Like other major art centers, Cuenca has always depended on outsiders to enrich its heritage. One recent contributor, Liza Gafitanu Wheeler, caught the town's attention in February with a presentation of mosaic glass art at the Interamerican Center for Popular Arts (CIDAP). One of those who attended the exhibit was Juan Mendoza, who has taught painting at several Latin American universities. "I was amazed by it," Mendoza said. "Mosaic art is a craft that is not widely practiced in this area and I was very impressed by Senora Wheeler's work."
Masaics is one of the world's oldest artforms, dating back more than 5,000 to ancient Mespotamia. It became the major genre in Chinese art 3,000 years ago and was widely practiced by both the Greeks and Romans. The style is probably most widely known in the religious art of the Byzantine Empire, 1500 years ago.
For those who missed her CIDAP exhibit, Wheeler's work will be on display again from Sept. 10 until Sept. 20, at the Sala de Exposicion, Bienel Internacional de Cuenca, on Calle Simon Bolivar at Juan Montalvo. At the exhibition opening Wednesday morning, Sept. 10, Wheeler will donate "The First Step," a large mosaic depicting St. Vincent de Paul holding the hand of a small child, to the Tadeo Torres Infants' Home. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, an international Catholic charity dedicated to improving the lives of the poor.
Wheeler gives full credit for both the idea of the donation and for the artwork itself, to her friend, Ron Gordon. "Ron is the one who made me aware of the work of the orphanage and who actually inspired the design of 'First Step'." Gordon, a U.S. Washington state native, has made Tadeo Torres the center of his life in Cuenca, says Wheeler, and has encouraged many area expats to become involved in volunteer activities.
A native of Romania, Wheeler has been working in mosacis for almost 15 years and has had other exhibits in Miami, Dallas and London. She moved to Cuenca in 2006 with her husband, Larry Wheeler, and has continued to practice her trade. Her major themes are Christian, both western and Orthodox, as well southwestern U.S. indian. She is beginning to explore Latin American culture for ideas and is beginning work on a series based on tango dancing.
The mosaic craft not only requires artistic talent but a high degree of technical and production skill as well, according to Wheeler. After the art has been designed and skteched on paper, Liza and Larry spend weeks selecting types of glass, painting and baking the glass, then cutting and assembling the work. "Every artwork we produce contains thousands of pieces of colored glass," says Liza. "We have to cut each piece individually and then glue it to a paper backing which we then attach to marine plywood. This is very labor-intensive work but it is still requires the eye of the artist since production mistakes can devalue the ultimate work."
Although much of the glass that the Wheelers use comes from art suppliers, the couple also spends hours combing through the stock of Cuenca glass shops looking for designs that will produce a special effect for their work. "Very often, the designs we really like are not made any more so we buy everything the store has in that pattern," Larry says. "A lot of the fun for us is looking for something new that will work in our projects. It's kind of like going to garage sales — you never know what you'll find."
Photos: top, Liza's mosaic "Corazon de Maria;" center, Liza Wheeler at work in her Cuenca studio; bottom, Liza with her assistant / husband Larry Wheeler at the opening, Sept. 10