by Andres Rivera
photography by Reina Santa Cruz
The sign started as a drawing—a carefully proportioned sketch—one not too detailed. Then the projector blew the drawing into the actual size. Next, came the sheets of glass, marbled green stained glass. With a glass knife, the artist makes smooth curves, slicing the sheet. Then, with a tap, tap; from the other end of the glass knife, a piece of glass breaks free from the mother sheet. Tap, tap, tap, another piece follows. Then, crash a piece falls on the floor breaking into smaller pieces. “Oh, no! It broke.” he says sarcastically. “That’s how you make mosaic. I’ll just glue it back together later,” he says whimsically as he glances down at the fragments and continues to slice away at the sheet of glass.
During his Pomona College years, Robert “Brian” Worley, now 56, worked in a Claremont mosaic studio to earn extra money. There, he discovered his passion for mosaic and learned the craft under the tutelage of Millard Sheets, a renowned artist. Through his time in the studio, Brian has succeeded in gaining mastery of ancient technique and has tailored his craft to involve a style that other mosaic styles lack. “It’s truly a form of meditation; it can take a lot of time, but the flow of it is very nice,” he says. “It is very gratifying, especially when you’re getting close to finishing something. It’s a process where, if you’re patient, your reward is really great.”
Aside from his position at the University of La Verne as director of facilities management, Brian makes mosaic murals and tabletops, among other things. Many of his mosaic works are public art and can be seen in the La Verne and Claremont community. His Claremont mosaic mural is located on Bonita Avenue. The mosaic murals in La Verne are located on the corner of First and White streets, and Arrow Highway and San Dimas Canyon Road. In many such large murals, Brian uses the landscape as part of the subject matter. Two murals depict the mountain landscape, with foothills and green fields in the background. The mural on Arrow Highway, in a public storage facility, is not a mosaic but rather a series of three bas-relief murals. Bas-relief is sculpture that slightly projects from the background. Each of the murals is 10 feet by 60 feet. Brian uses the landscape in order to create “the sense of interplay between the mountains, the foothills and the sky. A lot of that has been the subject matter for the larger murals.”
In order to create murals with such detail and care, an artist must master the craft. Worley used his time in Sheets’ studio during college to do so. After graduating from Pomona College with a sociology major and art minor, followed by traveling, Brian returned to mosaic. What he thought would be a temporary stint, turned into a nine-year venture focused on mosaic when he worked in a private commercial studio run by his aunt. This is when he started working with Millard Sheets, a prominent muralist.
Aside from making mosaic murals for Sheets, Brian was also in charge of transporting the mosaics and overseeing their installation. These jobs let him travel throughout California to such places as San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Cruz. Nevertheless, there was plenty of tedious work to do back in the studio. The chance to travel and to witness the installation of the mosaic murals was a reward after spending hours working in the studio.
“The fun part of that was that this studio consisted of three to five people working day-after-day to produce a mural that might be 20 feet or 14 feet by 50 feet or something in that range,” Brian says. “So, you’re talking about an effort that might take three to four months to create or longer in the studio.” The mural was boxed for transportation and taken to the installation site. Brian supervised the unloading, installation and staining. “I was one of the people to see it go up in the wall and work on it when it was still in the raw form.”
During his studio time, he also worked with Sheets in projects not directly related to mosaic. “At one point, he commissioned me to go around and photograph all of his major paintings,” Brian says. “Other times, he would have me drive a truck to take some of his pre-Columbian art collection to his residence or various plants in Northern California for a landscaping project he was involved with.”
Brian appreciates that he learned the techniques needed to create unique mosaic, unlike mass-produced mosaic popular today. He claims that mosaic is subject to surges of popularity, and that the medium has been subject to an evolution. Still, he notes that mass produced mosaic is different. “It’s kind of a craft thing that people do,” Brian says. “A lot of crafty kinds of people have gotten into making things like this, and you can see it being marketed now. It’s more of a mindless form though, where you are putting pieces onto an already existing shape and grouting it. It’s not an involvement in creating something out of different colors of glass, created to achieve a design. It’s different; it’s just different.”
Brian’s mosaic is far from a mass produced and mindless form. Throughout his nine years working for the Sheets studio, he was able to fine tune his craft and learn how to produce traditional mosaic. “Part of the studio experience was learning the subtleties of color and shading and cutting,” Brian says. “There were many times, especially when I was starting, when Millard would come into the studio to look at the overall work and would suggest changes. Or, you as an artist doing it realized you were headed in the wrong direction and would be pulling some of the glass up and redoing it, piece by piece.”
There, Brian was introduced to different mosaic forms. The first technique was using traditional and more expensive tile—Venetian or tesserae square tiles. These thick tiles are square or oblong. They were used by the Romans and perfected by artists in the Byzantine Empire. In order to cut the tile, a person would use nippers, which look like pliers, and clamp down on the tile. Often times, a tile did not break in the intended shape so more tile would be used. Brian became familiar with this process when he worked on many murals for Home Savings and Loan buildings throughout California. “In the studio that I worked in, this is what we worked with. On a mural for Home Savings and Loan, there would be between three to five of us working on it. It would be a mural that would be maybe 14 by 30 feet. And you would be doing it a piece at a time, in reverse. It would take those three to five people maybe four or five months to do a mural.”
The other less costly type of mosaic is the stained-glass mosaic, a medium Brian usually uses. Using stained-glass is easier to cut into desired shapes, and glass is less expensive than traditional tile. Most of the Venetian and tesserae tile is made in Italy and incurs expensive shipping charges, whereas stained glass can be acquired easily.
As the costs of making mosaic increased and demand decreased, the Sheets studio slowly lost business. Brian continued to work on smaller projects and became involved with other studios doing other types of art. Shortly after, he started working with the University of La Verne as the technical director in the Theater Department for three years. Brian, knowledgeable in construction, was offered a position as ULV director of special projects after his first year. He sees mosaic as an extreme form of tile setting, since mosaic involves setting rock, glass or some other object in cement.
As he improved at mosaic, he also improved at tile setting. “Which then brought me into subcontracting to do bathroom remodel, that kind of thing,” Brian says. “Which got me into larger construction, which gave me the knowledge to help the University with office remodels and other projects that they had in mind at the time.” Brian was offered a new full-time title, director of facilities about 17 years ago, and charged with the remodeling of offices and planning major project starts. With the heightened responsibility, he found limited time to continue his mosaic work but has been able to incorporate his artistic abilities by creating mosaic pieces for ULV.
“One of the things that I am proud of is doing monumental entry signs for the University because, at the time, there wasn’t any identification of the entrances to the campus. Doing those signs created a larger sense of community for the University, and I think really helped with our issues of identity.” The signs, outlined by brick, are simple in design but distinguished in appearance. Green stained glass is used for the background with a shattered glass appearance, and the ULV name is done with white glass. The simple white lettering with a dark background allows the name to jump out even with incidental lighting, Brian says. The curves and edges of the glass are oriented in such a way that viewers don’t notice where one section starts and the other begins. Brian breaks the work into sections. He tries to make the section edges not obvious by cutting the glass in odd shapes so when all the sections are installed, the section edges will fade in. “I’ll have these pieces glued down in such a way that there is a seam that carries through,” Brian says. “But you can’t discern it. Once it’s all put together, you can’t see how it was put together.” As he glues each piece of glass down on the paper with water-soluble glue, he is sure to leave a little space in between. The space allows the cement to fill in and hold the glass in place. When setting the mosaic to the wall, Brian first treats the tile with plastic cement on the back for extra adhesion. Next, he places a layer of Portland cement and pushes the mosaic into the wall. In order to minimize the amount of air bubbles, Brian then hits it with a block. After the mosaic is set, he soaks the paper with water and peals it off.
Aside from the monumental signs, he also made two mosaic signs for the University Bookstore in 1999 and mosaic shields in front of Founders Hall and Miller Hall. These are similar to the monumental and Mainiero Square signs with their dark green background and white lettering. However, the installation of the large signs at the top of the former bank building was “an ordeal,” Brian says. “We were setting it, and it was 103 degrees out. The Bonita street side is longer than the side that fronts on D Street, considerably longer. I think I spent 12 hours one day setting that, and the other side nine hours. And that was with a helper, and it was hot. We were up on scaffolding; it was rough.”
The smaller mosaic shields of Miller Hall were adaptations of historic graphics dating back to the early years of the University. The way in which the glass was cut for the mountains shows the detail Brian uses in his mosaic. The vertically oriented cuts resemble the ridges of the mountains. More color is used in these mosaic examples than the others around the University. “When you’re doing figurative stuff that helps give it a sense of dimension,” Brian says. “It’s more sculptural.”
In a more recent project, he created a two-sided sign for the Temple Sholom in Ontario. This sign depicts the Temple’s name in white and has the Star of David to the right, also in white. The background is in green, with two bars in white for added decoration. Brian worked with Temple personnel throughout the process, showing several drawings for client selection, along with presenting different materials and colors.
Once approved, Brian found that he had to go through one more unplanned step. Since the sign is a freestanding monument, an engineer was hired to draft the drawings to be sure it was safe, setting Brian back a month. “In this case, I have to go to the city planning department and get their approval and get a building permit for a sign like this,” Brian says. “This is a monument sign; much like the monument signs at La Verne; freestanding, this one is about six feet tall. If it’s art, there is none of that involved.” Stefanie Beckos, temple secretary, says, “The sign blends in more with the building now. It didn’t used to. We redid everything in the synagogue. This is a really nice addition to it.”
Aside from his work with the University and other side jobs like the Temple Sholom sign, he also is preparing for a future show. “What I’m intending to do and working on now, is putting together a number of tabletops and various projects that I will have on reserve. So, as I reach retirement, I would like to have a show, about five years from now, that would try to establish me in the artistic community. If I can continue to do mosaics that really give me a lot of pleasure and satisfaction, in just the creation of them, and I am able to sell them,” Brian says, “that will make my retirement that much more rosy.”
Currently, he is working on tabletop mosaics to build an inventory and is working on designs incorporating opalescent or iridescent glass. “I like it as a background medium or as an element in a design. It really picks up the sun; it really jumps; it’s fun.”
In his eight-by-eight foot garage workspace, he works on current and future show projects. Sometimes, on the weekends, he turns on the TV to a football game and works on his mosaic. He does not feel comfortable just sitting there and watching. By working on his mosaic and having the game on, Brian feels that he is spending his time wisely and maybe getting more out of life. “It’s sort of like meditation; so I kind of view it that way. I don’t feel that it was tedious because I really enjoy the end result. It takes a deal of patience. If you don’t have patience, it’s not for you.”
Current tabletop mosaic pieces show his creativity and attention to detail. One design shows interplay of curves set off by white and dark blue-mirrored glass. “I’m really excited about it,” Brian says. “It’s a fairly big tabletop. But, this is the scale that I like to work on. I’m really finding that I like to do sort of intricate design and that is sort of what distinguishes me from other people out there that are doing this, because I’m doing more complex designs.” One of his favorite pieces is a large table that has morning glories on the corners. His wife liked the piece just as much as he did and was not too happy when she found out that he sold it. In response, Brian made another table with morning glories that is now placed in the center of his living room.
“I do miss that one table,” Brian says. “But it’s with very good friends of mine. When I visit them, I’m visiting my table as well. So that makes it nice.”
Millard Sheets: Master for an Apprentice
Millard Sheets (1907-1989) was a native son, with art driving his life passion. During WWII, Sheets traveled to Burma and India as a war illustrator for Life magazine. He was also one of the 15 artists chosen nationally to paint murals for the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. He headed the art departments in Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School for more than 20 years. In 1953, Sheets created a new official seal for Los Angeles County. As a muralist, he designed buildings and decorative art for Home Savings of America throughout California. For about 30 years he received commissions for other large public art projects. Major mural commissions include the Detroit Public Library, Notre Dame University Library and the dome of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Local works include the design of the Garrison Theater building and the front mosaic of Scripps College on East 10th Street in Claremont, the Home Savings of America mosaic mural at 100 West Second St. in Pomona, the Pomona First Federal Savings and Loan Association mosaic mural at 393 West Foothill Blvd. in Claremont, and a mosaic mural in the Los Angeles City Hall East above the entrances at Main and Los Angeles streets.