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Pieces of A Dream

Meet local artist Laurel True, the creative force behind Oakland's Institute of Mosaic Art.


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Photograph by Gabriela Hasbun

For those of us who can barely scratch out a stick figure on paper and are intimidated by any art form, mosaic might be the ideal medium. Even for beginners, the process of creating order (a pattern) out of chaos (broken shards) can be incredibly gratifying.

So says Laurel True, a mosaic artist who teaches this ancient art to students of all levels. In 2005, after 14 years of teaching increasing numbers of students privately, True opened the Institute of Mosaic Art—one of very few such centers in the United States—in Oakland. She found a dilapidated building in the Jingletown arts district and, with the help of her students, transformed it into a neighborhood jewel, covering the walls, inside and out, with colorful mosaic murals and fresh sweeps of bright paint.

Since opening two years ago, the school has welcomed more than 4,000 students and visitors from such far-flung places as Australia, Chile, Germany, and Japan to be taught by True and visiting instructors. The art of mosaic has a kind of universal appeal, according to True. “It’s accessible, it’s appealing, it’s tactile, and people love the idea of putting pieces together,” True says. “I see people coming to it from both the right side of the brain and the left. Some projects require a particular format, a set of rules, and a lot of measurement and order, while other approaches can involve much more spontaneity.” 

Courtesy of Laurel True
In her own pieces, True prefers to mix her media, using fused glass, ceramic, and other materials that fit her intended theme. Take, for example, her signature form, the shotgun-style house—a one-room structure with no halls. One of many that she’s created stands near the entry of the institute. At a height of about five feet, it’s covered in shards of reflective glass inside and out, with 32 eyeballs (a recurrent image in her work), representing her age when she created the work. The words know thyself (uttered by an ancient Greek oracle) are spelled out in colored letters across the structure’s doorway. “The house itself is a metaphor for the mind,” she says. “This piece, to me, is about self-reflection.”

True’s own self-exploration has taken her to the other side of the world—Ghana, in West Africa—where she teaches mosaic art to students of all ages. Over the years, she and 50 pupils there have completed seven mosaic murals and sculptures that depict traditional symbols and folkloric themes passed down through oral historians. A few of her most devoted students, who started with her as children, have parlayed their skills into a viable trade and now receive commissions for their work. “I’m so proud of these kids,” True says. “And I don’t have this view that I came in and gave them this giant gift. It’s more the other way around. I feel really woven in and attached to a lot of people there.”

Courtesy of Laurel True
True’s approach to life is much like her chosen medium. “I don’t make decisions based on anything logical,” she says. “I move through the world in an intuitive way, and the pieces somehow end up fitting together in the end.”

The Institute of Mosaic Art (www.instituteofmosaicart.com) offers daylong, weekend, and weeklong classes for students of all levels. To see a map of Laurel True’s 22 mosaic installations in the Bay Area, go to www.truemosaics.com.
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