Art Teacher will explore Italy via Lilly Endowment Grant

Bishop Chatard art teacher Lisa Johnson will travel to Italy this summer to explore the mosaic works of the region thanks to a $8,764 award received from the Lilly Endowment. Mrs. Johnson was recently named a recipient of the Lilly Endowment 2023 Teacher Creativity Fellowship.

Mrs. Johnson will spend three weeks visiting museums and churches in cities including Venice, Ravenna, Rome and Naples. While in Ravena, she will take a five-day intensive mosaic class where she plans to create two religious mosaics. Her intent is for one of these to be of Mary, Bishop Chatard’s patroness.

“I think that it is the master and skill involved in creating a mosaic that intrigues me as an art teacher,” Mrs. Johnson said. “I’m very interested in how mosaics are used in Byzantine churches.

The Byzantine mosaics were created to illustrate a spiritual realm on earth, Mrs. Johnson explained. The exteriors of Byzantine churches were purposely plain and ugly to mirror the natural, earthly and sinful world outside the church, while the interiors were designed to create an otherworldly space that mimicked the spiritual realm of heaven.

“I teach AP Art History, and this artistic pilgrimage is meant to see the stunning mosaic works in Italy which will assist me as an AP Art History educator,” she wrote in her fellowship proposal. “An even more important reason for the trip is to nourish my spiritual soul.”

While Mrs. Johnson has earned two master’s degrees – a Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute and a Master of Art Education from the University of Cincinnati – she has never, until now, been offered the opportunity to work with mosaics. Bishop Chatard does not currently include mosaics in its art class curriculum, but this experience, she said, may open the door to including it in AP 2-D classes if students are interested.

Spending 22 days traveling via bus and train throughout Italy will afford Mrs. Johnson the opportunity to immerse herself in the region and explore the various types of mosaics found there.

She plans to approach the experience with ‘child-like wonder’.

“I am going by myself and will do a lot of self-reflection, praying in churches,” she explained. “I’m bringing a sketchbook. Sketching spiritual works will be almost a prayerful experience.”

During her travels, Mrs. Johnson will be studying the transition from Greeks and Romans to Christians. She explained that the artistic shift from antiquity to Byzantine mosaics is mostly due to the use of glass tesserae, cubes of glass used in Byzantine works. The gold tesserae specifically represented the otherworldly, unlike Roman mosaics that were set flat in grout.

Byzantine mosaics were set at different levels in grout and meant to capture light, and specifically for the gold pieces of multi-leveled tesserae, to catch the light that comes through windows in the church creating a glistening effect.

“I have never witnessed this otherworldly use of materials to create an interior space that is meant to represent heaven, and I so much want to experience this effect firsthand,” she said. “Although I appreciate the craftsmanship and labor intensity of mosaics from antiquity, Byzantine mosaics will make me appreciate my Catholic faith and allow me to experience what these artists wanted me to experience Christ in as a visual experience filled with joy and light.”

Mrs. Johnson is one of 102 Indiana teachers awarded a 2023 fellowship grant. The fellowship program, according to the Lilly Endowment, is designed to renew teachers’ curiosity and capacity to learn.

Follow Mrs. Johnson’s travels on Twitter @BCHSArts.