Visiting Artist Profile: Carolina Zanelli
It was a chance encounter on a train that brought Carolina Zanelli to the world of mosaics. Carolina, a native of Udine, Italy, was just finishing her studies in cello performance and classics when she met a woman in passing on a train who was a student at the Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli – School of Mosaicists of Friuli, just north of Venice. Carolina found herself intrigued and surprised that she had never heard of this school just across from her Grandmother’s home in Spilimbergo. By 1995 she had graduated with a diploma as Maestra mosaicista.
The Scuola Mosacisti del Fruili in Spilimbergo is just one of several mosaic schools throughout Italy, but with one large difference. Unlike schools in Ravenna and Rome that focus primarily on teaching antique techniques with the intention of preparing the next generation for conservation and restoration work, Fruili takes a more modern approach, teaching their own direct and indirect methods. Their speciality in portraiture is one that Carolina brings to the Chicago Mosaic school in her Modern Mosaic Portraiture workshop.
Carolina’s mosaic career has spanned a range of practices and subjects, traveling internationally to teach and study, creating commissions as well as her own creative work, and working for a time at Mosaïque Surface in Montréal, Canada, and Mayer in Munich, Germany. The Chicago Mosaic School’s mission is to shift from the “craft” oriented perception of mosaics toward a more elevated view that includes mosaic among other fine art mediums such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. When asked how she feels about that goal when compared to doing more traditional decorative styles and completing commissions, “I like it all,” she says.
However, in her own work Carolina favors the contemporary, opting to play with the constraints of the medium and challenge viewers and herself by reimagining glass and stone as something more ethereal: leggerezza, lightness.
Lately this has included affixing mosaic tile to flexible, transparent silicone sheeting. She also achieves this effect by creating elongated tesserae that evoke flowing movement. “I like to work with different colors, to play around and make something I like,” she says, rather than relying on figuration or representational images. Her Fragments series features organically-shaped mosaic panels that can be hung in any orientation or configuration together or alone. “It’s meant to be playful.”
Though she cites no specific aesthetic influences or deliberate references, Carolina’s work often alludes to meditations on place, choice, and identity. She has made works resembling traditional medieval labyrinths, but uses the familiar forms as a venue to experiment with subtle explorations of color and pattern. According to her website, “Labyrinth represents my own life: How many times have I chosen one way rather than another? Why turn right instead of left, or vice-versa? How did I get to where I am? Can I go back? Where would I be if I had chosen just ONE different path?” Ruminating on the passage of time and the pathways of our lives while manipulating the formal elements of material and design certainly feels like the natural pursuit for someone who found their calling by way of a chance encounter.
As she moves forward, Carolina continues to teach in Spilimbergo and internationally. Much like Karen Ami, founding director of the Chicago Mosaic School, she feels impelled toward building a better presence for mosaics in the contemporary art market and the critical arena. Recalling an exhibition in Paris where she showed her work, she says “there were gallerists there, but they didn’t know what to do with it. ‘Did you paint this?’ they asked- they didn’t really know what it was!” With her art, she endeavors to break away from the question “what is this for?” and implications of functionality linking mosaic to its architectural and decorative pigeonhole and instead let the mosaic medium act as a vehicle for sheer visual expression and artistic process, whether it be decorative, didactic, or esoteric.
Carolina Zanelli has been a visiting artist at the Chicago Mosaic School since 2006. Most recently she taught two workshops, Color Theory and Modern Mosaic Portraiture.