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Laurence Kesterson, MCT
Artist Barbie Henig of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, creates mosaic desings that are for decoration, or function, in gardens.

PHILADELPHIA (MCT) — The answering machine gives her away: "You have reached Barbie. I'm either grouting, gardening, or watching 'Law & Order' ..."

Those are the fixations, in correct order, of Barbie Henig, a mosaic-maker, gardener and crime-series fan from Ardmore, Pa., who has been known to create some rather unorthodox mosaics — on bowling balls and basketballs — using grout-sealed shards of pottery and glass scavenged on an out-of-the-way beach in Ventnor, Pa.

She calls herself a "shardist," which rhymes with artist, which raises a question: How, exactly, should we think of mosaics, that ancient practice of creating images or decorative designs from colored glass and stone?

The answer matters to purists who consider, say, painting and sculpture the exclusive province of fine art and media such as ceramics, fiber, and mosaics mere craft, not quite in the same league — and who, even if they do mosaics, prefer to be called simply artist, rather than mosaicist or mosaic artist.

Henig, you can be sure, wears the "mosaic artist" mantle proudly. "I was always a crafty kid," she says.

Henig grew up with a mother and grandmother who taught her to cook, sew, crochet, embroider and do needlepoint and patchwork. She couldn't draw and wasn't musical, and eventually decided on a career writing for educational TV.

Things didn't go quite as planned. After graduating from Temple University with a communications degree, she wound up communicating with — cooking and serving — customers at Tippy's Taco House. Eventually, the road straightened out and today the computer-savvy Henig works at a law firm as a business-process analyst, which would take too much space to explain here.

More important is the fact that in 2001 she took a mosaic class at Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pa., from Carol Stirton-Broad, who has become her unofficial mentor. (Henig now teaches mosaics at Tyler, too, as well as local art centers.)

Stirton-Broad describes Henig's shard collection, which fills baskets, bowls, canisters, tabletops, cases, and shelves in every room of her twin house, as "the absolute best I've ever seen."

As for herself? "I'm a mosaic junkie. I love everything about mosaic art," says Stirton-Broad, a Tyler School of Art graduate who has studied centuries-old mosaic techniques in Ravenna, Italy's "mosaic city." "I'm addicted to the materials. I just love the glass, the stones, breaking things. . . ."

Stop! What is it about this art or craft or whatever it is that nudges its practitioners toward obsession and sometimes — this is an open secret in the field — hoarding?

"It's a treasure hunt, a puzzle," explains Carol Shelkin, a potter, painter, and mosaic artist. "The fun of mosaics for me, honestly, is finding objects, breaking glass, putting things together neatly."

Shelkin uses stained glass, orphaned pieces from her "pottery graveyard," and millefiori, an Italian glass with flower patterns. Mosaics are fashioned out of all sorts of materials, mostly made or cut into small pieces. Smalti, a popular, high-quality glass tile, is historically tiny and Italian, but it also can be bought in slabs.

The Italian slabs are called "pizzas" and the Mexican-made ones "tortillas," proving there's humor, if not unanimity of opinion, in this unusual universe.

Then we have ceramic tiles, gemstones, nuggets, pebbles and rocks, marbles, broken dishes and mirrors, beads, shells, bricks, even old computer parts, shovel blades, and, in the Vietnamese tradition, lacquered eggshells.

Mosaic lovers scavenge for "found objects" on beaches and at thrift shops, yard sales, and budget stores. Box stores stock a respectable assortment of tiles, exotic materials are plentiful online, and eBay is rich with old dishes.

Karen Ami, president of the Society of American Mosaic Artists in Chicago, believes the Internet has helped stoke interest in mosaics; her group's membership has gone from 35 to 1,265 in a decade, and workshops are popular. But, on the fine-art-versus-craft point, few academic or art institutions incorporate mosaic instruction.

"In this digital age of art, art schools are looking ahead," Ami says, "and they see mosaics as a material art form that's too hands-on for the future, too tactile."

That very quality is part of its appeal, too — to artists looking to experiment, to community muralists, and to those who, even if lacking in artistic gifts, find fun in collecting oddball stuff and recycling it into "art."

"Mosaics seem to hold a mystery," says Henig, who took a five-day mosaic program in Ravenna in 2003 and specializes in making birdhouses and baths, stepping-stones, pots, and planters for the garden. "People are curious about how they're made and kids always want to touch them."

Gardeners especially appreciate a mosaic's unusual colors, textures, and sparkle throughout the seasons. And while waterproof adhesive, sealants, and other materials are recommended when making outdoor pieces, Henig just brings hers inside for the winter.

"There's always room for a planter," she says, "and why not have a birdbath in your living room?"

Of course, she does.

(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.