Mistress of the mosaic
Helle Scharling-Todd livens up public spaces
By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer 08/08/2013
Some acts are tough to follow. After a highly For Helle Scharling-Todd, art and public life go hand in hand. The glass, tile and mosaic artist has built her 45-year career on community projects, livening up urban environments throughout her native Denmark, South America and Southern California with stained glass, murals, mosaics and even glass and steel sculptures. In Ventura County alone, one can see Scharling-Todd’s mastery at the Port Hueneme Library, at Barranca Vista Community Center and on benches at the Olivas Adobe. These are just a sampling of her many local installations.
“I like to work with spatial solutions,” explains the 68-year-old artist, who grew up on the small island of Langeland in the Baltic Sea. “What really interests me are the bigger commissions on buildings. I always like to work big.”
That’s exactly what she got when she signed on to help Ventura’s Public Works Department repair the walls outside the parking structure restrooms on the Promenade. Large ocean-inspired tile murals — “Seashells” and “Seaweed”— were completed in May, and feature sea grass, kelp fronds and shells. Perfect for a beachfront location.
“I always like to do something that’s site-specific, something that speaks to a certain area,” Scharling-Todd says.
For the Westside Public Art Improvements Project (begun in 2001 and completed in 2006), Scharling-Todd was the lead artist. Her gateway markers (“Westside Stories”), patterned intersections and crosswalks placed on Ventura and Stanley Avenues, incorporated Chumash and Latin American elements as well as motifs representative of the area’s citrus and oil industries.
Her next project was also on the Westside, at the Ventura Avenue Adult Center. Here, she took the initiative, applying for grants through the Ventura County Arts Council and the Public Art Program Community Response Fund. Money was also raised through a Kickstarter campaign. “It was four years before it all happened,” she explains. “It was a lot of hard work.”
“Wall Play” was completed in May, and a dedication ceremony (where Scharling-Todd received a certificate of appreciation from Ventura Mayor Mike Tracy) was held on July 11. This is a more abstract work, with four separate tableaux, two each on either side of a corner. Each section tells a story: human evolution, activity and movement, the human habitat and, finally, the ocean and cosmos. By separating the design elements, the viewer has to engage with the art in a different way. Some of her forms reference the architecture of the building itself, making the wall an active part of the piece. Scharling-Todd made something beautiful and accessible — her mosaics are expertly rendered and delightfully colorful — also artistically provocative.
Decades of travel and education underlie her work. She studied at the Academy of Art in Ravenna, Italy, exploring the great Byzantine mosaics, and glass at the Krefeld School (an offshoot of Bauhaus) in Germany. In Mexico City, she delved into Mexican muralism and even met David Alfaro Siqueiros. After earning degrees in teaching and art history at Aarhus University in Denmark, she moved to Ventura in 1980. Considered a foremost authority on mosaics, she has been invited to speak at symposiums across the globe.
Since arriving in Ventura County, Scharling-Todd has brought her multidimensional outlook — a Byzantine love of symbolism, the Bauhaus commitment to color and line, the social consciousness endemic to Mexican muralism — to public life, and the community is richer and brighter for it. “[Mosaic] sort of takes the external space somewhere, because it’s so well-adapted to exteriors,” she says. “Mosaics last. I’m attracted to that idea.”