Michael Ferris remembers being very pleased with himself 20 years ago when he was first inspired to use inlaid wooden tiles to create colorful mosaic surfaces on the surface of his sculptural portraits.
“I started doing it while I was working on my master’s degree in painting, using scraps of wood to make inlaid mosaic tiles on sculpture,” he recalled. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, how creative is this!’
“It didn’t occur to me for years that I had gotten the idea from a couple of mosaic-tiled Lebanese backgammon tables my father had when I was a kid. Until I saw them again one day and said, ‘Oh my god!’
“They crept up on me,” he said with a laugh.
Mosaic-tile sculptures are still a pretty creative idea, though, as anyone can see from Ferris’s “Sculptures and Preparatory Works” exhibit through Aug. 12 in Northwestern University’s Dittmar Gallery. Six of the artist’s completed sculptures, including a larger-than-life portrait of his uncle “Toufic” are on display along with preliminary sketches and one scale model.
Ferris, who grew up in Rogers Park and now lives and teaches high-school art in New York’s Bronx community, said he typically explains his artistic process in college exhibits “to illustrate the importance of a step-by-step approach to creating anything.”
His sculptural portraits, for instance, he begins with sketches before creating a wooden armature and painstakingly building up a wooden likeness by adding pieces of wood and sanding then down. That’s followed by an overlay of multi-colored mosaic tiles that comprise the patterned surface and provide what he describes as “emotional presence.”
The artist spends two months to a year working on each piece and almost always uses friends and family as his subjects, he said, making each one a very personal project.
“It’s special for me and it’s special for them,” he said. “It’s usually a moving experience for people when they see the final result, especially since these things take so long to make. They know I’ve really been focused on them for a long time, trying to make something that shows they’re important to me.”
Ferris also says he considers the sculptures an expression of his personal identity — at least, ever since he re-discovered those backgammon tables his father had brought home from Lebanon. That, though, has less to do with his Lebanese ancestry than with their father/son relationship.
“I’ve been to Lebanon, I have family in Lebanon, but I don’t consider myself Lebanese,” he said. “I’m an American. So the sculptures don’t really express feelings about my heritage. But they do express feelings about my father, who had very deep feelings for his heritage.
“When I’m working on one, I automatically start thinking of my father, who passed away years ago, and his tables. It’s a very deep experience in that way for me.”
‘Sculptures and Preparatory Works’
Dittmar Memorial Gallery, first floor, Norris University Center, Northwestern University, 1999 Campus Drive, Evanston
10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, through Aug. 12
Admission is free
Phone: (847) 491-2348www.dittmar.northwestern.edu