A Master of Mosaics
Brings His Art to Hillel


CLASS OF ’90 | A woman perches on the couch in a dress of snowflake obsidian while an agate cat curls at her side. The tuxedoed man she’s talking —and perhaps flirting—with is all black tile and grout lines. Carnelian, rose quartz, and yellow jasper bloom in the vase on a nearby table.

(Above) “Self Portrait of the Mosaicist,” and (right) “The Light That Flows Through Love Deer.”

With stones, tiles, and a carefully wielded wet-saw, artist Jonathan Mandell GFA’90 creates a mosaic world so intricately detailed that one longs to touch it. In fact, the tactile nature of mosaics is one of his favorite reasons for working in this medium. “There is a real immediacy and intimacy revealed through this quality,” he says, “whether the viewer is young or old.”

Mandell’s work can be seen in an exhibition, through October 7, at the new Hillel building on campus, Steinhardt Hall, as well as on his Web site (www.jonathanmandell.com/). Hillel also has commissioned Mandell to create a permanent installation, Timeline of the Jewish People. The 10-by-6-foot mosaic will commemorate Jewish history and culture largely through its architecture. “Because Jews were so often conquered, their stylistic influences were varied and diverse,” he explains.

While studying at Penn’s Graduate School of Fine Arts (now School of Design), Mandell was “turned on to mosaics” by a fellow student, Selim-el-Sherif GFA’89. After visiting Egyptian mosques with his friend, he started making mosaic Judaica, but over the years he has worked on many non-religious subjects, including Wilt Chamberlain and Humphrey Bogart. (Grout lines go a long way, rendering a realistic jump shot as well as the jaunty pinstripes in Bogie’s jacket in a scene from Casablanca.)

In mosaics, he explains, “you have a medium that is thousands of years old, with so much diverse history to learn from.” And by employing fine-art concepts such as perspective, color composition, sculpture, and bas relief in the process, “you can expand on the explorations quite a bit further,” he adds. “As an art form, mosaic is a perfect fusion of painting, sculpture, and drawing. It is simultaneously restrictive and free in its demands on the participant.”

During a visit to his garage studio in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Mandell squirts water from a spray bottle to bring out the rich, variegated green of the parrotwing stone in one of the latest pieces he’s working on, Living Room Conversation. “On the one hand there’s no palette to blend the precise shade you’re searching for,” he says. But the parrotwing makes a fine landscape view out the window in the living-room scene.

A trove of stone and mineral treasures, sorted roughly by color, lie in dusty blue bins on the floor, awaiting selection by the artist. He explains how mookite jasper, framed with golden tigereye, became a modernist painting in an art museum. Fiery citrine created candle flames for a synagogue decoration. Rose and white quartz combined to form Cosmopolitans sipped in a bar scene.

Mandell is always experimenting. For an auction to raise money for a local arts center, he created a mosaic version of Klimt’s The Kiss—on the curvy, three-dimensional form of a dog. “It’s a whole other nut to solve,” he says, “because you’re no longer just resolving a square or a rectangle.” After Seattle-based glass artists lost their work in an earthquake, he asked them to send pieces of broken glass and out of them made mosaic works to raise money for an emergency relief fund.

“I learn about each subject as I go,” Mandell says. That includes seeking input from his rabbi for details of the Hillel installation, as well as picking up the finer points of infield anatomy for a baseball piece, Phillies Field of Dreams, which he made for a couple’s dining room.

“He was a sports nut,” Mandell explains. “The wife wanted it to look painterly.” In the end everyone was happy, especially after one small detail was tweaked. “There is no such thing as a left-handed shortstop,” he says. “So I chipped it out and made him a righty.” —S.F..

2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

ALUMNI : Profiles : Events : Notes : Obituaries

Mosaics master Jonathan Mandell

Sports broadcaster Scott Graham

Award winner Elsie Sterling Howard

“Out” actor Robert Gant

“Fairy Godmother” Helen Rosenau

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