Some artists have loft studios in London’s hipster East End. Others toil away in Parisian attics waiting for their work to be discovered. Allan Butt and Rita Gav have a converted garage on the busy Bradford Road in Batley.
It might not have the tortured glamour of some workspaces, but inside there is more than a smattering of celebrity. Next to John Lennon there is Paul McCartney, opposite there is Steven Gerrard and staring out towards the door are Johnny Depp and Madonna. Each of the mosaics is created from thousands of pieces of coloured tiles and by the doorway is the music legend which began it all – Jimi Hendrix.
“He was the first celebrity mosaic I ever did,” says Rita, who had always been interested in art but for years couldn’t see a way to make it pay the bills. “When I met Allan about 10 years ago I was already making mosaics for a hobby, but they tended to be more abstract works inspired by the likes of Picasso. Allan saw them and suggested I have a go at working on a mosaic portrait. We are both interested in music and Jimi Hendrix is one of my heroes, so that was a natural place to start.”
Since then a whole litany of famous faces have followed, including the Stone Roses’ Ian Brown, Paul Weller and David Bowie. Allan, a tiler by trade, also has an artistic streak and together the pair decided to set up Iconic Mosaics in the hope of getting their work out to a wider audience.
“At school I excelled at two things – art and sport. Everything else I was hopeless at,” says Allan. “Coming from a working class background, going to art school wasn’t an option, so when I left I got a trade. Tiling ended up being the day job, but while I was working down in London I saw these guys working on some really decorative installations and thought, ‘I could do that’. I started experimenting and over the years that’s what I’ve become known for.”
The couple worked on an impressive circular mosaic which provided the centre piece for the East India Tea Company’s flagship London store. Built in Batley and assembled in the capital, the new look store has won a clutch of design awards, but this year the pair want to concentrate on promoting their celebrity portraits.
“I can get lost for hours when I’m in the workshop,” says Allan. “Tiling is what I do for a living, but the art is what I live for. It is painstaking work, but it’s also really therapeutic. Sometimes I’m up until the early hours of the morning and I never realise where the time has gone.”
While the pair have a shared love of the art form, they work on each portrait separately, but have a joint permanent exhibition of their work at the View 2 gallery in Liverpool.
“I always start with the white dot in the eyes,” says Rita, who did return to art school as a mature student but left when she realised she had already found her style. “If you don’t get the eyes right, the rest of the mosaic will never work. They really are the heart and soul of any work.
“We both work from images, but we don’t draw out how we want the mosaic to look, it’s more about gut feeling. I’ve always found Kurt Cobain to be quite a sad character so when I was working on his portrait I used a lot of purples which create quite a mournful look, whereas with someone like Johnny Depp I wanted something much warmer so there are a lot of browns and yellows.”
The pair’s large mosaics sell for anything between £1,000 to £3,000, depending on the intricacy and amount of hours which have gone into producing the piece. However, they also produce prints of each work which sell for around £25.
“They tend to do really well at music festivals, but this year is all about pushing the website and seeing where it takes us” says Rita. “We are not quite sure why but we already have quite a big following in South America and the Middle East market seems to be really taken. The great thing is that whenever you get an email or the phone rings you never know what request it’s going to bring. I’ve done a commission for someone who worked on Radio Caroline who wanted a mosaic of the Boat that Rocked and one of our most recent works was of the Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing for the Pink Punters nightclub.
The pair share a love of Barcelona, home to the master of mosaics, Gaudi, whose magnum opus the church of La Sagrada Família is still to be completed some 90 years after his death.
“I remember the first time I went there, I couldn’t believe it,” says Allan, who is hoping to begin work soon on a portrait of another of his musical heroes, Buddy Holly. “I just stood in front of it and drank it all. When you see his work, you see just how beautiful mosaics can be and in our own small way that’s what Rita and I want – we want people to stop and look.”
• To see the full collection go to iconmosaics.co.uk