DC at Night

DC at Night

Monday, June 24, 2013

Making Mosaics: Art from a Tiny (2) Band of Gypsies

The Breitingers critique their work
When Kevan Breitinger developed serious health issues about 8 years ago, she realized she would have to make some big changes. She had always liked working at physically demanding jobs, the latest being a cleaning service she operated in their Ocean City, NJ seaside community with her husband, Paul, who also ran a construction business.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. We still had 2 (of 4) kids to get through school. I was in a bit of a panic," Kevan says. But then karma, kismet, serendipity, fate, divine providence or some such force intervened. "I just happened to be in Philly and I picked up a book on mosaics. I said to myself  'I can do that.' So I took other books out of the library and I sort of taught myself."

But despite her best efforts, the initial projects Kevan designed didn't look like the ones in the book. "They were very pristine and precise and I'm not that kind of person. Mine were coming out rowdy and explosive," she says.

However, people she showed her 1st works to liked them and Kevan made a decision. "I told myself I'm just going to follow this and see where it goes," she said.

Today, she and Paul  travel to about 40 arts and crafts shows a year where they sell the colorful, funky, folksy mosaics they make together. "We're like a Band of Gypsies," Paul says with a laugh, a reference to both their nomadic wanderings and their art work, which evidences a definite 60's vibes reminiscent of the era of Hendrix, hippies, and happenings.

Often completing each others thoughts, the affable Breitingers explained their art process during a lull in customers this past weekend at the annual Arlington Arts Festival. There are basically 2 types of pieces. The 1st are large mosaics in 1 of 2 themes - the sea (mermaids, turtles, fish) or music (guitars or keyboards).  The 2nd are smaller framed pieces, usually with a snippet of a saying or song lyric as a focus. The sayings show Kelvan's leanings. All You Need Is Love by the Beatles. Imagine by John Lennon. Forever Young by Bob Dylan. There are also lyrics from current musical artists who have a social conscience in their music such as Dave Matthews or Jack Johnson, as well as popular maxims and words from other noted figures.. 
A  closer view of the work pictured above.
 "I let the quote set the theme. I use something that speaks to me, but also can appeal to others," Kevan says. "A lot of them are iconic. Teenagers will come up, see the work, and begin singing the Beatles or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Young people seem to like stopping into our tent. Maybe it's my hair."

In their studio, Kevan begins by creating 100's of colored clay tiles. She then begins fashioning them, along with other objects such as beads and tiny metal shapes, into a themed design. "We use a lot of peace signs," she says. Meanwhile, Paul is cutting and putting together frames. After the design is finished, each piece is lifted up and glued by hand on the finished work. "She does all the design work, but I help with the gluing," Paul explained.

While the large works vary in price, the Breitingers sell the small pieces for $55 each. "I really do want to keep the work cheap," Kevan said." I like to make it affordable, especially these days."  Paul agrees. "Look we're in the same (economic) boat as everyone else."

The Breitingers now spend about 10 months of the year in St. Augustine, Florida and 2 summer months in Ocean City. As soon as they completed the Arlington show, they were headed to the Jersey shore to get ready for another exhibition next weekend. "It will be in Jersey so there will be plenty of (Bruce) Springsteen," Kelvan promised. She said she tries to regionalize her work for shows (a lot of Jimmy Buffet for Florida, for example), but that only goes so far. She aborted an attempt to produce sports-themed works for sports-crazy fans in Philadelphia. "I'm just not that into sports. I have to believe in what I'm creating. Really, it's not all about the money," Kevan said.

The couple, who married 32 years ago, said they enjoy spending so much time working and traveling together. But they admitted that setting up and taking down shows can be stressful. "You hear a lot of husbands and wives go at it and we've had our moments," Kevan said.

Both enjoyed the especially care-free years that came with coming of age at the Jersey shore in the 60's and early 70's. In his teenage years, Paul surfed competitively ("I still surf, a lot," he says). His surf boards were made by Tinker of Asbury Park, another Jersey shore town. At the time, Tinker was also serving as Bruce Springsteen's manager. "I got to attend surf shows and hear Springsteen," Paul fondly recalls. He also became friendly with the Hamid brothers (their father George owned the famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City). "I spent a lot of time there. Heard the Stones. The Animals. The Turtles," Paul said. "My father was a jazz drummer so he used to take us there to see all the big bands, too."

Given that background, it's not surprising that a 21st Century lifestyle that includes the sea, the shore, music, and the freedom of traveling appeals to the Breitingers.  "It's great," Paul said. "It's kind of like we're going back to our roots. It's just that we are at a different age now. Actually, I think it's much better this time around."

Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
For the sake of full disclosure, I should tell you my wife and I bought one of the Bretinger's pieces. Since Judy spent 33 years running an art gallery and custom framing shop I'll let her tell you what attracted us to the contemporary folk art pieces and why we liked them so much. Judy: There were a lot I liked but the the one we bought was my favorite.  First, I liked the saying from Homer Simpson (by way of his creator Matt Groening) in the middle, "Remember,as far as anyone knows, we're a nice normal family." The colors of the tiles and the shapes and expressions on the handmade ceramic pieces, along with the tiny charms, really caught my eye. Every piece had a reason for being in the mosaic. It was so relevant to us.  Everything from the Save Our Planet to Frankenstein reflected who we are. And it looks great in our bedroom! To learn more about Kevan's creations, click here.

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