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Mar 24

Are We There Yet?

Posted on March 24, 2022 at 10:05 AM by Ceci Vasconcellos

A little over a year ago, during an unusually cold December when temperatures dipped far below freezing, a water main (a larger pipe that carries water from place to place) broke underneath a section of Earth & Cosmos, a tiled mosaic artwork in La Placita downtown. Water gushed from under the mosaic, in a geyser that threatened to flood the small walkway and properties nearby. Utility crews worked diligently to safely remove the section of mosaic located above the broken pipe but unfortunately, it broke into several large pieces.  

Earth and Cosmos tiled mosaic depicts an abstract of rivers, planets, valleys and stars.

"Earth and Cosmos" tiled mosaic in La Placita. Photo credit: Karla Walton

When I arrived in my new position as art program coordinator, I was informed of a damaged work of public art that needed to be repaired ASAP. After assessing the damage, I thought since the mosaic is embedded in concrete and the edges of the broken pieces are even, we could trim the concrete slab to create a thinner piece and reset it into the fresh concrete like puzzle pieces. Done! No one will ever know. Quick solution to a “simple” problem.  

Not so much. As I was kindly educated by the experts in our Streets Management program, it is not structurally safe or even feasible to fit broken concrete pieces into fresh concrete, especially in an active walkway. It doesn’t work on many levels – most of them safety related.  

In addition to the structural issues, here’s the thing with this mosaic. The artwork is a unique, beautiful, landmark piece with tiles from all over the world. This particular mosaic was installed in 2010 by artist Glenn Schwaiger, who was inspired by the earth and the heavens or night sky and sun to create the Earth and Cosmos theme for the walkway. The tiles are weathered from being outdoors so long. Replacement tiles are hard to find, and even if they are, the color will not match its adjoining section. The mosaic’s restoration requires a delicate process that takes time, expertise, and technique. Here’s the snag and it could be serious. There isn’t a universal process to follow because every mosaic restoration is different. We will have to create our own, and hope that it works. 

We are fortunate that the artist is available and willing to work with us to figure this out. The project is one of exploration. We need to find the best method of cutting away the tiles and cleaning them for reuse. Then begin assembling them to recreate the mosaic pattern before installing it in the walkway.   

Artist kneeling on broken section marking tiles with numbers and corresponding outline on paper.

Artist Glenn Schwaiger maps mosaic section to be used as reference during repair. Photo Credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

We will do this in detailed phases; the first phase, completed in July 2021, was mapping the damaged artwork so it could be safely moved off site and stored. The sidewalk was then temporarily patched. As we move to the next phase, we have begun testing methods of cutting the tile off the concrete slab. Once we perfect a process, the artist will be able to begin the meticulous work of reassembling the tiles like a jigsaw puzzle. 

Street crew loading mosaic section on back hoe.

City of Las Cruces crew carefully load mosaic section on pallet to safely move for storage. Photo credit: Ceci Vasconcellos

So, if you happen to be walking on Earth & Cosmos, you might notice a very small portion of the entire art piece is now paved.  Please know that the artist is carefully working to put it back to its former condition, tile by tile. We will in turn patiently wait to see how it turns out! 

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