The innovative mosaic artist stretches her imagination and her materials in stunning animal portraits.
Donna Van Hooser of Sun Dog Mosaics is an illustrator and mosaic artist living in sunny Phoenix, Arizona. Donna’s first animal portrait was a beautiful donation to a fund-raiser at a local animal shelter, and her heartfelt connection with animals is clear in each of the animal portraits she’s created since. Though she began her mosaic work with more traditional materials, Donna is continuously finding ways to incorporate new ones, most recently colorful telephone wire. In an interview, she shared what inspires her unique work.
When did you start making mosaic art, and how did you develop your skills?
I started making mosaics around 1991, after visiting the St. Louis Basilica. I was so inspired by the mosaics there that I decided I needed to try to make one. At the time I was working as an illustrator at Hallmark Cards and had the opportunity to first try mosaics in the craft studios there. I started with ceramic tiles and worked with them until, on a trip to Bath, England, I saw vitreous glass. I think that was a turning point as far as developing skills. The glass was much easier to cut and came in many more colors than I was able to find in local tile shops. This was before the internet, so materials were more difficult to discover and locate. I bought several books for the basics and made a lot of mosaics to practice. I didn’t take a workshop until 2011. I love to experiment and learned much making my mistakes in private.
Could you tell us the story behind the first pet mosaic you made?
While I did mosaics with animals before In Heat, I think this was my first portrait. It was not a specific animal but rather a whimsical mosaic of a chihuahua wearing a tiara and pearls. It was made for an annual art auction to benefit a local animal shelter in Kansas City that I participated in every year. I wish I could remember who went home with it; it was an early favorite of mine. In Heat was also the first time I dressed my animals, because animals need to feel fancy too.
How did you come up with the idea to use phone wire in your mosaics?
I was working on some micromosaic jewelry using filati, which are thin pulled strings of glass that are cut and placed on end in putty so that the cut edge is the surface of the mosaic. Picture taking a handful of fettuccini out of a package, gathering it into a bundle, and looking at it from the end—all the cross sections of the noodles are what would be visible. As I was working, I saw a spool of copper wire on my work table and wondered if I could bend the wire into a tiny staple to make my own filati to add to the micromosaics. I tried it and got a tiny U shape that I poked into the putty. I found that by changing the direction of the wires, I could create a directional flow.
I then thought about a small bundle of telephone wire that I’ve had for years and wondered if that would work too. It did, just as I’d hoped.
The first piece I did after the jewelry was a mosaic of a chicken named Rasputin, called The Tomato Farmer. The chicken’s head and background were done in Wasser glass, and the feathers were done in telephone wires. The title came from the many tomato plants that the chicken lovingly “planted” around its owner’s yard.
Something I do while I’m working on a project is think about future projects. As I work with a material, I imagine how else it can be used. And while I was working on the chicken, I was thinking about making a pet portrait using the wire. Not long before, I’d started using nontraditional colors for my pet portraits, choosing colors based on value rather than the local colors. I did this partly to be able to use more of my glass; there were so many beautiful colors going unused. I thought I could use the wire in this way, blending the 10 colors of telephone wire to create a range of values to make the shading in the portrait.
I chose as a subject Violet, a friend’s Weimaraner. I’d previously done mosaics of two Weimaraners (Violet and Lucy), because they are so expressive. I also incorporated wood in a mosaic for the first time, something I’d wanted to do for some time.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of your work?
I think the biggest challenge was one I overcame in 2015 when I retired from my full-time job, and that was time to make my mosaics. I took the plunge to make mosaics full-time and started teaching soon after.
What makes mosaics challenging is, in my opinion, what makes them engaging to work on. The limitations of the materials, while frustrating at times, force me to come up with more creative solutions.
And the greatest rewards?
I’ll have to say it’s been being a part of such a large and generous community of mosaic artists and enthusiasts. Participating in the annual SAMA (Society of American Mosaic Artists) conference has been one of the highlights of the year for me and allows me to touch base with many of my mosaic friends around the world. I’ve also found teaching to be extremely rewarding, especially when I can help others find inspiration and encourage new and experienced mosaic artists to challenge themselves.
Aside from making mosaic art, what are your everyday inspirations?
You mean there’s something other than making mosaic art? Kidding… I wish I was more of an outdoors type, but when I get a chance I do enjoy my desert surroundings. While it may not be apparent in my work, which is predominantly figurative, I find the colors and textures of the landscape particularly inspiring.
What’s one truth you’ve learned as an artist?
I believe that making mistakes is a critical part of learning and growing, and fear of making mistakes can prevent you from finding out what you’re capable of. I’ve made a conscious decision that every project I do (that isn’t a commissioned piece) has to either challenge me or entertain me—hopefully both.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Go out and look at art. Make art, even if you don’t consider yourself an artist. Support artists whose work moves you. Remember that when you’re looking at someone’s work, there are months and years of practice, discovery, and failures behind every piece.