“More scorched trees?!” I think, passing another grove of charred branches and blackened trunks as I make my way down the winding I-94 near the Mexican border to visit the studio and home of mosaic artist Robin Brailsford. Her eclectic cinder-block home with its corrugated metal roof is a modernist response to the wildfires that whip through the valley with some frequency. “There are almost no old buildings left. One of the last Victorians burned down with the last wildfire,” Brailsford tells me as she suggests a hike up Otay Mountain, which dramatically rises right behind her home.
Gorgeous panoramas of chaparral and rock-studded hills open in all directions. As we make the summit, I see something white and smooth poking through the dry dirt and twisting stalks of scrub brush. It is the lip of a plastic bottle melted from a wildfire; the rest of the bottle had gone up in smoke. I show it to Brailsford, who knits her brows. “May I have that?” She explains that it was once a water bottle dropped by someone trying to cross the border from Mexico. When the wildfires come through, the thicker plastic of the screw tops is the only part of the bottles that survive, collapsing and contorting into an array of shapes. Brailsford hikes almost daily and regularly finds these artifacts all over Otay Mountain. Recently she learned how to cast these forms in pâte de verre glass and will return the glass castings to the trails to photograph them as an homage to the many souls who have died of dehydration and hypothermia attempting to cross. Looking over the low scrub brush on the hills rolling into Mexico I imagine how horrible the crossing must be, with no shade and only as much water as one can carry. It was a chilling thought as dusk descended.
Walking back to the house I notice how the driveway sparkles here and there with shiny pieces of colored glass and tesserae of every material accidentally dropped over the years. Little traces of humanity that, like the bottle tops, have survived the wildfires, although very different circumstances have precluded their abandonment. I ask Brailsford how children react when they visit, and she assures me that digging the little treasures from the dirt keeps them very busy. A huge open space surprises me as we enter the studio. Clerestory windows bathe the open space with light. Huge geometric paintings, the work of Brailsford’s partner Wick Alexander, rest against the wall. The open garage door lets in light and air from the outside. Brailsford explains that her inspiration for the construction came from her studio at Brown Field, the WWI airport in Otay Mesa. “My studio was in the old naval officers’ mess—it had tile floors, high clerestory windows, and was part of a superb artist and fabricator community. So, when everyone was evicted by the City (sound familiar?!) I was on the lookout for land where I could recreate the Brown Field experience.”
Brailsford picks up a sheet of new mosaic off a table and folds it gently. The mosaic is created on a flexible plastic mesh, a patented co-invention of hers that allows an artist to fabricate a mosaic in the studio and then transport the completed piece to an installation site. After a few backbreaking projects creating a mosaic onsite, out in the elements, she decided there had to be a better way. The artist uses a water-soluble glue to adhere the mosaic to a plastic mesh. She then places the mosaic face-down, trowels on wet cement, and lifts the mesh away. Not only does this technique allow the artist to work in the comfort of her own studio, but it affords the artist the ability to create mammoth-scale public-art projects. Brailsford’s work can be found in over half the US states, from mass-transit systems to national wildlife refuges—even a water treatment plant—and is expanding into Europe.
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