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Lilian Broca, one of the few living artists in the world who works with Italian glass in the Byzantine tradition, stands in front of one of her mosaics in her home in Vancouver Dec. 3. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)
Lilian Broca, one of the few living artists in the world who works with Italian glass in the Byzantine tradition, stands in front of one of her mosaics in her home in Vancouver Dec. 3. (Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail)

TOM HAWTHORN

Resurrecting the lost art of the mosaic Add to ...

Lilian Broca taps on a glass square smaller than a fingernail, a steady hand trimming a corner.

She stands before a log into which has been placed a tool called a hardy, against which the glass is placed before being struck precisely by a hammer. Four taps and a square is neatly rounded.

Nearby, Ms. Broca presents the other tools of her trade - an X-Acto knife, plier-like nippers and cutters, sharply pointed dental instruments. She has a surgeon's hands, and an artist's vision.

In her backyard workshop, behind a rancher near the campus of the University of British Columbia, glass cups hold thousands of tiny squares of coloured glass in hues of orange and brown and yellow and green. They look like candies.

She gets the glass from Orsoni, a century-old Venetian family firm where the material is fired in a furnace at 1,300 degrees.

The 64-year-old mosaicist fashions the tiny glass pieces known as tesserae into remarkable artworks. Her spectacular panels have contributed to a revival of the medium, though she finds many still dismiss the mosaic as craft, not art.

"People have to come to terms that mosaic is fine art," she said. "It was the only fine art at one time."

She works in a Byzantine tradition first glimpsed as a young girl in her native Romania.

The process is laborious. She makes and revises pencil sketches, then paints the image of the future mosaic in mirror image, which will act as a guide for the painstaking work to follow.

A series of 10 mosaics she created to retell the Biblical story of Queen Esther took seven years to finish. One of the panels won a prestigious Lorenzo il Magnifico gold medal at the Florence Biennale International Exhibition in 2003.

Four years ago, the series was shown as a solo show at a Toronto art gallery. Most of the series was bought by a private collector of Canadian art who now owns eight of the panels.

The art historian and archaeologist Sheila Campbell, curator of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, hails Ms. Broca as a rare contemporary artist to find success in the medium. "For my part," she wrote for the show's catalogue, "I enjoy watching the glory of the Roman and Byzantine worlds being reborn in the 21st century."

The artist turned to mosaics after a lengthy period working in monochromatic graphite. "I was starved for colours," she said. Her pieces from that time include a notable series on Lilith, a figure from Jewish mythology whom she found to be a "solid, powerfully down-to-earth woman with a great sense of justice and integrity." Her pieces accompany a poem by Joy Kogawa called A Song of Lilith, published by Polestar a decade ago.

A few months ago, the artist made a pilgrimage to the land she left 52 years earlier.

She was born in Bucharest, where her grandfather had forged a successful business importing silk and Egyptian cotton for men's shirts. In 1923, he built a mansion for his growing family. His son went to Paris to study medicine, only to be ordered home by his father to handle the business.

Ms. Broca's parents survived the war - her mother as a forced labourer - only to lose the family holdings after the Communist takeover of their homeland. They sold "pianos, Persian rugs, silverware" to get through the tough times. They were ordered to share the house with others. "Each bedroom, salon, library had a family," she said.

Her parents decided to leave Romania. They rode a train to bordering Yugoslavia, where Ms. Broca remembers the most terrifying moment of her young life. Her father learned their application to join a sibling in Montreal had been rejected. "Okay, Julius," her mother replied in a voice that chilled her daughter, "what are we to do now?"

The family eventually sailed to Naples and on to Haifa. After nearly four years in Israel, they got permission to start a new life in Canada.

When she revisited the old family manse, she had to reassure residents she was not making a claim to ownership. The building was in disrepair, lacking grandeur.

Back home in Vancouver, her living room is dominated by a spectacular, two-panel mosaic from the Esther series, titled, Queen Esther Seeking Permission to Speak.

"The fact that glass reflects light makes it alive," she says.

Light from the setting sun dances across the surface, dimming and brightening as one passes before it, an ancient form once again finding an audience.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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