Irwin mosaic-maker Mitzi Hall follows beat of her own artistic drum

Mosaic artist Mitzi Hall of Irwin turned down what probably would have been the biggest commission of her career in favor of keeping her creative freedom.

A restaurateur in Arizona had seen an image of one of Hall’s mosaic-inlaid guitars online and asked if she could make one for him.

“He started sending sketches of what he wanted me to do,” said Hall, a lifelong Irwin resident. “He’s sending pictures of butterflies and bees, and I’m saying,’ ick.’ Then he said he had 57 restaurants and he wanted one for every restaurant.

“I thought about it for a skinny minute, and then said I can’t do that.”

Her first objection was the untold hours it would take to crank out the 57 time-consuming mosaics.

“I’m only one person. I can’t do production work,” she said.

Then, she didn’t want to dedicate untold hours to working without a break on one project — and being told what to do in the process.

“I always have multiple projects going on. I work on what I want to work on,” she said. “If I don’t have the energy to work on something, I just don’t do it. I do something else.

“I like to give 110% of myself to my work, and I think it’s only fair to my consumer that I give them my absolute best.”

Hall has been making her one-of-a-kind mosaics for about 15 years. She had some prior experience in making stained glass pieces, but trained herself by trial and error in the art of crafting mosaics.

She’ll turn just about anything into a mosaic — a musical instrument, a mannequin, shoes, a picture frame, a flat board cut into the shape of a heart or a hand.

Three of her glass-shard-covered violins are showing in “Chasing the Sun,” a spring equinox-themed exhibition running through May 13 at You Are Here in Jeannette.

“Mitzi brought an element of technique and creativity to the exhibit with her mosaic violins,” said gallery co-founder Jen Costello.

Hall’s finesse in arranging the glass in unique patterns is what particularly captures the viewer’s eye, Costello added.

Natural-born artist

Entering work in a local show is something of an anomaly for Hall, who mostly sells at several annual art fairs around the country, including A Fair in the Park, hosted by The Craftsmen’s Guild of Pittsburgh in Mellon Park in Shadyside.

“In my opinion, it’s the premiere show in Pittsburgh,” said Hall, who is a member of the guild.

Mosaic-making is the culmination of Hall’s lifelong fascination with the arts. Her mother once commented that she was born with a box of crayons in her hand.

“I’ve always been involved in something creative,” she said.

At age 5, she constructed her own Barbie dream house out of Morton salt containers and cereal boxes and dressed her dolls in hand-sewn clothes. An early dream was to be a goldsmith like her German maternal grandfather.

After graduating from Norwin High School in 1974, where she played volleyball and basketball, Hall was recruited to play volleyball at the University of Pittsburgh. She majored in German and physical education.

Disillusioned by the lack of rigor in the volleyball program, she left Pitt after two years.

“I got out of practice one day and said, ‘Is that it? You’re done? I’m not even sweating yet,’” she said.

She was the longtime aide-de-camp to the late Leslie Bryner, owner of Leslie and Co. hair salons in downtown Pittsburgh and Shadyside, using her creativity to coordinate fashion shows.

Bryner, who was Hall’s best friend in addition to being her employer, left her the business when he died of AIDS in 1991.

“I took care of him until he passed away. It was a scary time, because no one really knew what was going on at that time,” she said.

With the popular owner and the revenue he generated gone, the business faltered. Employees started leaving and Hall was forced to take on three business partners.

“That was the beginning of the end,” she said.

Pregnant with her first child and newly married, she decided the stress wasn’t worth it.

“I left everything behind. I didn’t even take my percentage — I just wanted my peace of mind,” she said. “I decided to stay home and raise my children, and I became a PTA mom.”

Going outside the lines

Hall and her husband, James Hall, who is a cyber-security instructor, have an adult son and daughter.

She took her first stained glass class at a Jeannette-area studio before her daughter was born, then started making stained glass lamps to sell — but the lamps were neither profitable nor artistically inspiring.

“I got bored making them, because you have to follow instructions and stay inside the lines, and I don’t like to do either one,” she said. “I had a bucket of scrap glass under my work bench and I had four terra cotta pots, and I thought, I’ll try this mosaic thing.

“I had no clue how to do it, but I did it. They were very primitive, compared to what I do now.”

Hall took the pots, along with some stained glass lamps and sun-catchers, to a craft shop in Forest Hills run by a former college classmate.

“By the time I got home from Forest Hills about 45 minutes later, she called and said all four pots sold. And that’s where it started,” she said. “People see this now and say, ‘wow,’ but I have failed a lot. You can’t imagine how much stuff went in the garbage when I first started.”

Hall wangled a 2015 solo show at the former Gallerie CHIZ in Shadyside in 2015 simply by going in and asking for one.

”I was so green,” she said. “(Gallery owner Ellen Chisdes Neuberg) kept looking at me, expressionless, and I was thinking, ‘Oh god.’ She said, ‘You do know you’re supposed to have an appointment, and I don’t like mosaic work – however, I do love your work.’

Neuberg clarified that she does like mosaic work on walls and buildings, and in fact, her gallery — now used as her studio — is covered in a mosaic by Pittsburgh artist Laura Jean McLaughlin.

“I don’t like these tiny, little, dinky things that look like you could have done it in grammar school,” Neuberg said. “Mitzi’s mosaics speak to me, and they’re done beautifully. Her workmanship is impeccable and really beautiful, and I admired that from the beginning.

“The images that she shows make you smile or think, they’re not merely decorative pieces.”

Neuberg has several of Hall’s pieces in her own collection, including a violin and a shoe.

“Ellen is tough, she demands perfection, and rightfully so,” Hall said. “I told her, man, you scare the crap out of me. But she promoted me and gave me a great opportunity.”

Hall discovered a love of outdoor art fairs with her first experience at the Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival — even after a microburst came through.

This year, they’ll do four — in addition to Affair in the Park in September, they’ll do the Allentown Arts Festival in Buffalo, N.Y., in June; the Cain Park Arts Festival in Cleveland in July; and the Newport News Fall Festival in Virginia in October.

Her husband travels with her, hauling a 12-foot trailer behind their pickup. They used to do up to 10 shows year, but have gotten more selective.

“When you’re just doing it to make money, it shows in your work. You have to have passion,” Hall said. “I’m usually covered in glue, paint and everything else. You should see the clothes I wear when I’m working – they stand up by themselves. My hands are always cut up and dried out.”

But it’s still worth it.

“To me, ‘retire’ is a six-letter word,” she said. “As long as my hands work and my brain works, I don’t ever plan to retire.”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Shirley by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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