Our school is home to a beautiful work of art created and installed in place over a one and one half year period beginning in 1961 by Sr. Mary Fleurette Blameuser, B.V.M. The work is a glass tile mosaic mural entitled "Our Lady of Kansas." The mural adorns the gathering area at the front entrance to Kapaun Mt. Carmel and and majestically greets our guests. What follows is an article, authored by Sr. Mary Flaurette herself, about the mosaic.
By Sister Mary Fleurette Blameuser, B.V.M.
What is a mosaic? A mosaic is a design made up of many bits of stone, glass, ceramic, marble, tile, etc., set in a binding substance so as to form a continuous decorative surface. In this mosaic, which covers an area of about 200 square feet, there are approximately 138,000 pieces of imported Italian tesserae, called Smalti. This is what is known as Byzantine glass. Most of what I used came from Venice. Many of the pieces of glass were cut to fit the design. All were carefully selected and hand set. Usually the American artists’ designs are sent to Europe for tesselation or prefabrication and installed here. As far as I know, this is the first Italian Smalti mosaic mural to be done in Kansas, or in this area. A total of 2500 hours was spent directly on the mosaic and at least 1000 hours on work related to the project.
Technically, there are two ways of doing a mosaic – direct and indirect or reverse method. In the direct method the tesserae are fixed upon a permanent surface. Because of its size this mural was done in the reverse method, that is, the tesserae were pasted to a full size paper with a special formula of water soluble paste. A perfectly scaled drawing was cut into 210 small pre-determined sections, somewhat like a jig-saw puzzle for better handling and installation. These sections were carefully planned for dove-tail fit. The tesserae were then pasted to the sections. As a special precaution, since a soft, easily saturated paper was used, cross-over stripes of drafting tape were applied for reinforcement on the backs of the larger sections. Weeks before the installation the brick wall was given a rough coat of cement. Another thin coat of cement was applied to the wall as each section matching it was "buttered" with cement. The sections were pressed to the west wall in reverse. Since the cement adheres to and comes up into tiny spaces left between the pieces of Smalti, grouting from the front was not necessary for this "Thin-set" cement was used. When set, the paper was soaked off the front. Then the entire mural was given a thorough cleaning.
About 145 variations of color were used – 37 tones of blue alone. Incorporated are some of the colors from the brick, terrazzo and ceiling surrounding the mural. Strong contrast for carrying power was necessitated by the marvelous approach provided by the 46’ circular foyer. To complicate the problem of ordering, I found that a pound of Smalti may range from 188 to 325 pieces because of variations in cut. As I worked closely, I used about 3 lbs. to cover a square foot.
Procedure: Much of the preliminary planning was done in 1960. From among several small sketches, the final design was selected, as we wished to keep the theme of local interest. Next a careful scale drawing was made (1/4" = 1 1/2"). A reverse drawing was made of this and then a color plan. The full scale cartoon (2 sq." = 1 sq.’) was completed. A duplicate tracing was made on special tile paper. As a handy guide, another small scale plan was made in reverse, indicating the pattern and numbering of sections. This proved to be very helpful for installation.
The subject of my mosaic is OUR LADY OF KANSAS. It is a poetic and somewhat mystical interpretation of the Kansas scene. In keeping with the dignity and permanence of the building, I have been conservatively contemporary. Because of the nature of a mural, I have eliminated the illusion of distance or depth resulting from the use of natural perspective, in favor of spatial control through surface tension, which is characteristic of modern design. This was attained by using elevation drawings, abstract areas, and black outlines, where indicated, to separate concrete symbolic forms or images used in the foreground from the rhythmic interlocking and overlapping planes which serve as a psychological divider between the mundane and the celestial.
Dominating the panel and providing a strong vertical for this otherwise horizontal composition is our Lady encompassed in a parabolic mandorla of light. Her halo is surrounded by 12 stars and at her feet we see the moon. She is part of and yet surmounts the scene. Her billowing veils are symbolic of the south winds. (Kansas means South Wind People). The Christ-Child is opening His arms in a gesture of welcome to those who enter the building. The cross in His halo indicates that He is our Redeemer. Since Kansas is noted for its colorful sunsets and clear starry nights, I have combined the two ideas in the background area of astral bodies. "Ad Astra per Aspera" – "To the Stars Through Difficulties" is the Kansas state motto. In the sky we also see airplanes, characteristic of Wichita. To the right there are meadowlarks. Six large stalks of wheat, candelabra-like, form a guard of honor in attendance on our Lady. Continuing from the lower left are symbols of industry, grain elevators, a sheaf of wheat, sunflowers, a steer head and oil wells. The abstract areas backing the steer and wheat sheaf symbolize the green fields of Kansas.