Former tennis pro John Botica has found a new career making pebble mosaics for gardens.
One of my first landscaping jobs involved designing a detailed pebble edging that curved serpent-like through a suburban Auckland garden. To create it, a colleague and I spent three and a half weeks on our hands and knees in cold, rainy weather, first setting out the forms with plastic bendy board, then mixing the concrete in a wheelbarrow before mortaring and placing each stone carefully into the setting mix.
I believe the edging still exists – or did fairly recently – but the plants quickly crept over it, hiding our craftsmanship beneath the foliage. I’ve not done another since, but that experience gave me enough of a taste of this art form to know even the crudest pieces are the garden equivalent of a handmade quilt. It is something we can all attempt with degrees of satisfaction, but to do it professionally requires levels of passion and patience that few of us possess.
Beachlands artist John Botica has those qualities in equal measure. A professional tennis player and coach in Europe, he immigrated to New Zealand but found a tennis career here was less promising. And so began his vocation in pebble mosaics.
Mosaics just found him. Landscape firm Natural Habitats was looking for someone to attempt a piece for one of its projects, and he leapt at the chance. Since then, he has done little else, with one commission leading to the next. His work now features in botanical gardens and on city streets, as well as in gardens of the rich and famous (Kiwi style). Native birds are his specialty, although he’s happy to develop customised concepts. A year of work is equal to about 7sq m of mosaic.
The tradition began in Spain, Greece and Turkey, where the dry climate allows the mosaic to be completed in situ. The advantage of this direct approach is that the work is seamless; it also allows the creation of larger-scale pieces. New Zealand’s wetter climate, although good for gardens, makes the in situ approach more challenging, so it’s more usual to create the work away from its final site.
The indirect method requires individual segments to be made, then fitted together on-site, like a jigsaw puzzle, to create the picture or pattern. Making works piece by piece requires great accuracy to bring the finished mosaic neatly together.
Most of the pebbles Botica uses are from New Zealand, particularly the South Island, where the greatest colour variations occur. It’s not just colour that is important, but also the direction each stone points and the line or pattern in which they are laid. All elements create variable effects suitable for different parts of a design.
Looking at Botica’s work, with its subdued natural tones, one might imagine a quiet man who chose pebbles as a substitute for a genteel hobby such as stamp collecting, yet the opposite is true. He bounces through a conversation as if he were leaping across a field of candy-coloured clouds, while still describing in clear detail the craft involved in his art.
Those years of professional tennis certainly paid off, if energy is a measure. It’s also reflected in his Beachlands home and garden, which are loaded with colour and dramatic plants of sculptural form encircled by lawn and pebbles and tiled mosaics. I suspect it wouldn’t be a home for him without the gravelled garden through which the plants are artfully spaced, each a character in itself.
When I think back to those weeks in my client’s Kingsland garden, my memories are certainly fond; after all, there’s nothing we gardeners like more than the satisfaction that comes from a little hard work. I’m also grateful that the next time I’m inspired to create a pebble effect, I’ll know exactly who to call.
John's guide to mosaic art
First, create your design concept. Consider which forms you want, the colours for each pattern and the size of the pebbles for the different areas of the design. From this you can make a template to the scale you want to work at. You need at least two versions: one to work from and one to tape to a board to create the mould.
As the mould will hold the pebbles in place while you work, the sides need to be firm but easy to remove once the piece is finished. A square is an ideal shape for beginners. Tape the template to a piece of flat particle board, then create your mould using timber or firm plastic.
Before starting, select the pebbles for the different aspects of the design. The mould can then be filled with 8mm of sand into which each pebble is placed, depending on the design.
Once the work is complete, pour over a liquid grout, which is more than three times stronger than normal cement.
Once the grout has hardened, fill the mould with cement to a thickness of about 70mm. When it has dried, the piece can be flipped and the sand dusted off it. The installation can then go ahead. You will be left with a mirror image of your original design.
Place the finished piece on a compacted 25mm bed of gravel.