Mosaic artist working on ‘ruins’ project
Mosaic artist Rachel Sager is tackling her biggest project, repurposing old mine buildings into art.
Rachel Sager may have majored in English and art history at West Virginia Wesleyan University in Buckhannon, but her career took an abrupt detour when she answered an unrelated ad for employment.
Accepted for the position of grouter at a mosaic studio, the Belle Vernon native “fell in love with the art form” she claims is now experiencing a critical renaissance.
Although Sager, 46, took on many different jobs to support herself through the years, she’s always found time to create mosaic art. Seven years ago, she chucked the alternate employment option and went full time into mosaics. In January 2015, she took a another giant career step when she bought 11 acres in Whitsett, Fayette County, the site of the now defunct Banning No. 2 Mine.
The mosaic artist now lives in the original mine office, which she’s refitting to serve as a comfortable, cozy domicile close to the Great Allegheny Passage Trail and the Youghiogheny River. Her equally eye-catching studio, which she built a year-and-a-half ago, is just a stone’s throw away from her home.
“The studio changes everything on my portion of the trail,” she said. “There’s a 25-mile-long dead spot that runs from West Newton and Connellsville, and bikers looking for something to do stop in the studio for a look around and buy things.”
Snacks like Power Bars and jerky are popular, but her best sellers are small clay-fired refrigerator magnets with whimsical sayings. Of course, her mosaic art also is for sale, like her work “Printlandia,” a framed mosaic piece mounted on a studio wall made solely from glass, metal and plastic parts recycled from her old printer.
At the moment, Sager’s major focus is on what she calls her “ruins project,” a work in progress that’s attempting to cover the walls of the mine’s processing plant, idle ever since the mine closed in the 1950s.
“As soon as I saw the buildings, I envisioned it as one giant substrate, a natural canvas that could take me the rest of my life to finish,” she said.
Now two years in, much remains to be done – so much so she’s nicknamed the project the “Wild West” for its wide-open spaces that remain. Fellow mosaic artists from all over the country and even the world, as well as mosaic students from the area with prior experience, have joined in on the project.
“The internet’s an amazing thing, and it and the Society of American Mosaic Artists are good ways to connect to people,” said Sager who’s a society member, teacher and lecturer. “So far, I’ve had people from as far away as Seattle and Canada work on the project and, in May, had an artist come in from Argentina.”
She also offers multiple day classes for people wanting to learn more about mosaics who add their own contributions and designs. Everyone who works on the project will also have their name and the year of their participation stamped on a clay tablet installed on a “Wall of Names.”
Sager gives her fellow artists a lot of freedom in making their designs, but does enforce a few rules, including one to honor the legacy of the miners. In the future, she’s planning a memorial wall that will superimpose in mosaic the underground map of the mine on a wall, then install plaques with the miners’ names inserted between the labyrinth of passageways.
“I get to watch people from all over talk to one another in mosaic, which definitely has a language,” she said. “I considered the work of the more experienced artists a gift because they’re so good at what they do and are leaving behind their mark.”
At the moment, Sager estimates that about 20 percent of the completed work is hers, and that she hasn’t had a problem with different colors, styles or concepts.
“The project is still in its infancy,” she said. “Come back in five years and it should be an entire different place.”
Recently, Sager began offering tours of the site to the public. The basic 45-minute-long tour starts in the studio, then moves outdoors to the mine buildings. The cost is $15 per person, with a minimum of four people. Add-ons, like studio talks, an introduction to mosaic art and stone-cutting demonstrations, also are available for an extra fee.
“On the tours, I talk about the history of the mine, the artists involved in the ruins project and their work,” she said. “It’s a coming together of art, history and nature with a lot of storytelling, and I hope it will become popular with the bicycle trail riders.”
Although Sager has a lot on her plate at the moment renovating her house and studio and holding classes and tours, she still finds time to make her own mosaic art. She forages for shale, limestone, slate and coal, and cuts by hand her own stones and colored smalti (high-fired glass) imported from Italy. Surprisingly, her favorite is red dog, the remnants of old slag dumps, that she claims makes the most expressive material.
The artist also gets a couple of commissions each year. The most recent was a map of a section of Maine for a resident of that state. Past commissions have included Fallingwater for a member of the board of the renowned Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house and a couple of pieces for country star Ashley Judd.
“The residents of Whitsett have been amazingly supportive of my work,” Sager said. “All of them come from coal families whose relatives worked the mines. They’ve watched me renovate the house, and I’m fortunate that they’ve welcomed me and are open to the vision I have for the mine buildings.”