Until 2009, Aja Ngo had never created a mosaic. Today, her art sells for as much as $11,000. It has hung in an American Embassy and in public collections in Oregon and Washington. In a presentation next month at Manzanita’s Hoffman Center for the Arts, Ngo will share her experiences studying mosaics in Italy, including her time at the premier mosaic school in Ravenna.
We talked with the artist, who divides her time between Nehalem and Portland, about her unlikely start in mosaics, where it has taken her, and got a sneak peek into her Jan. 14 slide show and talk. Her comments have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with how a licensed acupuncturist with no background in art became a highly skilled artist in barely a decade.
Ngo: My kids had a school project to do a salmon mosaic, and I showed them in my basement how to do that. When I started touching the glass, I realized this was something I wanted to do as a medium. There was no question about it. It was very surprising for me. I had never worked with glass before. I had basic art classes in school but that was about it.
I started doing classes for kids at school, then I started doing community projects, big murals in Portland, and summer camp with kids. In 2013, I became a member of the Society of American Mosaic Artists and started taking classes from different mosaic artists in person and online.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, you mention you often took breaks from your studies to sit quietly in medieval cathedrals, and the stained glass and mosaic art there inspired you to be the artist you’ve become. What do you think allowed you to advance so quickly?
I think it’s a combination of passion and I am a very hard worker. I tend to research a lot of things. It’s a lot of hours of studying the technique, design. I can do tedious work for a long time. As a kid, I did needlepoint. It was like 400 hours on a tablecloth. Mosaic has this special skillset: It’s very demanding in how precise the art is; how very small. It has to be something people love. It can’t be something you just do in an afternoon.
What should people be looking for when they see a mosaic work of art?
When you look at mosaics, there is the piece itself – the tessera. It has a shape. Most people think it is square. Most often, it is not square, but slightly off. What you rarely see are triangles. That is something you look for when you are looking to see how advanced the artist is. The second thing is the spaces in between. The space between each of the tessera has to be the same. Because when the mosaic is done and you put a grout on it, the spaces in between become very visible. In the work of a good mosaic artist, everything is even; everything is the same. That really requires a lot of practice, planning, and patience.
Your work is in both private and public collections. Can you share some insight as to how you go about creating a mosaic?
When I create a mosaic, I ask several questions. Most people give me the color and dimensions and tell me, “I want to fit it with my carpet.” For one recent piece, this person was Irish, and his wife was Japanese. They love coffee and like to listen to music, and they wanted that and their cultures represented in the work.
Another was for a kitchen. They gave me leftovers from the backsplash and asked me to create something for the wall. I asked the family members, “What are your core values?” They came up with seven values. I used very small letter beads and wove those into the mosaic. You can’t see them from far away, but when you come close, you can.
Which brings us to your hidden messages. What is that about?
I put in hidden messages, because they add another dimension for the viewer and also an element of surprise. The first I did in 2017. It was a big tree for the Rosewood Initiative. More than 70 people worked on it, and there is a quote from Rumi in letter beads: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.”
You’ve traveled all over the world to study mosaics, most recently Italy. Can you give us a tease about some of what you’ll be sharing in your presentation?
I went to Ravenna and sat in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, one of the UNESCO sites for mosaic. You can decipher from the ceiling what kind of plants were growing, what kind of animals were there when it was built. We went to another UNESCO site, Villa Romana del Casale. It was a house for a person who traded exotic animals, and you basically walk into the house and the floors are full of animals in action. There are dozens and dozens of rooms. You can see from the mosaic who came, what kind of clothes people wore.
One thing I learned in Italy was that many of the mosaics were made by slaves. I always thought it was artisans. I worked from 9 to 6 every day without lunch, and I realized how difficult it is for the body to be bent over like that.
I also went to two sites not available to the public. One is a mosaic school in Spilimbergo. It is 100 years old and the whole school is like a museum. The students leave everything on site. Everywhere you go is incredible mosaic.
The second was Orsoni, a factory for handmade glass. They are known for hundreds and hundreds of different colors. They have 16 shades of gold – all made from gold leaf. I did two pieces, a modern piece and an Art Nouveau piece that took 50-plus steps to make. I documented it all on a slide show. In my presentation, I want to give people more information about how to appreciate mosaics and at the same time, we’ll watch a slide show. For me, I am very passionate about mosaic, and I am willing to share.
From Nehalem to Italy: Mosaics Old and New with Aja Ngo
3 to 5 p.m. Jan. 14
Hoffman Center for the Arts, 594 Laneda Ave., Manzanita
Mosaics 101 with Aja Ngo
Tuition $149; materials fee $35 paid when class starts
8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 11 and 12
Hoffman Center for the Arts, 594 Laneda Ave., Manzanita
Mosaic Past and Present
2:30 p.m. Jan. 22
Hillsdale Library, 1525 S.W. Sunset Blvd., Portland