By Nancy E. McCarthy
West Bloomfield graphic designer Karen Strapp started making mosaics in 2004. A friend invited her to take a few mosaic classes led by a neighbor, artist Ilona Passino. “It was great fun,” Strapp says. Most participants stuck to classic glass tiles and plates but Strapp also incorporated objects like brooches, dominoes and other little curiosities she had saved through the years.
Back then there was scant time for art projects. She was running her own freelance business, raising two teenagers and helping her husband Ed with their farm. But Strapp, inspired by the experience, continued to hone her skills and make mosaics when she could: primarily monogram plaques for family members and house number plaques as gifts. It was exciting to work with a tactile medium after years of digital design.
“I read once that graphic design is about making the viewer understand something versus art which is more about making the viewer feel something,” says Strapp. “I like that – even though great graphics can also make you feel something.”
Mosaic is the art of decorating a surface with small, closely set tile, colored stone, glass or other materials (referred to as “tesserae”). It is an ancient medium but it was new to Strapp and it brought her back to the joy of hands-on art making.
An Artistic Path
Strapp and her three older brothers grew up in a West Bloomfield farming neighborhood. Numerous extended family members lived nearby. She characterizes her childhood as magical and carefree: playing outdoors, biking, swimming, making music and doing craft projects. Her father was a self-employed carpenter. Her mother was a nurse-practitioner and avid quilter (now 89, she still quilts!).
Her creative parents were very supportive of her interest in art and of her brother Gary, a gifted pianist. Strapp loved fabrics and fibers: she quilted and made macramé. She also sketched and painted with watercolor. In high school, she explored many other mediums. Strapp spent lots of time in the art room and became known as a gifted artist, often asked to design school program covers.
When it came time to choose a career path, printing and design seemed to be a better fit than fine art or teaching art. This was before digital technology and referred to as “commercial art.” Strapp attended Finger Lakes Community College, graduating in 1983 with an Associate in Applied Science – Graphic Arts degree.
That summer, just shy of 20, she married Ed, 22, a farmer and the son of her parents’ close friends, also farmers. The couple moved into an 1850 farmhouse previously owned by Ed’s grandparents. They would have two children: son Steven was born in 1990 and daughter Jordan in 1992.
After their wedding, Strapp continued her college education at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I remember coming home and filling milk cans with water for the calves as I read my conceptual art and art history textbooks,” she says. Strapp graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Fine and Applied Arts – Graphic Design degree.
From 1985 forward, Strapp’s primary career focus was graphic design. Before computers, designers did their job manually: literally copying, cutting and pasting. In the 1990s, graphic design shifted from the drafting table to being an onscreen computer activity. Strapp worked for a commercial printing company, then advertising agencies, learning computer skills along the way. When the Strapps started their family, she shifted to more flexible freelance work. She ran her own business, Strapp Studio, from 2001-2018 creating websites, logos and print materials for her clients. Strapp now works remotely for LiquidPixels as a product integration specialist.
Before mosaics, Strapp’s creative outlets at home were making cut paper collages with designs similar to quilting patterns and creating mixed media shadow boxes that incorporated found objects and family memorabilia such as antique photos, fabric squares and figurines.
When she first started making mosaics, Strapp used a small former nursery in her home to store her materials. In addition to traditional tesserae, Strapp incorporates all kinds of objects. “I have used sliced crayons, beads, bottle caps, nails and just about anything you can imagine,” she says. When her son moved out in 2015, she took over his bedroom as a storage/work space and began producing more items. In 2018, during a home remodel, the attic was updated into a large studio with even more room for her growing inventory.
“Karen made a mosaic monogram for a wedding gift and I loved it so much. As soon as she started making more pieces I told her we could sell them in our shop,” says her friend Julie Jugle, co-owner of Hopper Hills Floral & Gifts in Victor. “Our customers love the mosaics. It’s so fun to listen to them admire them and imagine where they would put them in their homes, or who they would give them to as a gift.” Jugle also owns a Keuka Lake mosaic that Strapp made for her as a birthday gift.
Strapp began posting her work on Facebook and Pinterest. Her prowess with web design served her well when she built her own website to showcase and sell items online with links to Etsy and Redbubble. But a good portion of her sales are from friends and family and one-of-a-kind commissioned pieces.
After purchasing a Barn Swallow mosaic that Strapp posted online, her friend Elaine McKenna commissioned a horse mosaic for her daughter Maureen. First, Strapp sketched a proposed design. “I couldn’t believe it! Not only was it a horse but it was with my daughter, and it looked just like her,” says McKenna. The image also resembled McKenna’s favorite photo of Maureen with her horse that Strapp hadn’t seen. “I was really blown away by her intuition and creativity.” The final piece far exceeded McKenna’s expectations. “It is a true work of art,” she says.
Strapp recently began making mosaics highlighting beautiful china pieces displayed in shadow boxes. She usually has two or three different projects in progress. However, she still views her mosaic-making as a fun side business—at least for now. “I want this to be more like play,” she says. Her customers, like Margaret Tiffany (another friend), are happy that her “play” results in stunning art.
Tiffany has been a fan of Strapp’s artwork for years and owns several mosaics. “Karen is an artist and will always create beautiful pieces that will look lovely on someone’s living room wall,” says Tiffany. Strapp truly shines when creating special pieces, she adds. “She has a story to tell, a beauty to uncover, a soul to express and when her vision is made real, it is perfect.”
Visit strapp-studio.com for more information. Contact the artist at email@example.com.
Creating a Custom Monogram
The first step to create a custom mosaic monogram is to choose the font style and determine overall size. The client is shown some sample layouts. Once the design is decided upon, Strapp prepares the backer board with a hanging system. She favors Wedi board, a foam board with a layer of cement-resin coating with fiberglass mesh.
From her inventory, Strapp selects mosaic tiles, stained glass, china, and bric-a-brac to create a palette of materials that work well together and tell a story. Some basic tools help to shape and grind the pieces. Weldbond, an adhesive, is used to glue the tesserae to the backer. Delicate pieces are removed to be glued later. Once the design has dried, she grouts the entire piece following the manufacturer’s instructions.
Grout color makes a huge difference. Sometimes Strapp works in Photoshop to get an idea of how various grouts will look. Excess grout is wiped off and the tesserae are cleaned using dental tools and rags with rubbing alcohol. Delicate items are glued back in place. A contact information sticker is placed on the back. Strapp photographs the finished product before delivery.