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Meet Karen Ami of The Chicago Mosaic School in Edgewater

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Ami.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
From a young age, art was the outlet I found to express stories and explain a beauty that I could not justify through words and music and movement. I studied at The Boston Museum School, Tufts University (BFA, 1986) and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (MFA, 1995) majoring in ceramics and sculpture. My interest in mosaics began with a study trip to Pompeii at the age of 17 and continued later on in her work in clay creating tiles and sculpture and breaking and reconstructing them. During graduate school, I was hired by a city arts organization to help create a public art mosaic installation. This project fired up my curiosity about mosaics and I began asking questions no one could answer. When I observed the mosaics around Chicago that were decaying and falling apart I sought to learn why that was happening, and how to make sustainable Mosaic Art.

American art schools do not consider mosaic an “art” medium (there are still, today, no university mosaic courses offering technical information, direction or guidance). I was obsessed to learn more… creatively, technically and critically from established, trained artists around the world.

I was a single mom with three sons to support so moving from Chicago to Italy (the center for classical mosaic study) was not an option. I began to communicate with mosaic artists who had a foundation not only in mosaic art but also in art history, drawing, sculpture and painting. I offered small classes out of my home studio before the vision of creating an American center for Mosaic Arts education became clear. In 2005, took a leap of faith to establish The Chicago Mosaic School in a small storefront space on Ashland Avenue in Lakeview. I invited established artists from around the world (Italy, France, Australia, and Japan) who I did not know personally) – to come to Chicago to teach mosaic in an art studio setting- and they all accepted. Students began to come from all over the United States and within 6 months of opening the school I needed to find a larger space. Student artists formed a community within CMS that has grown over the years and is still in place and thriving to this day. Today it is the world’s only not-for-profit school dedicated to the study of mosaic arts. It has become a center for learned, practicing mosaic artists whose mission is to educate, inform and support the next generation of artists curious to learn and to work in mosaic, both as personal expression and through community art projects.

I have curated numerous local, national and international arts exhibitions, some through the Society of American Mosaic Artists where I served as President (2007-2010) and exhibitions chair for nearly a decade. In 2014, I was awarded First Prize in the International Juried Prix Picassiette Exhibition in Chartres, as well as given the title of Gran Cavliere Dell Ordine di San Martino, in Udine, Italy for my contribution to mosaic arts. My work was recently featured in exhibitions in Philadelphia, Dallas, Ravenna and the Museo Del Fiume in Nazzano, Italy.

This year the school moved to a large building on Granville Avenue in Edgewater with support and enthusiasm from the neighborhood, Alderman and schools in the area. CMS runs an Afterschool Matters program for High School students from Chicago area High Schools and has collaborated with many public and private schools, universities and neighborhood organizations to create beautiful, sustainable public artworks. The schools influence can been seen through the works and success of many of our students who are beginning to be recognized in prestigious exhibitions in the US and Europe.

For me personally, I am inspired by many things including music, poetry, literature and dance, painting and sculpture. My artwork continues to develop alongside the teachers, artists and students who come through the school. My current work has evolved to combine elements of drawing, woodcut, sculpture and mosaic through themes of connection, separation and resilience- all in mosaic. I believes that making art, like living a life, is an evolution with revelation and better understanding. Taking what is broken and creating something that becomes whole, finished pieces helps me make sense of this world and I hope contributes to the healing of it through art and community.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
No! I was a trained artist, not a business professional. The school happened because of my passion, vision and my ability to ask for help. The journey has big a big learning curve for me as I suppose, an entrepreneur with a desire to create and motivate a community.

The most recent struggle was our relocation. We were being forced out of our old space due to a new landlord who was not arts-friendly. Although we had resided in the building for 11 years, the new building owner had no interest in our value to the community. We were fortunate to find an Alderman who wanted us and could see our potential. He introduced us to our new building owners who are committed giving us a home and are developing a building on Granville. To suit our needs. When it became apparent that the new building would not be ready for us and we could – under no circumstances- stay in our old location, we were going to be homeless, and have to close our doors. Our new landlords made an extraordinary commitment to give us a temporary location to house our school until construction is completed in fall 2017. Volunteers and staff spend countless hours packing us up and moving us in- which we will have to do again, but we will be ready to move in to our beautiful brand new building at 1127 West Granville.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I have been fortunate to have wonderful mentors, teachers as well as some strong women to emulate in my family. The staff and volunteers at the school that has assembled at the school is a family. Everyone is connected through their passion for mosaic and working for the greater good.

As for growing my vision for the school and my development as an artist, Maestro Verdiano Marzi has been an amazing mentor. We refer to him as the “Dalai Lama of Mosaic Art”. He has help us guide the philosophical direction of the curriculum and our approach to Mosaic Art in the World Master tradition. Verdiano helped me find an ease in my work and a newfound confidence and respect in creating mosaics.

We have many kind people who donate materials, money, and time to give us a backbone that has given us the foundation of a strong support network. Also, my mother and grandmother have been role models for me to be a part of something that does good for the community and beyond.


  • Our classes, workshops and visiting seminars are from free ( lectures, art openings) to 90$- $1200 per session

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