From mass produced to one-of-a-kind

When I moved into our new house, I went on a decorating binge. Merchant’s Square in Williamsburg beckoned—not that I was in love with Colonial style, but there was a privately owned, interior design shop that I adored almost as much as chocolate. The name was G. Bates. Sadly, Gail passed away and her shop closed. But for many years, I stopped by there to pick up various pillows, jewelry, or just wander the halls for inspiration.

My first inspiration came by way of three printed plaques that I purchased. Designed to mimic stone, cracks and all, the rectangular designs had two layers and were imprinted with a variety of herbs, vegetables and flowers. I hung them on the dining room wall and stood back to admire them.

And then it hit: I can do that! But mine would be originals. I zoomed over to Home Depot and picked out a variety of 6” X 6” rough-hewn bathroom and kitchen tiles. Some were made in Italy, some in America. The designs poured or imprinted on each tile were subtle, imitating everything from granite to limestone. Because of the embedded designs, I was gifted with a half-completed palette. Above this crack, I would paint a trompe l’oeil, costate hornshell. There, at the bottom, I would paint a coquina. And this, with the reddish background and black streaks, would become a tiny Lascaux cave painting.

This was the perfect project for me—a mom with two very active kids. I could paint at the kitchen table while they did their homework. I could spray-varnish them outside, in between pre-heating the oven and marinating chicken. They were small enough to stack on a bookshelf and didn’t take up a lot of space like large canvasses.

I painted pinecones, lilies and ferns from my yard, frogs, prehistoric fish, and miniature busts or figures of Buddha and Cambodian goddesses.

Already an artist member of a co-op gallery where I sold watercolors, acrylics and oils, I remember being juried into the gallery again—for my tiles. Intellectually, I knew they’d be accepted. They’re completely different from my traditional 2D work, and it makes sense to jury them separately. Still, the butterflies in my stomach threatened to collide with the butterflies on my tiles. Artists are like that.

I continue to paint and sell tiles. They are my bread and butter, so to speak, at local galleries. They’re decorative yet useful—and usefulness is a tipping point when selling otherwise indulgent art. Most of the time, the tiles are hung on the wall. “Oh, I would never put something on top of this,” people have said, when I tell them the tiles may be used as trivets. I am grateful for that. Many clients have returned to buy tiles throughout the years, creating a collection.

Some of the small tiles only take me an hour. Others, for example, a 12” X 12” sea turtle, take several hours. After I finish painting each one (usually with Liquitex heavy body acrylic), I spray it with six, thin coats of varnish. On the back, I attach corner bumpers and glue saw tooth hooks, so that clients have a choice to hang them or set them on the countertop.

I tested my first tiles with varying degrees of varnish, anywhere from two to ten coats, let them sit for 24 hours, and then placed a boiling hot teakettle on each one. Even the thinnest coats of Krylon held up. But just to make sure, six became my magic number.

I inadvertently water-tested them outside in the rain. As fate would have it, I forgot about them when a tropical storm soaked us for three days. When I re-discovered the tiles outside the back door, I carelessly picked them up, intending to toss them into the trash. But the images—a Chesapeake blue crab and a pink, spring tulip—glistened with perfection. And so I was able to inform clients that these could be used as kitchen backsplashes, another useful approach.

Just when I think I’m tired of painting trompe l’oeil images on tiles, I stumble upon a different pattern and my muse is reborn. I’ve painted on pre-fired terra cotta, slate, slick bathtub tiles, and imitation granite. I never know when a slight imperfection or color alteration will spark my imagination.

At one point, I hired a contractor to drill holes through several 12” square tiles so that I could make the painted images into clocks. Yet another useful indulgence. Seashells and turtles, as well as leaves work well on the clocks. Faces, either human or animal, require a lot of fidgeting and positioning before I actually paint. After all, no one wants a turtle or a Greek goddess with a moustache at 3:40, do they?

Oddly, I have no tiles hung on my own walls. I still have the original botanical prints on faux stone from G. Bates. A bit like the shoemaker whose kids went without shoes, I suppose. We’ve lived here in our “new” house for 20 years now. Time to start redecorating!

 

 

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