In the Stag Hunt Mosaic, nude hunters pull the prey down. A wild-eyed dog tears at the deer’s side, while one hunter raises an axe high. Up close, you see the shells and shards that make up the piece. Back away and Alexander the Great appears, his noble face and brow an illusion because the mind loves to seek unity.
Greek artists used tiny cubes called tesserae to create mosaics. In a technique called opus vermiculatum, tiny fragments of marble, bone, and shell combine to create shadows, skiagraphia, deepening the hunters’ lines of muscles, the stag’s eye, rolling in wide terror. This is meant to imitate then-contemporary styles of painting, art copying art.
In mosaic, you create by tricking the eye. You say to the viewer, Don’t look at the pieces; look at the whole. A visual illusion, the art tells the reader, This is a unified piece. The artist knows better: The medium works only through the destruction of another thing. Fragments. Shards. Pieces. Particles. Remnants.
When I was a child at Vacation Bible School, we tore multicolored construction paper into thumb-sized confetti. Then, on a sheet of white paper, we pieced together Jesus. Be careful, a teacher said. You had to keep each shred separate from others. You had to construct Jesus by focusing on the tiny pieces I found so easy to lose.
In an activity book I had as a child, Bugs Bunny smiled from beneath a grid. Beneath it on the page was a blank grid. You were supposed to draw what was in each tiny box to reproduce the cartoon. I tried that once by overlaying graph paper on a picture of my father. It didn’t work. Every time I tried to sketch out what I saw, it didn’t fit with the other drawings.
My Aunt Trosy May had boxes of puzzles at her house, and when we visited, we’d sit up half the night, the pieces spread out on a cushioned card table. She told me to make the edges first. We never knew what to do when we finished and discovered that a piece was missing.
On her Facebook page, my friend posts a composite of her and her daughter’s faces, split right down the middle. The eyes: the same. The parted sable hair: the same. She captions, You can’t tell where one ends and where the other begins. I stare at the pic, trying to make one person of the two.
The picture frames on my grandmother’s walls had multiple panes filled with snapshots of family I didn’t know. An uncle who’d gone insane. A great-aunt whose faded face looked ghostly and pale. Someday, I thought, I will be a picture in a frame, a name no one remembers, a face in someone’s gallery of forgotten family.
The first time he opens LEGOS, my son pours the box all over the floor, ignoring the instructions. I kneel next to him on his third Christmas and try to show him how all the pieces fit together. He has no interest. He’d rather build his own creations.