Institute of Mosaic Arts. Photo: Daphne White
The Institute of Mosaic Arts at 805 Allston Way will close this summer. Photo: Daphne White

By Daphne White

The Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA), an East Bay institution that is one of the oldest and largest mosaic centers in the U.S., will close its doors on Aug. 30 unless someone steps up to take it over. The school, which has offered classes to more than 1,000 students in the past three years, is a victim of its own success, according to owner, Ilse Cordoni.

“When mosaic artist Laurel True opened IMA in 2005, there were only two mosaic schools in the U.S.: IMA, and the nonprofit Chicago Mosaic School,” said Cordoni, who purchased IMA in 2013. These two schools helped spearhead a mosaic renaissance across the country. “Now that mosaic has become very popular, there are half a dozen mosaic schools in California alone, and many more nationwide. Students no longer need to travel from all over the U.S. to take introductory mosaics in Berkeley.”

Unless a buyer can be found, the school and its associated mosaics store and gallery on Allston Way will close its doors as of Aug. 30, Cordoni said. This announcement has left the East Bay mosaic community reeling.

“IMA has been an enormous part of the mosaic renaissance in Oakland and beyond,” said professional mosaicist Rachel Rodi, whose mosaic career began at IMA when the school first opened. “IMA and its students and teachers have created community murals and public art throughout the Bay Area in places such as the Martin Luther King Middle School, Jefferson Elementary School and Mission Creek in San Francisco.”

A workshop at the Institute of Mosaic Arts. Photo: Daphne White

Indeed, it’s hard to travel around the Bay Area today without seeing mosaics on the sides of buildings and houses; on public benches; and beautifying trash cans in Oakland and Richmond. Not every project can be traced back to IMA, but the school’s presence has certainly contributed to the upsurge of local mosaic projects. True founded the school in 2005, and her distinctive murals adorn IMA’s walls and other public places.

The past 20 years have seen a surge of interest in the ancient art form, whose popularity goes back to Biblical and Roman times. Students from as far away as Hawaii, Alaska, Utah, Colorado, Florida — even England and Norway — have taken classes at IMA.

“It’s a very accessible art form,” said Laura Paull, IMA’s general manager and communications director. “The first time I really noticed mosaics, I thought ‘I can do that!’ Many people have this reaction. It’s such a physical, tactile craft — a contrast to the digital world. The materials are durable, as well as colorful and beautiful.”

Ilse Cordoni, owner of the Institute for Mosaic Arts, teaching an andamento class at IMA. Andamento is the art of laying tiles with a sense of flow and design, rather than just putting broken pieces of glass next to each other. Since this was a one-day class, she taught the class using paper (easier to cut) rather than glass. Photo: Daphne White
A mosaic class at IMA. Photo: Daphne White

An added value to this art form is that mosaics can be done in community. “It’s a form of adult play,” Paull said. “It allows you to engage with your senses: your eyes, your hands, your brain. There is an aesthetic order, there is invention, there is a playing with possibilities. And it can be done alongside other creative adults.”

Some people think of mosaics a craft, and indeed many mosaic projects are utilitarian: kitchen backsplashes, bathroom walls, and floors. But over recent decades a whole group of fine-art mosaic artists has emerged, and their creations are as intricate and breathtaking as any painting or ceramic object, according to Cordoni. Museums have not caught up with the latest trends in mosaics, though. While you can find ancient mosaics in museums, few if any contemporary mosaics are enshrined inside art institutions. Mosaics are more likely to be found as public art: that is, art that’s displayed outside rather than inside, said Cordoni.

True, a former Oakland resident who now lives in New Orleans, founded IMA in the underserved community of Fruitvale. It later moved to Berkeley. “IMA brought art to an area that didn’t have a lot of it,” says internationally-known mosaicist Sonia King. “There was a really special kind of feeling there, which the school has retained over the years. It’s one part art, one part risk-taking, and a whole lot of community building.”

The sense of community extends well beyond the community art projects, and well beyond the group of East Bay regulars who come for the Wednesday night and Friday morning open studios at the school. “Anyone who so much as walks into the IMA store can feel it,” said King. “It’s a very comforting kind of place, very nurturing. Interesting things are always happening there. There aren’t that many of those places in the world.”

Perhaps IMA is a victim of its own success in more ways than one. Cordoni, the school’s third owner, bought IMA after she had retired and started falling in love with mosaics and the community around it. “What I really bought was a community, not a business,” she said. And, while Cordoni has a special gift for nurturing community, she admits that perhaps she should have made different business decisions over the years in order to put the school on a firmer financial footing.

The school is suffering from declining enrollment. Cordoni said the school was unable to bring in evening classes (they were offered, but only 1-2 students signed up); and she was also unable to generate income during weekdays. As a result, the school and store were only open Friday through Sunday. Most of the workshops offered were Saturday-Sunday, although there are some three-day workshop. (There were Open Studio hours on Fridays during the day and Wednesday evenings, but while a strong community grew around Open Studio it was not a significant source of revenue for the school.)

Cordoni is in her early 70s, and decided that this time perhaps she should retire for good. She will continue to sell the high-fire tile much valued by mosaicists, and to create mosaics of her own.

IMA is offering mosaic classes and workshops with visiting artists through the end of August, and there will be one final gallery show titled “Textiles and Tesserae” which opens July 9. (A tessera is a small square or cube of tile, stone or glass used as the building block of a mosaic.) The show will feature quilts and textiles that have a mosaic feel to them, along with mosaic pieces that appear pieced together like textiles. There will be no formal opening for the show, but there will be a “grand finale” party for the show and the school the evening of Aug. 21, with artists in attendance.

The IMA Gallery is open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at 805 Allston Way, Berkeley. Entrance is free.

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Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...