American artist Mia Tavonatti is causing a stir in the community with her latest mosaic titled "Crucifixion," which won first place in the 2011 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Picked as a favorite among thousands of other works, the piece, made of hand-cut stained glass, stands 13 feet tall, weighs a total of 425 pounds, and took more than 100 days to create.
Tavonatti drove the art piece, which she refers to as "Him," across the country from California in a Penske truck, entering the work at ArtPrize, one of the largest art competitions in the world where winners are decided by public vote.
Conversing with Tavonatti, who currently resides in Orange County, Calif., The Christian Post discussed her winning piece, the inspiration behind it, her personal moments of divine intervention, and other related topics.
CP: First of all, are you a Christian artist?
Tavonatti: I do work for all different kinds of churches, but I'm the non-denominational artist. It's important for me to say that because my market is not just that area and I don't want people to think that I only do liturgical work.
CP: So you're not of any religious affiliation?
Tavonatti: Yeah, I wouldn't comment on that. I wouldn't label myself for the papers. Deeply spiritual and you know.
CP: What inspired you to create the Crucifixion?
Tavonatti: Well in this case, I was asked to do the Crucifixion by my client who was a Catholic church in Mission Viejo, California. So they specifically asked me to do a crucifixion. What inspired me to do this specific version of this Crucifixion? When I had to design it – and I had to give a lot to how I wanted to depict it – 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, I always look at the beauty in the moment.
CP: How did the church like your version?
Tavonatti: They loved it. I'm in the process of doing another one for them now. When I won ArtPrize, that piece became the property of ArtPrize. I was originally working for them as a commission and they had delays in their construction process and their construction loans so I found myself with this big mosaic and that's why I entered it into the ArtPrize. But now I'm working on a new one for them and I mean that design was voted on unanimously so they loved it.
CP: Is your mosaic made with stained glass?
Tavonatti: It's a mosaic, but I used stained glass as my material. It's not like a traditional stained glass, where light would come through it. It's traditional mosaic. I used stain glass because it had so much variation in the colors and in the transparency and stained glass is just a beautiful material and very easy to work with and not as expensive as some of the traditional Italian glass.
CP: So you actually had a model tied to the crucifix?
Tavonatti: To be honest, I prayed one night, "I need the perfect model, who do you want?" And I woke up the next morning [and thought of] my friend Chris. And so I drove up to Santa Cruz, California, where he lives in the Redwoods and we built a cross out of 6 by 10 Home Depot wood beams and I made a crown of thorns from one of those Michaels' wreaths and its adjustable and everything and I just took it apart and reconstructed it, and we planted the cross out in the woods. I did two photo shoots with him and it was really beautiful and it was quite a profound experience. He was perfect. A little too blond, so I had to darken his hair.
CP: So he actually hung on it?
Tavonatti: Yeah, I tied him up and it was really hard. It was hard work. You could tell by his expressions but we just beautifully shot it. I work in Photoshop and I layered those images with two sunsets that I had photographed in Italy and Hawaii and it just all kind of came together magically, cutting and pasting with my drawings and my photography. That's how I come up with the composition and then I work from that. And every piece is hand-cut, and I started on one of his eyes and thousands and thousands of pieces later. It seems like it was getting bigger as I went along.
CP: Did you feel like your piece would have gotten a good reception from the public at the ArtPrize when you entered it into the contest?
Tavonatti: Well yeah, because I mean I was in love with it. Everybody in the studio was. It was a beautiful experience and there was definitely something really special going on. But for Grand Rapids, I didn't do that subject for Grand Rapids, I did it for myself and the church that I was working for. But Grand Rapids actually scared me a little because it's a devoutly Christian community, but they're not Catholic and this is a traditionally Catholic image. And so it could have gone either way. So I had no idea. I asked a friend there, "I'm thinking of bringing this to ArtPrize but it scares me" and he said, "Mia it would be perfect," and I agreed.
And I went and whatever happened happens. 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. You don't have to be able to like something to be transformed by it. 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 when you get that 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.
CP: So you were actually there at the event looking at the other art pieces?
Tavonatti: Oh yeah, I was there the whole time. Both years. I took second last year. I was much more comfortable this year, much better prepared, but I spent most of the time by my piece because I have this Svelata Foundation, and we're all about helping people reconnect to their creative spark. So I stayed by my piece and I answered thousands of questions, and I'm from northern Michigan originally, so for me to be able to be there to help them connect to the artwork and relate to it better, that's what I'm all about.
For example, someone says, "You mean a Yuper did this?" (A yuper is what people from lower Michigan call people from northern Michigan). And for me that was a huge compliment. It helped him to relate to the piece to know that someone like him who grew up in the same place he did, did that work. For all those thousands of thousands of children who were there, that's the example I want them to see, that's why I was there every day, every hour. And I know for a fact that it helped enhance a lot of their experiences.
CP: Why did you choose to work with glass for this piece and many others you have created?
Tavonatti: It came about very synchronistically I guess. Somebody literally walked into my studio 14 years ago, and they were looking for someone who could do mosaics for Newport Elementary School in Newport Beach, and I told him I've always wanted to do a mosaic. And he said well there are nine of them. And I said, well I haven't always wanted to do nine of them. And I said I've never done one before. And he said well do you think you could do it? And I said yeah of course.
For me, it was just another medium, so I bought a couple of books and started experimenting. So my very first mosaic is in Newport Elementary School. And there are nine of them, so that was my first mosaic commission, so it was quite the learning curve.
Ever since then I've fallen in love with the mosaics because the glass has inherent qualities that take what I do with paint up a notch, and the glass is much more responsive to light. So when you're looking at it, it's much more interactive like if you move, the light on the glass moves with you, it's like looking at water. And I think that's a big part of why it's so mesmerizing.
Like at ArtPrize, if you're standing at the center and you're looking at the Crucifixion, and this is how it reproduces in pictures, it looks like a painting, and you don't see the glass. But if you move to the sides it becomes an abstract work of millions of pieces of glass; you can't even see the image. All you can see is the light hitting the glass. It's absolutely extraordinary. So people would move from left to right, go up on the balcony, come back at different times of the day as it would change.
CP: What kind of effect do you think that brings people, seeing an image like that moving?
Tavonatti: Well, to use a phrase of a critic who was writing about Michelangelo's Pieta, it's moving them to a state of peripheralness, and 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. And I think a lot of people cry. It's a very powerful emotional experience for a lot of people.
For some people, a negative emotional experience, but again, who am I to dictate. I think that it operates at a lot of levels that are for me, a deeply spiritual experience, but it just depends on where the person's at, where they're coming from or what their perception is.
CP: During the ArtPrize event, you said that some people had negative reactions. What were they?
Tavonatti: I mean ArtPrize fosters what they call a conversation and ArtPrize started as an almost 100 percent People's Choice Award essentially. It's voted on by the public, but it turns out that the art world doesn't really like people to have that democratic vote. So there's a lot of controversy. And when you make the top 10 you get thrown into that. And then when you bring a Crucifixion, you can imagine the fun they had with that.
I'm just doing what I love and doing the best I can, but it was more a matter of getting caught in the middle of a conversation that was being held on the larger stage of ArtPrize and as it is in the art world. I mean people didn't deny its technical or physical beauty, but you know people just like to be critical.
Somebody told me afterwards, "Mia, if you're not being criticized, chances are you're not doing anything worthy." That's part of my unveiling is to learn how to stay in my center and stand for what I believe in and not let people's good or bad opinions affect what I do. Trust that I'm on the right path. I answer to a higher source.
CP: Did you feel like you were being in a sense, crucified?
Tavonatti: At times, absolutely. I don't know how much information you have, but my mother passed away on the morning that I won ArtPrize. My mother had been in the hospital all week so it was a very, very stressful time for me. And she passed away and her name was Anna Marie Bradley. She died at 9 that morning on the day that I won ArtPrize with the Crucifixion of Christ. So you can imagine the symbolism for me and the things that were happening for me that day, and I originally felt like I was bringing the work for other people but on that day, I realized He was there for me.
CP: How did your father react to the piece?
Tavonatti: My father passed away years ago.
CP: How do you think your parents would have felt about your work if they were to have seen it?
Tavonatti: Well,my mom saw the piece. She did see the piece but she didn't see it in person; I sent her images. She was in northern Michigan, while I was in lower Michigan, and she cried and she just, I don't know. I think my mom thought I was a godsend and knew that I was in good hands.
CP: I think she must have thought that you were an angel.
Tavonatti: Well that was the word she used. It's interesting because I was reading an article this morning and they made a reference to figures emerging in the clouds that people had noticed, and I was talking to someone this morning and I was saying when we were working on it we didn't have any idea that those were there. That was divine intervention. I had nothing to do with that. It's one of those things that I look at and go, wow, cool.
It's sort of happy accidents that we get later as artists when we put the work up. You know when you're doing the mosaic you're working on sections, flat on tables, and you never see the whole thing put together until literally moments before you put it up. And you put it up and you go oh, it worked! Because we stand on ladders and look down on pieces and it's not like painting where it's on a wall and you can stand back from it, mosaics are all done in sections.
CP: So people are saying there are actual angelic figures in the clouds?
Tavonatti: Well a lot of people saw them and I saw them too. There's a couple there that it looks like I designed them into it, but I did not and I want that 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. And now I have to do another one. So now that I can see that I'll probably be changing that area so then they'll probably appear somewhere else.
Tavonatti: Yeah, you know what, that's the thing. As an artist most of us know that we're just the tool. It's something much greater, it's clear to me I'm not the one doing most of the work. If it wants to be there it's going to get there.
I think over the years most artists would be able to look at their work and stuff starts to emerge and the meaning of the work really becomes prevalent as we observe the work it's not like you have this great idea and it's all worked out you start working and the ideas just start to come through on their own.
CP: Will you be entering the ArtPrize next year as well?
Tavonatti: No, I'm not allowed to. They changed the rules. Now the top ten have to wait for one year, but I didn't plan on entering ArtPrize last year because I was working on this big commission and it just happened, circumstances just aligned themselves in such a way that I think you know I was meant to go. And I don't know about the future and if I'll participate in that again, but they've changed a lot of the rules so it's a different competition than it was since when I first started.
CP: So you started The Power of Words Project. Can you tell me about it?
Tavonatti: It's my foundation's current project and it grew out of my experiences with Art Prize and the press. The use of words and how the press uses words. As the artist, we do the best we can. We dedicate our lives to this and people don't take the time to get to know that part of you. They believe what they read. We've created The Power of Words Project and we're using that whole concept of words to create humanitarian murals across the country.
We go into the communities and ask them to nominate and vote on one word that defines the vision for the future of their community and our first one was in Laguna Beach, California, and the community elected the word "wonder." It was really unexpected and 1,100 people voted. Now my students from Laguna College of Art Design are actually done with their designs, and on Saturday I put together a panel of judges from the community that will be choosing the mural that best exemplifies the word wonder. So we're essentially making mural mantras and we're working with communities in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit and Florida right now to create one-word mural mantras in their communities. The whole idea that one word can make all the difference.
CP: Where do these murals get hung then?
Tavonatti: Well the first one is in Laguna Canyon Road on the side of a huge wall. It was the location where I had done a mural there in 2003 with my students and recently someone painted over the mural out of frustration for the city. We took this situation and we wanted to heal it by doing something more positive and hence The Power of Words Project was born, all because of one reporter that wrote about me that was so irresponsible. They took it back but that's where that came from.
CP: You mentioned that you teach students?
Tavonatti: I've been teaching painting at Laguna College of Art and Design for 19 years. I have an MFA in painting. I've been painting for 30 years, that's why my mosaics look like paintings.
CP: I was watching a video on the ArtPrize where you spoke about a moment where your "spark went into hiding." Is that "spark" no longer hiding?
Tavonatti: It's a raging flame now. There's no question about that. But you know the Svelata, which started as a series of paintings? Svelata means unveiled. 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. It's all about unveiling that spark again and coming back into fullness, and saying here I am, this is what I have to offer, and doing what I feel is my mission in life. The flame is raging. Everything I do is about helping other people feel that same way, about inspiring people and helping people be more creative in their lives whether they're cooking or creating art, doesn't matter to me.
CP: What's one piece of advice you have for, not just artists, but the public in general?
Tavonatti: I think you know a person's ability to see beauty in everything is the most important thing you can have in life, and 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. Don't you think?
CP: Yes, I really think so, not just artistically. Every day people get up and create something. Everyone's an artist.
Tavonatti: I think that's part of the problem. When people hear the word creativity, they automatically think artist and it has nothing to do with art. I was creative way before I became an artist. I don't know a single kid on the planet that isn't intensely creative. And it's true, the process of life that we lose our connection to that creative spark and I think that's the important thing to be very careful not to do that in how we talk to our children, what we say to our students, what we read in the press. All those things contribute to a major problem of lack of spark, a lack of creativity in our culture and that causes problems politically, educationally in all areas. It makes bad dressers, people who can't cook dinner like me.