Kim Larson Puts Pieces Back Together
Broken plates, tiles, pottery, and china find their way into her mosaics.
Kim Larson blends her graphic design skills with her fine arts abilities to create beautiful mosaics, including 3D sculptures and traditional mosaics.
Photo of Larson by Merri Besden; photos of art courtesy Kim Larson
The mosaics of Oakland artist Kim Larson are both decorative and beautifully crafted. As a graphic designer for over 30 years, Larson enjoys the practical application of art. To land where she is today as a mosaics artist, she first apprenticed with public muralists before advancing to mosaic mural making. Developing her work over the past 10 years, Larson has expanded her portfolio to include three-dimensional mosaic sculptures, often depicting animals or the human figure, along with traditional mural mosaic designs.
Larson grew up in Lancaster, N.Y., a small suburb of Buffalo and a working-class Rust Belt town. As a young girl, she would copy graphic art images she saw in magazines and album covers, which eventually drew her into pursuing the graphic arts as a career. While observing the “Summer of Love” on the television news as a kid, she knew that San Francisco was where she wanted to be when she grew up — a place that looked like a vibrantly creative and colorful place full of freedom.
After two years at the University of Southern California studying international relations and then switching to the fine arts, Larson returned to Lancaster and started teaching herself plein-air oil painting. Sitting in open fields and woods around her family home, she looked for her own artistic path. In 1979, she moved to San Francisco where a friend mentored her and started Larson on her career in graphic design. In 2003, she and her partner moved to Oakland where they found it more affordable and the climate warmer.
Larson enjoys the contrast and intersection of the graphic and fine arts. “Graphic design inspires my work in that it must speak to people, and people must connect with it, immediately, whereas fine art is more intellectual and lends itself to contemplation,” she said. With this in mind, Larson creates her mosiacs that speak to the viewer as both functional and as objects for pure visual enjoyment. And she finds the making of mosaics endlessly fascinating. “Ultimately, the mosaic technique is simple: Break the materials into pieces and then put those pieces back together any way you want to. And there are an infinite variety of ways to do that,” she said.
From her home in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland, Larson works her magic. Her studio, centered in her home, is composed of an office, an art room where she does drawings, stores art supplies and finished work, and a basement room that opens onto a garden. In the office, the design begins before moving into the basement room for hands-on work. Beginning with an inspiration that germinates from a thought or image in her mind’s eye — maybe from a song, a color, or an image — she sets to work on a piece, mapping it out on a computer and figuring out the logistics. All kinds of decisions are made from size to color to what the correct tools and materials should be.
As she moves into the basement room, the fun begins. “When I am working in cement or grouting a piece, I can just step outside into the garden and make a real mess,” Larson said. Her materials include Wedi board (a weather-proof board used as backing for tile work), styrofoam, Thinset adhesive, quick-dry cement, colored glass, tile, and grout. Larson gathers and uses a variety of tesserae, the pieces used for mosaics, for her work. Friends and strangers leave broken bowls and plates on her doorstep. Some leave knick-knacks that they want used in a specific mosaic. “I have been lucky enough to come upon tiles just left on sidewalks. I once found a whole box of beautiful aqua blue tile — a rare find,” Larson said. She has also culled a beach in Richmond where a pottery company used to dump its shards, each low tide exposing a mother lode of old china and pottery. And a recent sculpture of a giraffe included 90-year-old china from her great-grandmother.
Larson works mostly on commission and is not represented by a gallery. Her commissions come from the cities of Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, and San Francisco for public projects or from churches, schools, and private clients looking to enhance their homes and gardens. She also has a revolving “show” of her art inside and outside her own home. “I like that my art is accessible to neighbors and passers-by. I always have people stopping to chat with me about my work. I have sold pieces and gotten commissions this way,” Larson said.
Larson still does freelance graphic art with her main client, Gratta Wines in San Francisco, where her mosaic work was recently on display during Pride Week. She has also served as co-director of 4:20 Gallery in Jingletown and taught classes at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Berkeley, which closed recently. She has also taught workshops at the Unitarian Church in Kensington and the Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco. Larson has permanent mosaic murals at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, St. John Armenian Apostolic Church in San Francisco, and the Peterson Art Wall in Jingletown, among others. For more information, visit her website at KimLarsonArt.com. To view her working in step-by-step photos, visit her blog at KimLarsonArt.blogspot.com.