Reflective Reflections

By Michael Abatemarco

When we think of mosaic art using small pieces of colored glass or stone, we might typically think of images from Roman villas or from Hellenistic Greece, or perhaps from Byzantine architecture, such as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The subjects might be taken from mythology or icons of saints. But ice-cream cones, hot dogs, and hamburgers? Those are not your typical mosaic subjects. Jean Wells has included such objects as part of her Urban Fruit Tree, a sculpture with interchangeable mosaic components featured in this year’s ART Santa Fe international art fair.

Wells learned mosaic from her father, Thomas Wells, who was trained in the classical Byzantine style and was commissioned to do a large mosaic for St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle, Washington. “He would do mostly Catholic churches, Greek Orthodox churches,” Wells said. “And my grandfather was a mosaic artist also. He lived a half block away, so between the two homes, I was constantly surrounded by art. I was actually 12 years old when I started apprenticing.”

Growing up in an era of Pop Art icons like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg influenced Wells to take a different route from her traditional art background, and today her own monumental sculptures have an affinity with work by Oldenburg and Jeff Koons, who also does large-scale sculptures of ordinary objects.

Seeing a brightly colored ice-cream cone, life-size and covered in mirrored glass, might at first bring a smile to your lips, but if you consider the reflective quality of the mosaic pieces and the fact that we live in an era of “super-sized” fast-food products, it might also give you pause to reflect on our own consumer practices.

“One of the things that inspired me to do the Urban Fruit Tree is that children never ask for apples and oranges,” Wells said, “but they always want an ice-cream cone and a hamburger, and so it’s kind of a parody of how life is. Do our children even know what apples and oranges are anymore?”

The tree is 16 feet tall and 11 feet wide, but the dimensions vary depending on the mosaic sculptures affixed to it. Wells can change the sculptures whenever she likes. A typical Urban Fruit Tree might have giant Coke bottles, Hershey’s Kisses, and hamburgers — in place of fruit — hanging from its branches. “I keep the lower branches free enough so nobody could bump their head into it,” Wells said.

Wells is represented at ART Santa Fe by L.A. Art Machine, a Los Angeles-based arts organization that curates exhibits and organizes arts events. Included in the booth for L.A. Art Machine are Hot Lips, a mosaic sculpture of lips and lipstick; Mustard Only, a sculpture of a hot dog; and one of Wells’ pinup-inspired, mosaic-glass-covered female figures. The female figures, deliberately avoiding Barbie-doll-like slimness, were made in response to media depictions of the female body. “There’s an ideal out there which is almost impossible for any woman to reach,” Wells said, “especially as women age. That’s what we see the most of. We go into a grocery store, and we see a wall of magazines with all perfect figures on them.”

Despite their brilliantly colored, shimmering promise of sweetness, Wells’ confections have a bit of a dark side. She once crafted a giant Hershey’s Kiss that was 18 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter. Imagine the stomachache.

Originally printed in the July 16, 2010 edition of Pasatiempo.

Santa Fe, New Mexico.