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Jonathan Mandell discusses his Kobe Bryant mosaic

December 20, 2010 |  8:41 am

Kobe Bryant-72dpi

Part of Kobe Bryant's court dedication at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania last week entailed Jonathan Mandell of Fine Art Mosaics presenting a mosaic in Bryant's honor. Mandell, who has constructed various mosaics depicting various Philadelphia sports figures, including Wilt Chamberlain and Brian Westbrook, recently shared his insight on the Bryant mosaic.

On the project's origin: In August, I created a large mosaic for Lower Merion High School. It's 10 x 6 and Lower Merion just opened their new building this fall. The large-scale mosaic has all kinds of things and the center of it is an image of the old high school and all around it are different scenes of education, arts and sports and history of the school. One of the scenes is the Kobe basketball team from '96. In that section is the whole team -- 18 players and the coach and all that. Kobe is in this large mosaic, but each head is maybe an inch or an inch-and-a-half high. It's tiny and hard to really get into doing portrait likeness. I had been dealing with the school administration in the development and fabrication of the large-scale mosaic. It came to light that Kobe was going to be the sponsor of the gymnasium there. I made the suggestion that it would be a nice way to honor him there for me to do a Kobe Bryant larger scale where I could really get into a fine-tuned version of the portrait likeness.

On the concept behind Bryant's mosaic: It's 4 foot by 3 foot and I was researching images of him at his time at Lower Merion and had found this great action shot. I thought it really captured a moment in time. I went with that. My process is that I create my drawings on the computer, where I'm literally designing the tile shapes that create the mosaic. You get a clear sense in advance on how I'm going to approach the portrait likeness. Then I review that with the people at Lower Merion and then we decided to proceed with that rendering of it.

I used the computer as a design tool. It doesn't do the designing for me. I could do it with cut paper but doing it on Photoshop, I'm creating the shapes and deciding how I'm going to break up the anatomy. I have these drawing lines that are descriptive of the anatomy so his head looks like a skull and it's three-dimensional so that his torso moves the way the spine moves. It creates the believability of physical motion. The hand-posturing and all these kinds of things are based on a study of the way the body works. I mostly used ceramic tile and metallic tile as well. With the larger piece, I also involved glass, semi-precious stones and minerals as well, but I didn't really see the application for it in the Kobe piece to use stones and minerals. It wasn't going to enhance the piece. But I usually work with the range of the materials.

I was trying to capture him doing what it is that he does. One of the things with a mosaic is it tends to be a more static medium. To create the illusion of motion is something to achieve. That's what I was striving to do. You get the motion and tension of his action and all that. A lot of this is conveyed through the cement joints. One of the things that's different about my approach to mosaic is that the route lines act as drawing lines and they create a sense of depth perspective and the volume and form of what you're looking at has the appearance of being solid and dimensional. That's really what I was trying to capture -- the action and the moment.

Why this image stuck out among the various pictures he saw of Bryant at Lower Merion High School: When I'm looking at images as source material, sometimes I put several images together. But in this case, I just saw this one photo. I'm looking for images that have a strong narrative content. You look at the image and you tell the story and what it's about. To me, there was a lot of narrative clarity. It captured the power of his play and elegance of his movement and all that in one still shot. There's a real sense of motion and tension in these things that I was trying to capture in the artwork in the original image. To me it was something great as a platform to work from.


On Bryant's reaction to the mosaic: "He was really thrilled with it. I got a little bit of time with him during the presentation. But things get really compressed time-wise when you're in a situation like that. But he seemed really happy with it. He told us at the event that he wears his Lower Merion trunks under his Laker trunks. He described Lower Merion as his university and it furthering his education. He has a very tight connection to the school. To capture him in his high school days was very meaningful.

On what Bryant's ceremony means to him considering he's a 1980 alum at Lower Merion: It's great to see somebody who achieved so much maintain the connection. He's on the West Coast and we're on the East Coast. It wouldn't be that hard to see things go the wayside. There's so many things he could focus his attention on in Los Angeles. But the fact he chose to maintain his roots and there are still teachers he's in touch with on a regular basis is special. One of his favorite teachers, [English teacher Jeanne Mastriano], was one of the keynote speakers at the dedication. She was very eloquent in the way she talked about Kobe, not so much as Kobe the athlete, but Kobe the person. She's an English teacher and clearly not a sports person, but she was able to talk about him as a person. That was very meaningful to get insights into his character from somebody who really isn't that inclined toward the sport. It was a nice way for everyone to get an insight into what he's like and her experience and her connection with him.


You mentioned on your website that you try to "deliver new relevance to the established symbols of man, biblical and mythical, in mosaics depicting secular and nonsecular subjects." What do you feel you revealed about Kobe in your mosaic? What I was trying to deliver with Kobe was a straightforward, easily-understood image of his power and elegance as an athlete and to capture him in his youth before he really hit his heights of glory. The mosaic is a medium, like most art forms, was born out of the liturgic. Art back in the day was a religious thing. Then it became more of a secular thing. But if you look at museums, older art tends to be religious imagery. The same with mosaics -- you see ancient Christian, ancient Jewish and ancient Muslim approaches to mosaic. For me, it was where I began my approach to mosaic. I have a master of fine arts and sculpture from what was the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. I got my degree in 1990. ... When you study paint, you have your paint, your canvas, your brush and there's a million different techniques. But with sculpture you can learn to weld, carve wood, model clay. There's so many different techniques you can experiment and learn and figure out what your voice is going to be.

I'm Jewish and I started out doing synagogue work and stuff like that. That was a natural starting point in learning about mosaics because the majority of historical examples are religious in theme. I'm not too steeped in religion so it was a natural inclination to do things in the greater secular pool and I started doing a lot of slice-of-life scenes. In refining the process even more, I was able to nail down portrait likenesses very precisely. That's the way I did this larger Lower Merion mosaic. Each section was drawn out and mapped out in advance and I blew up the panel and transposed it onto the panel and templated each piece. The rendering of the old school building, I knocked loose brick from the old building and I sliced that down and used that break to create the rendering of the school with the idea that once the old building is torn down, people will be able to touch it. I've done things where there's interactive qualities. It's all about trying to tailor-make the design so that it best fits the institution or purpose of what you're designing. With the Kobe piece, the purpose was to capture his essence as a young athlete. With Lower Merion, the purpose was to capture the 100-year history of the school.

On why mosaics appeal to him as an art form: The beautiful thing about mosaics and what attracted me is I like to think of these wall panels as being tactile paintings. At the Constitution Center, they get 2[,000] to 3,000 kids a day going through there touching and handling the piece or at the Phillies ballpark. The fact that people can touch the artwork to me is something special. There's no barrier where you have a glass or have to stand a distance from it. You can literally handle it. ... It creates an added level of intimacy where they can gauge the artwork that way and connect with it.

-- Mark Medina

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Photos: Jonathan Mandell has constructed various mosaics, including ones depicting, from top, Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion High School and Wilt Chamberlain. Credit: Jonathan Mandell