Broken glass makes beautiful art
Working with Threshold Arts and several former students, DSouza completed 12 glass mandalas that were installed as part of the Alley Activation Project in 2020.
Broken glass in the alley isn’t usually seen as art, but local mosaic artist Debra DSouza has used broken glass to create beautiful mandalas gracing one of Rochester’s downtown alleys. If someone glanced up at the second story in the alley behind The Castle, 121 N. Broadway, they might notice a collection of shining and boldly colored circular mosaics covered in intricate repeating patterns.
Working with Threshold Arts and several former students, DSouza completed 12 glass mandalas that were installed as part of the Alley Activation Project in 2020. Some of the mandalas are as large as 3 feet in diameter, and they are scattered throughout the alley corridor at locations like the Bleu Duck Kitchen.
DSouza’s love of glass art stretches back to the 1970s when she took traditional stained glass-making lessons from Mike and Stephanie Podulke and even began to make some commissioned windows and teach her own classes.
“Once my sons got a bit older, I went off on a different path, but kept my glass with the intentions of returning to it one day,” she says.
In 2012, DSouza returned to her love of glass in a slightly different form when she made her first mosaic.
“Once I made my first couple projects on my own,” she explains, “I was hooked and started taking classes and workshops with mosaic people anywhere I could go.”
DSouza sometimes uses the traditional Italian smalti method of creating mosaics. This process involves cutting irregular glass with a hammer and a special chisel called a hardi. She also uses hand tools like a glass cutter, a wheeled nipper, glass pliers and tweezers.
“I love the whole process of working with the glass and the tools that help create the images,” she says.
With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art concentrating on painting, DSouza often thinks of her mosaic work as painting with glass.
“Painting with glass is no different than mixing the paint and laying it onto the surface,” she says. “I have just replaced paint with glass.”
From planets to pears, DSouza’s mosaics depict a variety of subjects, but they all require her attention to detail and concentration. They can range in size from tiny micro mosaics that could be worn as jewelry to works that are many feet long.
DSouza says she needs to keep a large supply of glass on hand to nourish her creativity. Some of her glass comes all the way from Venice. After she attended a workshop there, she shipped home 300 pounds of Italian smalti glass which is often characterized by beautiful irregularities like bubbles, color variations and changing textures.
Community projects have been a central part of DSouza’s mosaic creations. For example, this year she has been working on a “50 by 50+” project that is currently being exhibited at the Rochester Art Center. It will be on display until Jan. 30. The project resulted from a grant and involved DSouza teaching 50 adults who were 50 years old or older in seven mosaic workshops. Each of DSouza’s 50 students designed and created their own glass mosaic mandala.
DSouza has her works for sale at Threshold Arts and other regional art galleries.
In addition, her mosaic work “Transitions” is currently on display at the Rochester Airport as part of the Arts Elevated Program. “Transitions” is a circular work 4 feet in diameter that features both stained glass and fused glass, glass that has been melted in a kiln.
Several hospitals have commissioned DSouza’s works.
She recently completed nine individual mosaics, some featuring landscapes and some featuring mandala patterns for the Penn State Hospital’s ALS clinic.
“This project has special meaning for me as one of my close friends is currently living with this disease,” she says.
A large “Solar System” mosaic is a project she completed for the Stanford University Children’s Hospital. DSouza offers her commissions through her website debradsouza.com .
Part of the reason DSouza is drawn to creating mosaic art is that the medium keeps the beauty of glass while avoiding its fragility. She notes that there has been a renaissance of mosaic works in airports and subways.
DSouza says she will never tire of the mosaic medium because there are so many aspects and examples of the art form. While she’s found her perfect medium, she wishes the same joy for others.
“Everyone is an artist,” she says, “it just takes the right spark to light that fire and interest to create.”