Masters of Mosaics

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Mike Tauber and Jesse Bartels piece together works that stand the test of time.

By Stefanee Freedman

 

For thousands of years, artists have been piecing together mosaic masterpieces. This stunning art form, which dates back to ancient times, produces beautifully unique works that stand the test of time—and can be seen all around Laguna Beach thanks to two prominent artists, Mike Tauber and Jesse Bartels, who have put their own signature styles on local mosaics.

 

Community Creations

Mike Tauber launched his art career in Laguna Beach as an architectural illustrator in 1987, a few years after graduating from San Diego State University in 1985. What attracted Tauber to the area was its small town atmosphere paired with its pristine nature, rich history and artist community. “Orange County has filled in all around us, but [our] nature is largely preserved and our arts industry is rolling with the changes,” Tauber says.

Illustration was his main concentration in college and, after he graduated, Tauber focused on painting as he felt that these two mediums required less infrastructure than ceramics. It wasn’t until much later—the mid-2000s—when he incorporated ceramic tiles into his artwork.

MikeTauber Parrots Community Mosaic (detail) Tustin_credit Mike Tauber
Artist Mike Tauber’s parrot mosaic, a project that involved community participation in Tustin | Photo by Mike Tauber

“I’ve done acres of painted murals throughout my career, so transitioning to tile felt natural,” Tauber notes. “… [Ceramics are] more durable for outdoor mural locations. I finally got my own kiln [in] about 2012 and tile is now 80% of
my work. I love the solidity, weight and permanence of tile and [the fact] that viewers can touch it. It becomes part of the built environment and sets a place-making identity.”

Tauber draws inspiration from American regionalist painters such as Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton as well as mid-20th century Disney animated backgrounds, agricultural packing crate labels and advertising illustrations.

“As for mosaic artists, I’m amazed by Niki de Saint Phalle, who has jaw-dropping installations in Encinitas and along the harbor in San Diego,” he adds.

One substantial work of Tauber’s that can be spotted in town is the “Coastline to Canyon” mosaic along Glenneyre Street at Neighborhood Congregational Church. He says that he was influenced by digital graphics—specifically elements like pixelation and color bleed—along with aerial photography, light in plein air paintings and ancient inscriptions.

“It’s an abstract and literal narrative of Laguna Beach, our geography and wildlife. Best of all, 700 citizens helped create it,” he boasts. “It’s my responsibility to put lots of research, thought and planning into … [my] designs for each location.”

MikeTauber painting commission for home in Laguna 2023_courtesy of Mike Tauber
Tauber with one of his painting commissions for a Laguna home | Photo courtesy of Mike Tauber

Another mural that saw local participation for tile creation, “Swimming in Sea Life,” adorns the side of The Taco Stand restaurant on South Coast Highway while Mermaid Street is also home to one of his public art pieces.

Tauber is currently working on a huge mosaic for a park in Temple City that has a flora/fauna theme. Catch him at Festival of Arts next summer, where he will be exhibiting landscapes crafted in tile, as well as in the Patriot’s Day Parade in March, as he has been named Laguna’s 2024 Artist of the Year.

“I’m thankful for the constant support from fellow artists, residents, visitors and especially the city,” Tauber says.

Art by Mike Tauber

3251 Laguna Canyon Road, Ste. H-1
949-497-3597; tauberstudios.com

 

Tiled Treasures

Jesse Bartels was born into the local art community, as his parents have been both artists and art instructors in Laguna. But, luckily, he loves creating just as much as they do.

Cathy, his mother, is a mixed media artist while his father, Marlo, makes tile sculptures and ceramic installations for local residents—and was Bartels’ first mentor in mosaic art. “Among my first jobs, and the longest running, was working for my father at his studio since 1990,” he explains.

Jesse Bartels mosaic The Pearl_credit Jesse Bartels
A tile mosaic titled “The Pearl” by Jesse Bartels | Photo by Jesse Bartels

Others that served as mentors for Bartels include past Laguna Beach High School ceramics teacher and Sawdust Art Festival regular Bill Darnall as well as two late painters, John Eagle and Michael Hallinan.

Bartels mainly uses three materials in his mosaic works: white earthenware, ceramic clay and bright glaze, depending on the project. He often uses the glaze on the centerpiece of the painting, surrounding it with a mosaic frame or border of handmade tiles.

“I roll flat slabs with a slab roller, which is basically a rolling pin mounted to a table, and take care to compress edges and dry my tiles flat,” Bartels explains of his technique. “I also make and use press molds to capture texture on found objects, toys, natural elements, etc.”

Bartels himself has already been exhibiting at the Sawdust festival for nearly 20 collective years, though his stints there had been broken up until 2009. Now he is a regular, often giving visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how he creates his tile pieces. “The way I set up my booth is as a work space,” Bartels says. “I have created more of a studio than a booth. I assemble and cut tiles while I’m working there.” After cutting, he adheres the pieces with thin-set cement and finishes them with grout, though he notes that the actual ceramics are created at his home studio due to their delicate nature.

IMG_3365_credit Mary Hurlbut
Bartels with a mural depicting a hilltop view of Laguna Beach High School | Photo by Mary Hurlbut

Many of Bartels’ projects in Laguna Beach are installed at private residences, but he has helped create a number of public art pieces as well, including two cubes at the start of The Promenade on Forest, panels on Mermaid Street and the Brooks Street Beach stairs, which inspired a neighbor on the block to have him design a companion piece as well. He also helped Laguna Beach High School’s Class of 2020 leave its mark with a mural on campus.

“I have two pieces across the street from each other on Coast Highway: The cubes on Forest is a collaboration with [my father], Marlo Bartels,” he notes. “Recently, I … [also placed] an underwater piece in one of the shop windows at … Hotel Laguna.”

Bartels’ work will be displayed at the Sawdust grounds during this year’s Winter Fantasy on Fridays and weekends through Dec. 17 in an enchanting holiday setting.

Jesse Bartels

949-315-1832; instagram.com/jessebartels

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