Piecing Together

Piecing Together

Two mosaic peacocks perch on a table at Mediterranean restaurant Rawa. The image is exquisite in the manner of peacocks, but particularly in the manner of mosaics. Each detail, each transition of color, in the life-sized tail feathers is rendered with a piece of stone no larger than a thumbnail, shaped and positioned by hand.

The peacocks inhabit a recent work completed by Mosaic Natural, the business started by Fayez Hammadi—who also co-owns and frequently cooks at Rawa—and his brothers. They made their first mosaic over 30 years ago in Syria. At that time, Hammadi was on his way to becoming a civil engineer—and one of his brothers a Master in Economics—under a dictatorship that would have made it difficult for them to practice their professions. They were also in their daily lives surrounded by mosaics that dated back to the development of the art form itself. Their hometown of Kafr Nabl had been built over the remains of ancient cities of the Byzantine empire, whose temples, dwellings and bathhouses were decorated with mosaic art. “We had a farm,” remembers Hammadi, “where we used to find the stone in the ground. We found very ancient pieces.” But Hammadi points to collections abundantly displayed in Syrian museums as the catalyst for their own efforts, first working together to assemble an image of “Mar Georgios”—St. George and the Dragon—on a 48” x 40” mesh canvas. It took 20 days to assemble and about as many to find suitable stone. But it sold well and quickly at the market, and a business was born.

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Many of their first mosaics were made with scraps from kitchen countertop suppliers. “We go to the factories. We get the leftovers before they throw them out. Leftovers because it’s easy to cut. Because you need small pieces.” They also needed different colors in adequate quantities and varieties to create pictures. “We found 10 colors—maybe 15”—between Turkey and Syria. As sales grew the business, the Hammadis became their own supplier in a part of the world where marble was relatively plentiful, with more on the horizon. Eventually, he says, “we 42 colors. From around the world. From India. Brazil. Because India is very famous for marble. And Brazil also. They have two or three colors that are very good…” Their widening palette created its own demand, primarily from customers at galleries and kitchen showrooms. And that demand necessitated more hands to assemble mosaics. “We taught a lot of people to do this in my city,” recalls Hammadi. “We started very small, then in 2010 we had over 600 families working with us. And everyone taught everyone.”

Seated at Rawa, Hammadi demonstrates the first lesson in mosaic construction, deftly snapping pieces from a narrow strip of stone with a set of end-cut pliers. “If you want a piece like this? Rectangle? Square?” He snips off pieces in a trapezoidal shape to show how mosaic pieces form larger shapes, placing them in a perfect semi-circular line on the table. “That’s the idea of hand-made. In China, they do the same, but they use a machine. They can’t do this.” He cuts a diamond shape from one of his already tiny rectangles and gestures to a nearby mosaic replica of the Mona Lisa. “For the eyes. You see the eyes over there? We use very small pieces.” Hammadi estimates that one would need at least 5 years of experience before he or she could credibly copy the Mona Lisa in mosaic—and a close examination of her uncannily supple mosaic hands bears him out.

“But you get the experience slowly. It is not about oral

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, like a teacher. You need to be involved to know. To do it slowly. To make mistakes. You make a simple one first.” Abstract patterns could be credibly assembled with less than six months’ experience, but as the business advanced from year to year, the same artists could then handle figurative portraits and landscapes. By 2010, Mosaic Natural could display both patterns and portraits on their webpage for international customers, assign them to artists according to their years of experience, then ship the result in two weeks. That was the heyday of Mosaic Natural.

The Syrian Revolution broke out the next year, and the violent response from the Syrian government catalyzed a civil war that has leveled cities and displaced millions. Mosaic Natural’s physical business—its workshop and showroom—was destroyed. It was nevertheless established enough to periodically send Hammadi to the US on a business visa. “The last time, 2013, I stayed here. I seek asylum.” Hammadi enumerates his stray connections, who’ve been displaced closer to home. “I have my wife and two kids. They are in Turkey. I have one brother in Turkey. I have three brothers in Syria. Very close to the border to Turkey. But it’s not safe inside my city… We left everything behind and we just left. And we start over.”

In some ways, the business has benefited from the dispersal of its owners. It is now, on paper, a US-based operation, and 90% of its customers are from the US. “I have 10% from Europe. Especially from Germany,” Hammadi adds. “I don’t know why.” And each mosaic is now made in Turkey or close to it, where the supply of stone is even more abundant and accessible to the hands capable of shaping it. Hammadi’s brothers have two workshops among them, in Turkey and in the Syrian border city of Idlib, where they were able to reconnect with many of the mosaic makers who had worked for them before the war. The business has become a lifeline among them, maintaining a system of mutual support that would be otherwise broken by the reality of international borders and governments. “Between all my brothers, there is 55 people now. I’m doing business on this side because they need it done overseas… Because everyone working over there, they have families. We’re surviving from this.” Hammadi was officially granted asylum in 2019, allowing him to begin the process of gaining asylum for his wife and children. Meanwhile, he envisions a greater presence for the business in the US. “I need to open a little showroom. That’s my plan for next year.”

The dining room at Rawa provides ambience for display, but Hammadi says you can’t really expect customers to come to a restaurant to inspect your art. “Like, last month,” he continues, “I get slow business. Because Thanksgiving, people here in the United States get relaxed a little bit. My brothers keep texting message, ‘Where is business? Where is order?’ But this month is good.” Hammadi shows me photos on his phone of etched glass faces in frames of molded, dark wood—all part of a stained glass window array in a boutique hotel in Toronto. A customer wanted the whole window copied in a mosaic of the same size. The finished work, he says, is 14 feet long, completed by 35 of his artists, rolled up and shipped in sections to be reassembled onsite. Rendering the variations of color and light and shadow preserved by a digital photo requires a kind of mastery that ancient-world artists could not have been expected to achieve. “I like custom work,” Hammadi says. “You can really improve yourself in custom design.” His customers oblige by sending photos of their families, photos of their backyards. They want to see their own lives in mosaic.

Mosaic Natural
in RAWA – 838 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
(844) 988-7665 | sales@mosaicnatural.com

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 1 features Fayez Hammadi.

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