I was bringing the work for other people, but on that day I realized He was there for me."
Before her mother had died, Tavonatti sent her photos of the "Crucifixion" because she was unable to see the mosaic in person.
"She cried," Tavonatti remembered, holding back the tears herself. "I think my mom thought I was a godsend and knew that I was in good hands."
Her mother called her an angel as well, which she found interesting, because many in the public had found angelic figures emerging out of the clouds in the Crucifixion, something she did not intentionally create.
"When we were working on it we didn't have any idea that those were there," she admitted. "That was divine intervention. I had nothing to do with that."
Though some felt that she had purposely designed the figures into the clouds, Tavonatti stressed that she did not, a fact she wanted on the record.
"Some people think that's kitschy if you tried to do it, but if it just gets there and it wants to be there, to me that's a beautiful thing."
Now that she has to work on another mosaic for Christ for the church because her original one was currently a property of ArtPrize, she said she would probably be changing the cloud area, which contained the mysterious angelic figures.
"They'll probably appear somewhere else," she said. But she believes that most of the time as an artist, ideas just come through on their own without any help from the creator.
Despite her liturgical work and seeming connection to the religious, Tavonatti was careful not to label herself as a Christian artist.
She simply called herself a "deeply spiritual" person and a "non-denominational" artist who loved working with and for all types of people, helping them discover their creative potential, a reason why she created the Svelata Foundation, an offshoot from her series of oil paintings on canvas.
"Svelata means unveiled," she detailed. "That whole series is about my own personal unveiling in my life. It's about a woman who is trying to find a balance between her spiritual and material life. The veil is symbolic of the material world, the water is spirit or emotion and I think we all struggle with trying to live from a higher place in a world that's not always easy to do that. So that's what that whole body of work is about. And going through the process of those paintings, I named my foundation and my paintings Svelata."
Her multi-media organization is currently working on The Power of Words Project, a humanitarian mural project that grew out of her experiences with ArtPrize and the press.
The project seeks to engage and uplift communities through the creation of murals, sparking conversation throughout the entire creative process.
Communities in Los Angeles, Orange County, New Orleans, Detroit and Florida will be participating in the project.
"The Power of Words Project will travel the world...becoming tools for universal evolution through beauty, experience and education," the foundation penned on its website.
"A person's ability to see beauty in everything is the most important thing you can have in life," Tavonatti affirmed. "I think that's where you get your sense of wonder that's how you retain that."
"I think if you can see life that way you're going to be naturally more creative in everything that you do. I do think that creativity is the one thing we're all born with. For me it's my connection to the divine. That's the base ingredient. But whatever you believe, creativity will add to every aspect of your life."
Additional information about Mia Tavonatti's foundation or mosaics can be seen on her website at www.miatavonatti.com.
Details about this year's ArtPrize, "the radically open competition," can also be viewed here. All winners are selected by public vote with no selection committees or juries.
ArtPrize 2011 attracted 1,582 artists from 21 countries and 42 states, and used 164 venues around Grand Rapids as gallery spaces. More than 38,000 registered voters who submitted 383,000 total votes participated last year.