For the upcoming 2020 election, NBCLX has sought out artists from across the country to reimagine the iconic “I Voted” sticker. The latest artist to participate is Bailey Aaland, a mosaic artist based in Minnesota.
Aaland sat down to talk with NBCLX's Janine Doyon about her process and how this piece prompted her to reflect on difference and unity in America. She hopes that voters will head to the polls to stand for racial justice, particularly given this year's national reckoning with police brutality, starting in Minnesota, as well as for environmental protections.
You can find her art on Instagram at @baileyraemosaics. To find and share a digital version of her mosaic – and to check out our entire collection of artist-created "I Voted" stickers – search “LXtion2020” on Giphy.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Aaland: Hi, my name is Bailey Aaland. I'm a mosaic artist and I live in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Doyon: So if someone has never heard of mosaic art, how would you describe what you typically make?
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Aaland: Mosaic art is actually all around us. You might not see it immediately, but it's in the tile on the street, it's in tiles in your backsplashes in a kitchen or a bathroom. So I just take that to a different level and make it something specifically for the wall as something to enjoy rather than maybe being a functional piece. I make mosaics by cutting up large pieces of glass and breaking them and then reassembling them so that they make an image. I do a lot of pet portraits. I do a lot of nature, trees, things that are here in Minnesota.
Doyon: So what was it that drew you to working with mosaics specifically?
Aaland: Actually my mom kind of forced me to do it. I was always someone who drew or painted. And one time at our cabin in northern Minnesota, she had a book from Michael's or a book from some craft store, a bunch of broken china and plates and glue. And she was like, we're doing this. We're learning this right now. And I was like, mom, I don't want to do this. This isn't a cool thing to do. But then immediately, it just kind of struck a chord with me. There is something about that physical interaction with the material, 'cause I've never worked with, like, a solid piece of anything. And then to have the ability to cut it down and then shape it into whatever shape you need it to be. It was just very exciting and very visceral to have that connection to the materials that I'm using. So she ended up kind of walking away from the table and I just kept going for like four hours. I was just addicted immediately. And since then, it's kind of just been the art form that I've been able to most confidently create in... Before I did a lot of drawing and a lot of painting, but it was based off of other people's stuff. I would practice drawing Disney cartoons and try to make it exact as possible, but it wasn't mine. I didn't own that. So [with] mosaics, I was able to actually do that. And I feel like what I create is 100% me.
Doyon: Can you describe what it is that you created and some of the elements and details that you included?
Aaland: I created for this project, basically a recreation of the button or the sticker that you get when you vote. So it's nothing with a lot of deep symbolism or meaning, but it was a lot of creating the text first and then trying to figure out how I wanted to translate the button, which is a 3D thing, which has light that shines off of it and interpret that in a solid glass form. So what I came up with was basically a square version of a circle button.
Doyon: What was your thought process for how you were going to turn your idea of voting, or advertising that you voted, into something out of tile?
Aaland: During the process of creating this piece, I did a lot of self-reflection. I feel like that's something that you don't necessarily see in the finished piece... During the process of creating, I'm often thinking about exactly what I'm doing in that moment. So, for example, I started with the text because then you can create the red around it – so piece by piece, tiny little pieces of glass cut to be rounded so they can create an "O," create a "T," with some curvature. There's a lot of thoughts that came to mind while I was working on it – America, or the the U.S., is [made] up of many different pieces and shapes and types of people. But altogether, it creates one country... it's made of many pieces, but it is one whole.
Doyon: So once you landed on your concept, how did you actually create the piece? Can you walk me through the steps to creating a mosaic tile?
Aaland: When you're creating a mosaic, and for starting this piece, I really had large pieces of glass, which have a lot of different coloration and variation in it, and it's really just a matter of having the right tools. And one of those tools is this wheel cutter, which is kind of like a weird scissor when you think about it, because you use it to break glass pretty cleanly... When I had more straight lines, I ended up using tools like the oil cutter which zips along the glass, and then you have a paring breaker that runs down that line that you created. So it was a lot of cutting thin strips of white and red and then... you're writing with glass... So starting with the "I" and then working from there... It's not by any means perfect, but that's kind of my favorite thing about mosaics is that it's pretty hard to be 100% exact unless you're like Mosaika in Canada who recreates Chuck Close's paintings. I like that it can be imperfect and be still something that you can admire and look at and not see the flaws or point them out as something that's bad. And then from there, I took all the pieces and I glue as I go. So I have a little blue baggy, which looks a bit like a frosting bag that chefs use or bakers. [I] glue all the pieces on. And I actually didn't grout this piece yet. I'm not sure if I want to because I kind of like how the white and the red are unimpeded. But if I were to grout it, you would see all kinds of lines from where the glass is separated because you can see there's lots of little breaks. So normally that would be filled in with grout, but I'm experimenting with not doing that.
Doyon: My first thought when I looked at that is, how on earth were you able to make the text look so neat? Can you talk a little bit about the font and the text that you created? Because it looks so good.
Aaland: Thank you. The font that I used for the piece, I based it off of the sticker or the button. So I'm not sure if it's Helvetica or what the on-brand font is for that. [It was] lots of the little details ... in this font that were the most difficult to do... When you look at the "T" and this "V"... you can see that there's tiny little details. And it was very much a struggle, you see in my time lapse videos there's a lot of me putting pieces down and then, a good 30 seconds later, wiping it away and completely starting from scratch. Because I was like, well, I can't let it be not as perfect as I can attempt to make it – because it's never going to be perfect, but I need to try my hardest to get the point across of what it is.
Doyon: Would you say you have a favorite type of subject for your mosaics?
Aaland: They run the gamut. There [are] nature pieces, dog pieces. I like challenges, so I've been doing a lot of dog portraits in various sizes – and cat portraits as well, mostly dog owners though. And they're all so different. You know, when you're provided a personal photo from somebody to work off of. You can't prepare or cheat because they're going to know if it's not their dog. So when you're able to capture that likeness and make something that they'll remember their loved one by for many, many years, that is a really nice feeling. And then I also like nature. I've been working off of people's photos – more landscape stuff lately. And that's more difficult. Like I said, I really like this challenge. I used to be more of a folksy, swirly mosaic artist and there's nothing wrong with that at all, I still love it. I just found that I kind of wore out my ability to be creative and create new things that didn't look like what everybody else was doing. So now I'm all about the realism as much as I can.
Doyon: What message do you hope that people will take away from your piece?
Aaland: I hope that people will see this piece and they'll vote. I hope that they understand that I did put put time and energy into creating this piece and it's because I think voting is really, really important. A lot of people in the past have died for this right and I think it would be a dishonor to them to not do it just because it's inconvenient... In the old days, you had to be a land owning white male. And it was only recently that so many other groups of people were able to vote. And it's because they fought and they wanted their voices to be heard. So I'm hoping that by just seeing that there is effort from artists behind this, that it's important.
Doyon: So you, Bailey, as a human being, an American: What does voting mean to you?
Aaland: Voting means to me that you're helping not only your own voice be heard, but a communal voice be heard. Lots of people deciding together what's best for the community. And if you don't put your voice into that crowd, then they could risk losing something that's really important to them. So it's selfish to not vote. And I just want to make sure that I'm doing everything I can.
Doyon: Has your opinion changed over the years about voting? Is it something that you've over the years come to see as different – or its meaning or significance has changed for you?
Aaland: The first time I voted was in 2008, and it was a really exciting election year. I was very excited to be able to cast my vote for that specific election. And I don't think I at first really even thought about all of the other seats and all of the other positions that need to be filled and how those are equally important towards getting things passed and making sure that things don't get stuck in a certain House or a Senate or whatever. I think I'm still learning a lot. I have some really smart friends that I love to listen to and understand the process more. But it's definitely a journey. I feel like we didn't learn enough in school about voting so you got to take it upon yourself sometimes to educate and I'm eager to continue to vote throughout my lifetime and make sure that I understand who I'm voting for and what they stand for.
Doyon: Are there any issues that are going to be impacted by this election that you're particularly passionate about?
Aaland: I feel like this election there are way too many issues to choose from... There's two that are at the top of my mind just because they're so prevalent since last May – that racial equality and police brutality need to be addressed. Whatever that looks like in each community, I just think it's been too long. This is something that's been happening for hundreds of years and we need to face it head on now so that we can get better. We need to be better. And then I'm also very passionate about the environment. I wouldn't say that I am like a straight A student when it comes to protecting the environment, but I respect it and I appreciate it, and I value it very greatly. And a lot of protections for it are [being] rolled back and are being fought. So I think that we have a very, very limited amount of time. Time is of the essence for the environment and if we don't do something immediately, we could be facing a very rough future, not just for us, but for the entire world.
Doyon: Does being in Minnesota and having seen how [racial justice has] impacted your community make you all the more passionate about getting out to vote? Because I think a lot of people would say racial justice, but I think it means something different for people in Minnesota this year.
Aaland: I think that racial justice, especially coming from Minnesota, from the Twin Cities, very close to where George Floyd was murdered, to where the protests were, it's especially close to home. I don't feel like Minnesota is special or, you know, one of a kind in the event that happened. It feels like Minnesota could have been anywhere, especially having seen events that have happened since then. But it does feel like it would be wrong as a Minnesotan to not especially stand up and say this is unacceptable and we need to be better for everyone so that we can all be better.
Doyon: Do you have a final message to others about the importance of voting in this election?
Aaland: I think for this election, it's really important that people stand up and educate themselves, and that doesn't mean through social media. I think that people need to understand that there are two sides to a story and that multiple news sources are needed to fact check because facts are facts. There isn't such thing as alternative facts. There is the truth. And then there are lies. So I implore you to go out and learn. And if you're wrong, don't take that as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed of, take that as a win. You're educating yourself and you're becoming a better person for your community, for your family. And then you can further educate other people. It's contagious when knowledge is power.