Piecing together community

The Mosaic Institute offers group projects, drop-in sessions

Mosaic artist Jes McMillan is convinced that when members of a community get together to create art, wonderful things can happen. She’s seen the results again and again.

McMillan is founder and executive director of The Mosaic Institute of Greater Dayton, which opened its doors in Miamisburg in September. Engaging the community in public art projects is a primary focus of her new endeavor.

The 16,000-square-foot facility, which offers a wide range of drop-in classes, special programs and exhibits, is housed in a former JCPenney store on Main Street. The non-profit organization, which will host a fundraiser on Saturday evening, Feb. 13, was McMillan’s brainstorm.

“My landlord, Joe Harrison, said if I could use this space to benefit the community through art, he was all for it,” McMillan said. “He said it’s what Miamisburg needs and now is the time.”

Those who stop by will always find a large-scale community mural in progress. Thousands of tiny glass pieces are laid out on a giant table and anyone who’d like to volunteer can receive free instruction and spend some time adding to the project. McMillan said those who help create the murals can’t possibly fathom the finished art.

“When they see it, it is an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment,” she observed. “They feel they’ve made a contribution to their community and neighborhood. It’s a physical representation of those things.”

The current mural, for Club Impact, will hang in the Miamisburg Youth Center. Among those who’ve been involved are members of the organization, Families of Addicts. “Not only are we helping to give back the community, but I wanted families and people in recovery to experience something new,” said Lori Erion, FOA founder and executive director. “Mosaic offers a pathway to passion that could inspire a spark in someone, to ignite a fire within them that they never knew existed.”

More about McMillan

Mosaic became McMillan’s “pathway to passion” when she was just a teenager. Although she’d always loved all kinds of art, it wasn’t until her art teacher at Franklin High School gave the class a stained glass stepping stone project that she fell in love with mosaics. Her first large scale effort — a scene from her favorite film, “Clash of the Titans” — now hangs on a Mosaic Institute wall.

“I love both the technical skill involved in creating mosaics and the use of the tools,” explained McMillan, now 33. “Each piece of glass is a challenge — the textures are all different and all of the glass is handmade.”

Only a few months after beginning her industrial design studies at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, McMillan was asked to represent the school at festivals and to teach mosaic workshops to faculty and at community workshops. After graduation in 2005, she was commissioned to create a large scale mural — four feet long and 17 feet tall — which hangs in the school’s Shannon Hall Artist Dormitory.

McMillan returned to Dayton and spent the next 10 years working at the K12 Gallery for Young People with her mentor, Jerri Stannard, the gallery’s founder and executive director. “She had seen one of my murals and suggested we create community murals in Dayton,” McMillan explained.

The results include the Xenia Avenue mural — a children’s rendition of the Twin Towers neighborhood and its history — and the murals on the exterior of the Montgomery County Courthouse, created with those involved in MonDay and the STOP programs for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. McMillan also designed and created the mosaic tile sun located in the atrium at Hospice of Dayton.

“Seeing the impact those murals could make on those in the community was life-changing,” McMillan said.

Promoting mosaic art

Chair of Mosaic Institute’s board of directors is Cathy Gardner of Beavercreek who has been an English and Hebrew calligrapher for most of her life. Ten years ago, while living in Tampa, she became interested in mosaic tile as a way to decorate a mannequin she’d found at a department store display sale.

What appeals to her about mosaics, Gardner said, is the range of colors and materials. Pieces used in a mosaic are called tesserae and can be glass, stones, porcelain, seashells and more. “I like the puzzle piece aspect of it,” Gardner adds.

When she moved to Dayton from Tampa in 2012, Gardner met Jes McMillan.

“What I discovered was a truly inspirational artist using mosaic as her medium of expression,” Gardner said. “We talked about how hard it was to find mosaic classes and got excited that someday she would open her own institute. Her Mosaic Institute of Greater Dayton was born through her own tenacity, resourcefulness and creativity. Jes is amazingly creative and 110 percent committed to making this work.”

Make-and-take projects

In addition to the community murals, The Mosaic Institute offers drop-in opportunities for simple mosaic-making. When it was time to plan her daughter’s ninth birthday party earlier this month, Melanie Donbar of Miami Twp. signed up.

Over Thanksgiving break, she said, she and her girls had enjoyed a memorable afternoon with friends at the new art facility. “The kids had a wonderful time making Christmas ornaments and my oldest daughter, Tracy, asked to return the following week to make a couple of gifts for family,” recalled Donbar, who said Tracy had always been a quiet child who didn’t like being the center of attention and typically preferred to have family birthday celebrations at home.

But McMillan and her staff, she said, made it easy and comfortable for everyone. When the group arrived everything was ready: the cut glass, safety goggles and tools. “The girls were busy cutting, arranging, and gluing the glass and took their time creating their mosaic projects,” said Donbar, who said the best part of the day occurred as they were walking back to the car and Tracy said: “Mom, that was awesome!”

“Here was a girl who has never cared to have her own birthday party,” said a delighted Donbar, whose family has returned to make more mosaic items. “We always feel welcome there and the girls come out with something unique and lasting, something they are excited about and proud of. We’re so happy to have them offering this experience to our kids. As Tracy said, it’s awesome!”

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