By Rhona Duffy
Photographs by Dennis Reiter

Kim Emerson, portrait in studio.

While she realizes it might sound a bit clichéd, Kim Emerson is convinced that mosaic art chose her. “It wasn’t something that I had planned to do or study, but now I know that it was always there waiting for me,” she explains.

A pivotal moment came in the early 1990s while working for a historic preservation architectural firm in San Diego. Kim met James Hubbell and became involved in building a school in Tijuana. “Working according to James’ design, our team of volunteers built his signature organic style, with grand curvilinear forms, walls and floors embellished with mosaic, hand-forged metal elements, all inspired by Antonio Gaudi. For years, I volunteered, crossing the international border to work on weekends and my days off. I remember my first day of installing mosaics on a wall in the girls’ restroom in March of 1991, and I haven’t stopped since.”

Inspired by nature, travel and art

Kim’s artistic inspiration is deeply rooted in nature, with her earliest creative sparks ignited by the natural world. Further enrichment came through her backpacking travels in Europe as a student while earning her art history degree. The influence of several artists, including James Hubbell, Ilana Shafir, Tom Hardy, Niki de Saint Phalle, Verdiano Marzi, Giulio Menossi and Dino Maccini, resonates in Kim’s work.

“I am also inspired by my contemporaries, my mosaic artist friends who are wonderful people and who create amazing works,” Kim continues. “And if you can, it’s hugely beneficial to go to Italy, or travel beyond your confined limits, to see ancient and contemporary mosaics.”

“River of Life”at Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego, CA, AcuteCare Pavilion, mosaic floor (500 s.f.) located in interior main lobby and out into the exterior garden areas, high-fired ceramic tile. Installed 2010.

If you’re new to mosaic, Kim also advises taking a workshop with a classically trained instructor. “It’s important to learn well and follow the general rules of andamento, or classical guidelines, that the ancient mosaicists perfected. You can’t break those rules until you learn them, but knowing the rules sets you free, especially as you develop your style and language in mosaic.” Over the years, Kim’s work has been diverse. “What I have done the most in my career is not necessarily my favorite work,” she adds.

In fact, Kim’s favorite projects are her personal works in abstract that tell her story or express whatever she wants to say about the world around her. She loves working with smalti (glass), as well as pigmented thinset. Her preferred tools are the traditional hammer and hardie.

On the topic of techniques, she says, “It’s all about finding the right solution to solve the problem or challenge of the project. I enjoy directly placing and setting the hand-cut tesserae with tweezers into wet, juicy adhesive, according to my own expression, design and divine wisdom, depending on the moment.”

The unexpected benefits of mosaic

Creating mosaic art helps Kim in other areas of her life too. “It keeps me sane,” she says. “Long ago, I accepted that I can’t always control what is broken or what is wrong with the world. I adopted the idea of making something different and fresh from something that has been broken. “Mosaic materials are also difficult to direct exactly the way I intend, they sometimes have a mind of their own, and I need to pay attention to what they want to do. I believe that some things look 100% better when broken than when they were whole, or is that just my making the best of life?

“Marisa the Magical Bird” at Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego, CA, Acute Care Pavilion, second floor terrace, dimensions are 20’ l x 10’ w x 5’ h, materials are cast bronze, sculpted EPS styrofoam that was coated with cement, and finished with high-fired ceramic tile mosaic. Collaboration with bronze sculptors T.J. Dixon & James Nelson. Installed 2010.

“I love this metaphor and I could talk forever about life’s disappointments and circumstances related to mosaics, or repairing or rearranging what was lost. It’s a personal choice to pick up the pieces and make something anew. For the sake of repairing one’s life or the world — other cultures may call it tikkun olam, wabi-sabi or kintsugi or something else — it’s all good and healing!”

Kim believes that, throughout our lives, every one of us “becomes broken” in one way or another. “So why hide our cracks? Besides, it makes us who we really are. The durability of our souls resonates with the timelessness of the mosaic design, lines put back together in broken tesserae, which is also enduring and everlasting.”

Regarding public art projects

Kim has worked on countless public art projects during her career. Most are beautifully shown on her website via her husband Dennis Reiter’s photographs. Kim’s work can also be found in private and public collections throughout the US, Mexico, and Italy.

When working on a public art project, Kim says it’s crucial to research and learn as much as possible about the client, site and community the project represents. “I love gathering ideas from groups of community members who share their vision for a project. I also adore getting ideas from children who are not shy with their creativity. I ask people to draw pictures for me or write their thoughts in a group setting. I then gather these ideas to create conceptual designs. I usually put forward about three ideas for the client to choose from,” she explains.

“I create my conceptual designs using an architectural scale, typically one inch equals one foot, and with watercolor paint. After approvals, those watercolor designs become digitally enlarged as my mosaic cartoons, full scale, upon which I assemble the final design on large tables in my studio.”

“Desert Symphony”, private commission,5’wx2’hx2.5”d,smalti. Completed 2016.

Kim Emerson’s Mosaic-Making Technical Tips

We asked Kim Emerson to share some technical tips on her preferred techniques and materials, and for some advice to artists interested in pursuing public art projects.

First, the technical tips…

1. Use only the best (not necessarily the most expensive) quality materials, substrates, tesserae and thinset. Choose integrity and debunk the “slap it together” with junk modality.
2. Tell your story and speak your truth with tesserae. Don’t try to compete with the perfection of the natural world that already exists.
3. Try to visualize your intention and work out your design, color and presentation ahead of production. While you’re in the production and assembly phase, let spirit and your guides work out the details.
4. Don’t use wood if it’s going to be placed outside.
5. Keep it simple because less is more.

Project Management Tips

For Artists Working on a Commission

6. Make sure you have a contract in place. And ensure you understand it.
7. Get and maintain an insurance policy. When you’re dealing with large-scale construction, it may even be a legislative requirement. Plus, if you hire any subcontractors, ensure they have insurance too.
8. Charge a non-refundable design fee at the outset. I charge a 10-percent design fee for both public art projects and private commissions. At that stage, I produce a watercolor design.
9. Approach every project as a new set of problems to solve.
10. Get intimate with your substrate. If the mosaic is going to be attached to a wall, find out what it’s made of. Is it a stud wall or a concrete wall? Know your substrate well. Or if this isn’t your area of expertise, hire an expert to help you.
11. Get a great tile contractor. They can do the heavy work and you, as the artist, can focus on the art.
12. Be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever imagined! This work is not for the fair-hearted. It’s extreme and not suitable for people who like familiar and safe situations.
13. Don’t give up. Most things in this line of work take longer than envisaged, but keep going.

Kim Emerson with students at her community elementary school in Normal Heights, San Diego, CA, while assembling the “Kaleidoscope of Butterflies” mosaic mural, January 12, 2024.

Since 1991, Kim Emerson has been designing and creating mosaics for private and public spaces in her region of San Diego, California/Tijuana, and beyond. As a busy child, Kim was always painting, drawing, building stuff, and collecting “little things.” She studied fine art in college, but her true and deeper education was traveling and studying abroad in Europe for one year in 1984-85. Kim received her Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in Art History, and a Master of Science degree (MS) in Historic Preservation of Architecture, both from the University of Oregon, School of Architecture and Allied Arts, in Eugene, Oregon. Prior to establishing her own business, Kim Emerson Mosaics, LLC, the highlights of her work experience were for a fine art gallery, O’Connell Gallery, in Portland, also Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson, F.A.I.A. (Heritage Architecture & Planning) in San Diego, and James Hubbell. Kim has created countless public art projects. She has also taught fine art to elementary school children for eight years. Alongside her photographer husband, Dennis Reiter, they established the San Diego Mosaic School in the year 2015 where they teach mosaic art workshops in their home studio.

Current projects
When we speak in February 2024, Kim Emerson is in the production stage of what will be her final public art project. “With my wonderful husband Dennis Reiter and our community, I’ve been working tirelessly for the last six years, from approval to production, on our legacy public art mural project Kaleidoscope of Butterflies,” Kim says.

Kim Emerson with her husband, Dennis Reiter, romance on the job!?

“Kaleidoscope of Butterflies”, detail, current project full-scale in studio assembly, mosaic butterfly mural for the Adams Recreation Center, City of San Diego, CA. August 2023.

“It’s made up of eleven large and colorful interlocking butterfly wing panels, and the finished dimensions will be 18 feet long by nine feet high. It will soon be installed just three blocks away from where we live on the exterior façade of the Adams Recreation Center, an older building in the City of San Diego,” she continues.

“The project will be part of the Civic Art Collection of the City of San Diego. As a living artist, to have such a large work included in the City’s Civic Art Collection, I am indeed very excited and proud about that.”

Kim has just been awarded in a public ceremony a “Hero of the District” award, as an acknowledgement of the mural project that’s scheduled to be installed in the next couple of months. It’s the icing on the cake of her 30-year mosaic career.

When this project is finished, Kim has decided that it’s time to pass on her knowledge to other artists and agencies seeking qualified artists, to help elevate the awareness of contemporary mosaic art. She plans to mentor other artists, teach mosaic from her home studio and experiment more with her personal mosaic work.

For more of Kim’s work, see
This article first appeared in Mosaic & Glass magazine,


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