March 2006

Mosaic glass crucifixes encrusted with everyday "icons" stud a wall of Mary Tapogna's tiny shop/studio, where she also creates jewel-like light fixtures, vases, and expressive portraits.


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Artist transforms run-of-the-mill trinkets into 1-of-a-kind mosaics

By Jamie Francis  |  November 2005

Mary Tapogna is quick to tell visitors she's not in the repair business. But you wouldn't know it on this day, given the oversized art deco mirror ball that nearly fills Tapogna's work space at Hail Mary, her mosaic and photo gallery in Northeast Portland.

The artist says she agreed to restore the ball -- which usually hangs above McMenamins Ringlers Pub on West Burnside -- because of her long association with the brewpub chain. About 50 of her mosaics hang at Northeast Portland's Kennedy School, also owned by McMenamins, she says.

Most days, Tapogna makes mosaic crosses, portraits, bowls, lamps and even postcards out of her photographs. She uses discarded and found items, often picked up during walks around Portland -- bottle caps, toys from McDonald's Happy Meals, plastic shapes. Folks leave things on her doorstep, too -- pieces of plates, bowls of broken glass, garage-sale stuff.

Many of her creations are displayed in the front of her shop. There's also a mosaic of Tonya Harding, photographs of Madonna and Gus Van Sant, a velvet Bugs Bunny and a wooden Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus.

"A lot of people who pass my window are not sure what goes on in here, and some come inside and still don't know," Tapogna says. "I only hope that they see it as a treasure, a one-of-a-kind place."


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Holy and gritty converse in mosaics

December 2004

Lodged in one of artist Mary Tapogna's lovingly-made tile mosaic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a dented bottle cap.

Tapogna -- raised in a Italian-Catholic household in small-town Springfield, Ohio -- juxtaposes sacred images with everyday objects culled from the streets of Portland -- a partly-fractured bicycle reflector, glass from a broken phone booth.

Her work, getting noticed more and more on the local art scene, has a way of elevating the ordinary while making the sacred accessible.

"I'm definitely not trying to be disrespectful," she says, wearing a trademark wool cap and flowery apron as she works in her shop at Northeast 30th and Killingsworth. "I'm also not trying to promote religion on anyone."

This 40-year-old artist, who sometimes walks about reciting the Hail Mary, seems to use her art to help her advance in understanding of faith.

She is at a loss for words when asked what the Mother of God means to her. But her mosaics say plenty. Partly real, partly stylized, the portraits are somehow whimsical and devout at once, as if Mary were not some distant figure, but a good-humored friend.

"Maybe it is Mary as the mother of all mothers that is interesting," Tapogna ventures.

Certainly, her 78-year-old mother Alice is a strong influence on the art. Tapogna traces her sense of humor to her mother, now living in a home for Alzheimer's patients in Ohio. Alice, actually a favorite subject, was the focus of a recent show. She will figure in Tapogna's January exhibit "Familiar" at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center.

"I have always been drawn to her in my art," Tapogna explains. "She is a very important figure in my life. It is something I feel I need to do." One mosaic portrait of her mom ranks as the artist's favorite piece.

Tapogna attended art school in Cincinnati, specializing in photography. Her photos have appeared in the Oregonian, the New York Times and even this newspaper. Her picture of a mourning Korean woman at the funeral of Auxiliary Bishop Paul Waldschmidt won an award from the Catholic Press Association. She also has taken well-known photos of Tonya Harding, Madonna and director Gus Van Sant.

The mosaic work began when she was designing frames for her photos. Then, in 1997, she began using her photos as outlines for mosaics, a practice she continues.

Inspired by long-lived mosaics from the ancient Christian world, she is moving toward using smaller and smaller fragments. That increases the time it takes to complete a piece, but gives a texture she values.

Tapogna's works offer a clear image when viewed from a distance. Up close, they are a treasure hunt full of surprise. That reddish pink at the heart of a cross? It's an "I Love New York" button.

She moved to Oregon in 1990 and began freelance photography work. On one election night before the advent of digital cameras, the Oregonian asked her to run from campaign office to campaign office to pick up film of the jubilant or forlorn candidates.

Her very first mosaic was an image of the Virgin Mary. It now hangs in Dots Cafe in Southeast Portland.

"I love her work," says Dots co-owner Monica Ransdell. "She has a view of faces and people that is very unique."

Ransdell is particularly fond of the found objects in the mosaics, such as a bead or a bent fork.

Tapogna's work has caught notice elsewhere. When brew-pub entrepreneurs were renovating the old Kennedy School in Northeast Portland, they asked for a collection of 30 mosaic portraits, which hang on the walls. She has since sold almost 20 mosaic lights to the pub and hotel.

Tri-Met asked her to help design the Kenton station of the north light rail line.

Making mosaics is therapeutic, Tapogna says.

"It doesn't happen fast," she explains. "It is piece by piece by piece. Overall, I don't think I'm a very patient person, but this has forced me to be patient."

The material for her work comes from her walks around the city. But people, some of whom she does not even know, have been leaving pots, jars, vases and other items in front of the shop, aware that she might make use of them.

Tapogna will not hold forth in extra paragraphs about the meaning of her work. She just does it, not entirely clear what it means. But critics have a few things to say.

"What is special about her is her interest in people," says Roberta Wong, who directed the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. "Then the objects she selects to add give an aspect of time and place to the image. . . . When an artist works close to her heart a love and attention comes through."

Tapogna kept a store on Northeast Alberta Street until construction blocked her visibility. Now, she has taken a chance on a street that is up and coming. She is next door to Grolla, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant owned by Chris and Angela Lachmann, members of St. Sharbel Parish.

Tapogna went to 12 years of Catholic school, and she is glad for that upbringing. She appreciates the discipline, the structure, the quality of academics, even the school uniforms.

"I learned to be respectful but to explore," she says. "The respect is in the work, I think." She has named her shop Hail Mary. It does not refer to herself, but to the prayer. She wanted the name to draw people into the shop, as well as the sacred-common duality of her work.

One day, a disheveled man stumbled past the shop and said to her, "Hail Mary, full of grace..." and then got stuck. Tapogna taught him the rest of the prayer.

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Mama Mosaic

June 2003

You have to step up to get inside, past docile panting dogs and, on a recent Last Thursday, a throng of people clogged about the narrow doorway. They're in no hurry. Rather standing around, poking each other and saying, "Did you see that? Can you believe that?"

Hail Mary, the studio of artist Mary Tapogna, has a visually tactile sense about it. Meaning you have to try very, very hard not to reach out and touch the art. They're just so damn...touchable...despite, ironically, being made of broken glass, shards of pottery, tile and pretty much anything else that seems to fit into the mosaic portraits.

Everyday people, everyday portraits, but with the eye of a photographer -- which is Mary's other profession. A former photojournalist, the images have startling shadows, light and form, humanity and emotion.

You find yourself seeing the image, then visually breaking it down into its smaller parts -- a bead, a button, a clever piece of broken pottery for a nose. Tiny individual pieces that come together to make something spectacular. Breathtaking, even. Hail, Mary.

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Artist use firearm imagery in the provocative
"Guns in the Hands of Artist"

By Monica Drake  |  2001

... Mary Tapogna has turned the gun imagery toward herself. She's created a self-portrait in a mosaic made from scraps of glass and bottle caps, depicting a suicidal urge. Tapogna describes the work as a response to her sister's slow suicide, years of anorexia leading to a heart attack and brain damage. "This show has been a good means for getting something out of my system," Tapogna says. "It was a timely show... To me, (guns mean) violence, death, away to resolve something, but it's not necessarily my way to resolve something...when I came up with the idea of what I was going to do for my piece, my boyfriend said, 'No, no, you can't do that!' because it was like a suicide. But I'm like, 'Well, I'm not really doing that, I'm just expressing it.' It's better I express it in my work than really do it."...

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"Guns in the Hands of Artist"
at Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center

By Lois Allan  |  2001

... Mary Tapogna combined two- and three-dimensional elements in her mosaic portrait fashioned from bits of colored glass and bottle caps. It was reminiscent of religious icons except that a gun imbedded in the surface, its barrel placed against the side of the subject's head, set it in the context of suicide. ...

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Splendor out of debris
Mary Tapogna makes intricate mosaics using discarded materials and photographs

By D.K Row  |  April 2000  |  A&E (Arts & Entertainment)

The most generous-minded school of aesthetic thinking tells us that art is omnipresent: it is everywhere we go, everything we see. Similarly, it also tells us that art can be made using everything that surrounds us. From the natural to the purely synthetic, there is little that cannot potentially be the marrow of art.

One of the many compelling things about Mary Tapogna's new exhibit at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center is how the artist has created her mosaic portraits and sculptures out of materials most of us take for granted -- materials, in fact, that we would likely find in our trash and/or recycling bins.

Using found bits of tile, metal, glass, plastics, rocks and even the occasional bottle cap, Tapogna has constructed mosaics that, in one way, amply testify to the artist's hyper-meticulous art-making process. In another way, they're one more example of art's sheer re-inventive power, its ability to transform, in the best cases, the utterly common into the highly uncommon.

In Tapogna's works, that transformation process isn't simply about how found material is gathered into works of meaningful dimension. Tapogna is better known in some circles as a photographer -- in the mid-1990s she free-lanced for The Oregonian, among other publications -- and the silvery medium here provides the first layer -- the skeleton, if you will -- for her multi-textured mosaic works.

Taking a portrait photograph or a sketch made from a photograph, Tapogna meticulously adheres the gathered detritus to the surface of the image, roughly but faithfully re-imagining the likeness using the found materials. The spaces in between the glued material are then grouted, literally pulling the separate pieces of the puzzle together as flesh and tendon would to bone. What was once a two-dimensional image finally becomes a three-dimensional object, without distorting too much the initial image's representative "truth." Indeed, many of Tapogna's portraits, most of which are of women, eerily retain their human, expressive qualities.

Given the synthetic nature of much of the material used, the works glisten to subversive rather than merely "beautiful" effect; a shard of plastic or fragment of glass can form part of a physical feature, for example. By far, the portraits, more than the sculptures, many of which are purely decorative in nature, are the strongest works here.

Despite its didacticism, there's great freedom in Tapogna's time-consuming process. In its expressive energy and junkyard look, Tapogna's works are reminiscent of art from the East Village's more nascent -- and less commercialized -- moments in the early 1980s or, more clearly, the socially idealistic, rejuvenating fervor of the Italian "arte povera" movement of the late 1960s. in utilizing and transforming what she calls "common byproducts," Tapogna shows that art, once again, liberates itself by liberating the things around us.

Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center
5340 N. Interstate Ave.
Portland, OR.

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Glass Faces

August 1999  |  A&E (Arts & Entertainment)

There is another worthwhile show at the Contemporary Crafts Gallery -- and it's not a group show either. Using small pieces of broken glass, newspaper clippings, found objects and other detritus, Mary Tapogna creates densely patterned portraits that, from a distance, resemble textile or photographic weavings. But Tapogna is making more than spellbinding images out of exotic materials. The artist, who worked as a photojournalist for national magazines and newspapers like Spin, Rolling Stone, Glamour, Knight -- Ridder Tribune News Service and The Oregonian, offers a subtly stinging commentary on the emphasis of celebrity and fame in today's bottom -- line motivated media.

Contemporary Crafts Gallery
3934 SW Corbett Ave.
Portland, OR.

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A Story Called You Don't Know
What You'll Be Missing If You Don't

Once upon a time in the Northwest, there worked an artist named Mary Taptop.

Taptop was flamboyant. She was exceptional. She worked in a style, defined and prevalent, that you must see to identify. We call it her Essences.

Essences of Taptop were gaiety and lightheartiness -- not lightheartedness -- because the lightheartiness is a contradiction, even though the works were light and gay, they sought to narrate the dark underbelly, signaling disgust.

Essences are spirited, but guarded, protective, but playful and feminine. Troublesome. Unmistakably Taptop.

If one stands too close, something might jump out and get one. It is no surprise.

Three-dimensional aspects in two dimensions is read as three dimensions because it is known to be so.

Espically depicited permanet contemporary. As far as it is known, she is the only person addressing.

It is a simple message, whether viewed that way or not.

The ending.

- A fable by Frankie Wright

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