‘Piece by Piece – Still Going’

An art? A craft? Most definitely a skill! Unique hobby, unique woman.

These were the thoughts in my mind as Mrs. Nanda Wijesekera showed me two jigsaw puzzles – one huge and complete, the other she was working on in her home in Dehiwala.

Fitting the hundreds of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and completing a picture has been Nanda’s hobby since she was a little girl. She will be accommodating others to see her work at her second exhibition of jigsaw puzzle pictures at the Gandhara Gallery, 28 Stratford Avenue, Colombo 8, on 20th and 21st February from 10.00 a.m. to 7.30 p.m.

It’s an exhibition not to be missed. She first exhibited her completed jigsaw puzzles at the same venue in May 2006. That exhibition was titled ‘Piece by Piece – Kept It Going’ and this second exhibition is aptly titled: ‘Piece by Piece – Still Going.’ And thank goodness, the jigsaw puzzle fitter has kept going and is still going and the public due for a treat on the 20th and 21st of this month.

Nanda Wijesekera, as I said, started fitting jigsaw puzzles when a kid; her mother making shopping trips to Cargills in the Fort whenever she heard they had a new stock of puzzles in boxes. Those were the days of keeping kids engaged and off trees and rough games by way of Monopoly and 304 card games and jigsaw puzzles. The interest in completing jigsaw puzzles soon enough waned off her sister, but Nanda kept going, hooked on fitting pieces, getting more and more intricate as the years passed.

It’s now photomosaic jigsaw puzzles that are out in the market where each small piece has a photograph on it and the picture on it is not really connected to those of the adjacent pieces. Of course they fit into the overall design, but unlike the puzzles of old, each picture is not connected to the next by small bits of clues, as it were. One has to match each little piece to the pieces marked on the picture provided, matching - meaning looking closely at the individual photograph on each little piece and then fitting the piece in its correct place.

Nanda was working on a large photomosaic jigsaw puzzle with a picture of Mickey Mouse, when I visited her. This type of jigsaw puzzle is really complicated and needs immense patience and peering into each piece as already explained. What Nanda had done was to first divide the pieces into lots depending on colour and the big divisions in the picture. Then she picks out the edge pieces which have one straight edge or two if it’s a corner piece. Then she pours over each piece in her divided lots, matching each to those in the picture, and fits then in to complete sections of the puzzle.

I gasped in wonder and praise at this laborious process she went through and was amazed when she told me she is sight impaired having had an operation on one of her eyes in America where it was messed up and so she now has only one good eye. And this lady has as her hobby a skill that calls for close looking at each piece she fits in, hundreds if not thousands of minute pieces. She says she can work on a puzzle for about six hours a day.

She showed me one large completed jigsaw puzzle – approximately 2.5 X 1.5 metres - carrying the title Nova Totius Orbis Mappa Ex Optimis Auctoribus Desmuta which reads as ‘A new map of the entire world, 1611’. It was the first map of the world drawn by cartographer Peter Van Der Keere who was born in Flanders in 1571 and died in Amsterdam in 1646. The puzzle had 9,120 pieces and was gifted to Nanda by her son and daughter who had bought it for her on a holiday abroad "to keep Mum occupied for some time."

It delighted Mum but she had completed it in no time! This huge puzzle will sure take pride of place at the forthcoming exhibition. She had used 45 yoghurt cups and 15 larger containers and two trays just to hold the pieces she initially sorted out. She fitted it in sections on 36 pieces of stiff cardboard, and then made it one whole.

This woman amazed me and showed me what dedication and patience can achieve. She is married to A. R. L. Wijesekera, former Government Analyst, and has two children and two grandsons who prodded her on to hold a second exhibition. She has had a full life of versatility having taught in Scotland and England when she accompanied her husband to these countries. She told me she got on with her London students though her co-teachers warned her about attacks in the back and that a co-Home Economics teacher had had her hair set on fire by her students during a cookery demonstration.

At the end of her teaching stint in London, Nanda was invited to the main hall by her class. Although warned not to go she did go, confident the kids would play no tricks. It was a touching farewell party, she said, with students hardly able to spend bringing her flowers and little gifts. More appreciated, of course, were their verbal tributes.

Eighty completed puzzles were packed and ready for transport to the exhibition venue - 70 adult pictures and 10 to catch the eye of children.

Jigsaw puzzles trace their ancestry to1760 when Jon Spotsbury, a London mapmaker and engraver, is believed to have made the fist puzzle which was a map which he mounted on a sheet of hard wood and cut around county borders using a fine bladed saw. It was used as a visual aid in geography classes. In 1880, the treadle saw was introduced and what had previously been known as ‘Dissections’ came to be known by its present name - jigsaw puzzle. By the end of the century plywood came into use.

Cardboard puzzles were first introduced in the late 1880s and were mainly for children. In the 20th century the pieces were die cut, where thin strips of metal with sharp edges were twisted into intricate patterns and pasted onto a plate. The resultant die is then placed in a press which is forced down on cardboard to make the cut. The first for adults was produced around 1900. The interlocking style that reduced risk of spilling or losing pieces increased its popularity. Now laser controlled computer cutting is used. It is a booming multimillion dollar industry with no actual record of sales.

I quote from the flyer distributed at Nanda’s first exhibition. I am sure you could get more details of this skill and patience necessitating hobby from the brochure of the forthcoming exhibition. The flyer I quote carries this message from the exhibitor: "Believe me, its good fun - get one - get it done!" Easier said than done, Nanda. You will have to infect us with your indomitable enthusiasm.

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