Mosaics and Architectural Ceramics for the Orlando Shakespeare Theater

by Suzi Edwards

mosaic with woman and horse

An Exciting Public Commission

For most artists, public art commissions are the pinnacle of an art career. They generally pay well, and artwork can be seen by many, in perpetuity. In 2002, when Rita Lowndes, an eminent attorney, asked me to come down to the old Orlando Science Center, a building that she and her husband John had just funded to reinvent as The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, I was thrilled. She asked me to help create a new identity for the building. I knew Rita from large volunteer public art projects that I had done at the Coalition for the Homeless a decade earlier. She was then Chairman of the Coalition board.

shakespeare portrait in mosiacs

Shakespeare Portrait Realized by Suzi Edwards

I met Rita at the 1970's characterless concrete building, across the park from the Orlando Museum of Art. Project budget was limited, but we wanted to make a grand statement. I began to do online research, and found what is purported to be the only authentic image of William Shakespeare, a small black and white etching. I printed out the image, blew it up, and re-imagined it into a full color six by nine foot mosaic portrait to adorn the side front of the building. With my partner at the time, Rich Rudden, we glazed and kiln fired commercial bisque tiles in all the skin tones, and colors of clothing and background for the portrait. We made hand-made rope border pieces out of clay, and glazed them in metallic bronze. We had a deadline, it wasn't far off, as is often the case with public art commissions, when we hit an unexpected snafu. Due to an accident, I found myself not in the studio working, but in Florida Hospital. I was there for eighteen days. Once just barely recovered, I hobbled into the studio to finish the portrait. Rich and a friend installed it with thin set mortar, and sanded grout, and it is holding up well.

lady macbeth in mosaics

Another Commission! By Suzi Edwards

Two years later, in 2004, with the theater in full production, the City of Orlando commissioned another piece. At twenty-six feet by thirty four inches the mosaic and architectural ceramic frieze above the main entry of the theater was the largest that I had ever endeavored. I drafted my friend architect Will Barbara, who is also a ceramicist. He and I sculpted bas relief figures of characters from the plays: Hamlet, Ophelia, Tatiana, Bottom, Cleopatra and more, all in brilliant color and detail. We set the figures amid a glittering glass mosaic background.

mosaic frieze depicting works of shakespeare

Summer and Hurricanes, Oh My! By Suzi Edwards

With Rich to help on the installation, we worked on scaffolding over the main entrance. It was August in Orlando, impossibly hot, with frequent rain. Hurricane Charlie had just blown through. We built a tent over our work area to both protect us from the sun, and the work from the rain. We used concrete screws and thin set to affix the bas relief pieces to the building, installed the mosaics, and grouted everything. The grout had barely dried, when we got a phone call to take down the scaffolding. Hurricane Frances was headed right for Orlando! Despite all the difficulties and setbacks, I continue to love public art commissions, and have done a fair number. The personality traits that have helped me most are determination, humility, inventive problem solving, and courage!

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