“When possible,” says artist Beryl Solla, “I involve community members in my art by incorporating their history or by inviting them to make tiles with me.” Individuals’ stories went into the mosaics at the Richmond Police Second Precinct headquarters and St. Agnes Rainbow Village Day Care in Coral Springs.

Broken tiles, Mending Communities

Fragments of ceramic in Beryl Solla’s public mosaics tell the stories of the communities that display them

The American cultural debate over earmarking federal funds for public art has been fought from the art studio to city hall to political rallies. Opponents of public art projects call them eyesores, moral corruptions or a misuse of tax dollars. But a few artists are changing the hearts of even the staunchest critics.

Few could argue against the public art mosaics of Beryl Solla. She’s taking broken tiles and mending communities.

“I believe that public art should reflect the needs and interests of the people in the community,” says Solla. “When possible, I involve community members in my art by incorporating their history or by inviting them to make tiles with me.”

She’s far too modest.

JoAnn Loctav, coauthor of The Art of Mosaic Design, describes Solla’s work truer to form. “For Solla, mosaic is a metaphor: broken tile that mends shattered lives.”

In the centuries-old technique of mosaic art, Solla pieces together fragments of glass, ceramic, stone and clay to create intricate patterns within a unified whole. Solla has used the technique to pull together the pieces of communities.

In Coral Springs, Fla., at the Booher Addiction and Recovery Center for Women, Solla created Home of the Brave, and named it for the individual bravery of its inhabitants.

“These women were at their lowest,” Solla says, “They were former prostitutes and women with severe drug and alcohol addictions — women who had lost their children.”

Through a state grant program, the Broward County Art and Design Committee commissioned Solla to do a piece for the center’s main entrance. Solla could have easily re-searched a 12-step program on the Internet or read an Alcoholics Anonymous brochure, but she chose to meet the misery of addiction face to face. “This center is a lifeboat for these women,” says Solla. “The cooks work hard; the counselors work so hard for these women. And they, in turn, work hard to recover and get their lives back.”

Solla interviewed everyone from cook to counselor to addict and decided on a mural of symbolism — a piece featuring colorful hearts and hands in broken tiles set against a black and white background. “Some of the women helped make tiles and some chose to write affirmations on tiles shaped like their hands,” says Solla, remembering vivid details of each addict’s story. Some could only write their childrens’ names. But each of these affirmations meant so very much to these women.

Now, their affirmations permanently color the center’s entrance, where newly recovering addicts begin a journey out of the dark hole of addiction. Solla’s work so inspired the center’s staff, that they invited her back to do a second project, including a small fountain patio and entranceway.

“I believe in the ability of art to communicate in real ways, not just aesthetically,” says Solla. “That’s why I have community members help make tiles, discuss content or install the mosaics. I love teaching and involving my students in these community projects. I tell my students, ‘why wait for some gallery director to never call; get out in the community and put your energy to good use.’”

Solla began her fourth year teaching three-dimensional drawing and general education art classes at JMU this fall. She gave up an 18-year tenured faculty position at Barry University in Miami, when she and her husband decided that they wanted to raise their children in place more community oriented.

“We researched the whole country,” she says, “and found the best climate, quality of life and sense of community in this part of Virginia.”

Solla’s sense of community was instilled by an undergraduate art professor at Florida International University. “I named my first son after him,” she says. “He taught me about the artist’s responsibility to community, and it is so true. Even before I began public art, my individual expressions were socially conscious.”

In one of the roughest, racially divided communities in Richmond, Solla helped local police reach out to the public. “We invited the police chief and several officers and community leaders to come together and work on this mosaic,” says Solla. “Our concept involved a line of human shapes holding hands, but it was hard to get some of our participants to even hold hands for a photograph.”

The mosaic, commissioned for the police station, is 15 feet tall and features a yellow police badge over a black and white background. “The police wanted to instill a sense of mutual trust in the community,” says Solla. “So, the silhouettes of policemen and community members are each a little black and a little white. By the end of our project, some of the participants became friends.”

Broken tiles transforming lives.

There is no association, gallery or museum in the United States dedicated to mosaic art. Beryl Solla doesn’t need one. Her art lives in the hearts of each community member she has touched.

Click on the Full Monty icon for a more in-depth story and visit arts-ville.com to see more of Solla’s work.


Story by Michelle Hite (’88)
Photos Courtesy of Beryl Solla and by Wayne Gehman


Publisher: Montpelier Magazine • For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu