‘Off-kilter, a little bit:’ Newport Beach artist turns to mosaics to reflect Catalina Island

Robbie Britvich, 82, works on her mosaic art in the garage of her Newport Beach home on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

For her art, Robbie Britvich starts by breaking things — tiles, mostly.

“I don’t like anything that’s precise. I like it irregular,” said Britvich in a recent interview, adding that she usually starts hammering away at the backs of pieces of tile — sometimes whole, sometimes broken — with the image of what she wants to make already in her head before she starts. “I’ve always been like that in my art.

“Off-kilter, a little bit,” said the 82-year-old Newport Beach artist.

Britvich works in mosaics and describes herself as having always been an artistic person. She started out painting furniture, but eventually “graduated” to doing mosaic work almost two decades ago when longtime friend Catrina Awalt was about to toss out some tiles that had arrived broken in a shipment to her Catalina Island shop.

“I said, ‘Don’t throw those away. I will take them and I will do something with them.’ So, I did. I started with birdhouses and she started selling them in her shop and they all sold,” said Britvich. “And then, I started doing historic things — the [Catalina Island] casino, Chimes Tower, mermaids ... [Awalt’s] been taking all of my pieces for years and they’ve been selling, so I’ve just continued that.”

Robbie Britvich, 82, places a piece of tile into a piece.
Robbie Britvich, 82, places a piece of tile into a piece she calls “Casino Mermaid” at her Newport Beach home on Monday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Awalt said that Britvich’s works bring prices ranging from $100 to $1,000 at Two’s Co. of Avalon, depending on the scale of the item. What’s more, she specifically sells her artwork only to people who live in Southern California so that she can deliver them herself.

There’s no fixing something that’s one of a kind, she said.

“I sell a lot of tiles, but some of the tiles in my shop arrive broken,” said Awalt. “She just comes up with these really clever ideas. You give her pottery, broken jewelry. Give her something to play with and she comes up with wonderful, wonderful things.”

Britvich works out of her garage-turned-studio in Newport Crest and spends a few hours of each day at her craft, taking anywhere from one or two weeks to a full month to complete an item, depending on its scale.

But art wasn’t her life from the start. Not by a long shot.

Britvich was born in 1938 in Oklahoma City. But when World War II ended and her father was discharged from the U.S. Navy, her family left West Virginia for San Pedro, where she grew up. She’d eventually make her way to Newport Beach in 1963, where she would later meet her husband, Darwin, and start her own business.

A mosaic lighthouse around 2 ½ to 3-feet tall.
A mosaic lighthouse around 2 ½ to 3-feet tall done by Newport Beach resident Robbie Britvich. The piece is currently at the Two’s Co. of Avalon on Catalina Island.
(Courtesy of Catrina Awalt)

She helmed Robbie’s Rag and Mop, a women janitorial service, for about 25 years.

"[Darwin] was a contractor and he was building homes and I sold my business and then went into my arts full-time at that point because I [had been] kind of dabbling with it,” said Britvich.

“We were just happy. A happy couple with kids, grandkids and then he had a stroke and was 69 [in 2002],” she said. “It was a tough time. When he passed away, I kept doing my stuff. I just kept doing it because it was my [survival].”

She said that since her husband died she has found art to be a lifeline. And she’s enjoying selling her works.

“I’m 82; I’m actually going to be 83 in November,” she said. “This is probably the best time of my life.”

Awalt said she gets attached to pieces that Britvich brings in, but the artist reminds her she has to sell the pieces and not just keep them in her shop.

“My store is on the higher end side, so it has interesting artwork. Hers just fits in there with everything else. I just never know what she’s going to come up with,” said Awalt. “She goes ‘I’m coming over. I did this.’ She found an old antique mirror and tiled it. Brought it in and it’s just beautiful. Just one thing after another.”

For Britvich, she said there’s something about the presentation of art and the creation of it that is fulfilling for her.

“For me, I don’t think I could ever survive without it,” Britvich said. “When I’m creating a piece, I get excited and then I just go into this area. I can’t explain it. Isn’t that weird? Happy. I’m happy.”

Robbie Britvich, 82, created a tile mosaic plate at her home in Newport Beach.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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