Laura DiNello cultivates a family mosaic in Charleston 

Piece by Piece

DiNello’s intricate mosaics are bright and upbeat

Jonathan Boncek

DiNello’s intricate mosaics are bright and upbeat

The story of Laura DiNello is as layered as the mosaic masterpieces that she's known for.

The self-taught Italian-American artist grew up in Chicago in a culture that frowned upon visual art as a valid profession, especially for women. Most family and friends saw DiNello's drawings and paintings as a cute hobby. When she announced that she was moving to Savannah to be an artist at 21, "they laughed," she says bluntly. "My friends envisioned me making sauce and having kids. Art didn't really play into that."

DiNello's bright and upbeat cloth canvas work is motivated by her struggle for creative freedom and family. Each layer of her canvas, mosaics of everything from old maps and photos, to sheet music, glitter, and postcards, works. DiNello's journey to artistic freedom is a similar montage of fortuitous circumstances and steadfast devotion to craft.

After moving to the South and marrying her first husband, DiNello didn't paint for six years. "If you're told your whole life that you're terrible at something, you kind of start agreeing," she says. "Sometimes the people closest to you will give you the wrong advice. It wasn't until I was almost 30 that I said, 'I'm going to paint.'"

DiNello filed for divorce, opened up her own vintage clothing store in Savannah's City Market, and began pursuing her art once again. "As a child, I remember thinking that telling people that I used to be an artist would be the worst feeling. And here I was in my 20s already saying it," she says. "Something had to change."

click to enlarge JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

Savannah restaurant owner Kiara Balish urged DiNello to host an art show, where she sold her first painting and met hotel developer Richard Kessler, who eventually hired her to work for his hotel chain. Commissions from her permanent display at Kessler's Grand Bohemian in Orlando provided DiNello with work from all over the world. "I was doing commissions and able to stay home with the kids," she says. DiNello has painted through natural disasters and divorces, flooding and relocation. "I'm in a race with myself," she says. "As a solo artist, you're the crew, the production and sales ... you have to keep going no matter what."

That's where DiNello's 27-year-old daughter Caleigh comes in. A tranquil and resilient force, Caleigh tempers her mother's creative commotion with panache and a sense of humor. Caleigh decided to open her own gallery in Charleston when the family moved to the area last year.

Many fans mistake DiNello's signature canvassed style for actual tile. Typical mosaic artwork is created by arranging small colored pieces of hard materials, like stone, tile, or glass, on a concrete surface, like a wall or a floor. Canvas is usually reserved for straight painting.

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

As a self-taught artist, DiNello's method came through a bit of madness. The year was 1989, and DiNello had been painting nonstop. Three days after her wedding, she and her second husband had a newlywed bicker — actually, it was more like a blowout. During the fight, DiNello angrily cut a celebratory wedding canvas into pieces.

"I tried to fix it, but it looked horrible," she remembers. "So I experimented with different epoxies and ended up mosaicking. From there, I was hooked."

DiNello became even more addicted to her artwork. "I have a construction side, and mosaicking is sort of like building," she explains. "The sound, the repetition, the motion — it's addicting."

Her already beautiful paintings become even more vibrant. "It's the layers of color and the nuances that a mosaicked work brings," Caleigh explains. "We know not to get too attached to her straight paintings."

"The paintings never look finished until I tile over them," DiNello adds.

DiNello's work is inspired by midcentury European café and street scenes, relaxing settings that are rarely a part of her real life. "There's too much to be done," she says. "My art is a manic love. I just have to keep working."

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