Seattle PI Article 2008 Tile Fest

Saturday, September 27, 2008
Last updated September 30, 2008 2:46 p.m. PT

(Pictures to follow)

Carol Rose Dean crafts and sells tiles at her Whidbey Island studio. She’s a licensed tile installer and teaches tilemaking.

Fired up about tile

Festival celebrates the beauty of handmade tile and the Northwest artisans who create them

By CECELIA GOODNOW
P-I REPORTER

On one hand there’s the tile you grew up with — cheap, machine-pressed and unapologetically utilitarian. Durable and easy to clean, it still has its place, even if that place is behind a shower curtain.

COMING UP

NORTHWEST HANDMADE TILE FESTIVAL

WHAT: Third annual show and sale of Artisan Tile Northwest, a nonprofit association of tile artisans. Co-founders of the California-based Tile Heritage Foundation will be on hand to answer questions about historic and contemporary art tile.

WHEN: Oct. 4, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

WHERE: Pioneer Hall in Madison Park, 1642 43rd Ave. E.

MORE INFORMATION: artisantilenw.org/festival.html

Then there’s art tile — another breed altogether.

Painstakingly crafted from hand-carved molds, glazed and painted by hand, these tiles are meant to lend architectural character to a room or garden. You’ll often find them framed and hanging on living-room walls or used as focal points in fireplace surrounds.

“A lot of people collect them,” said tilemaker Carol Rose Dean of Whidbey Island. “They’re beautiful, and they’re art unto themselves.”

The third annual Northwest Handmade Tile Festival is a good opportunity to learn about the many styles of artisan tile being produced locally. About 20 handmade tile crafters from the Puget Sound area will be represented at the Oct. 4 event and most will have tiles for sale.

“What most people like is they can meet the artist, because if you go to a tile store, you’re talking to the salespeople,” said Bellevue tilemaker Iris Jewett of Wilburton Pottery.

   
 
  Dean Tile & Design

The festival also offers a chance to learn about that vintage tile on your fireplace surround or entryway. Could it be genuine Batchelder? Or maybe Claycraft or Rookwood?

Ask Joe Taylor or Sheila Menzies, co-founders of the California-based Tile Heritage Foundation, an archival library that promotes awareness and preservation of historic and contemporary artisan tile. The foundation, which has records of tile designs from the mid-1800s on, will have reproduction catalogs and informational tile books for sale.

“We’ll be happy to identify any tiles people want to bring in — either tiles or pictures of installations,” said Taylor, the featured expert at this year’s tile fest.

The festival is the annual high point for Artisan Tile Northwest, a nonprofit association of regional tilemakers who come together monthly to share their love of the craft and trade insights about glazes, clays, techniques — and staying alive in a troubled economy.

Pictures to follow.

   
 
  Status Handcrafted Ceramics

Dean, one of the founders, said the young group represents only a fraction of the tile artisans scattered across Washington. She knows of 50 to 75 full-time tilemakers and estimates another 150 make tile as a sideline. Many toil in isolation, unaware the field has grown so large.

“There’s been a huge resurgence in tile,” Dean said. “When we started doing the group 3 1/2 years ago, I honestly didn’t know how many dedicated tilemakers there were.”

The challenge now is to clue in the public, which seems “really surprised at the quality and depth” of the local tile scene, said association president Steve Moon of the Tile Restoration Center, a Seattle studio that makes reproduction Batchelder and Claycraft tiles.

Northwest tilemakers range from cottage artisans to studios that employ up to a half-dozen workers.

The Jewetts work out of a modest Bellevue home overflowing with plants, handcrafted garden pots and stacks of decorative, indoor-outdoor tile.

Bob Jewett, a rangy fellow with a white beard, turned to ceramics as a second career about 20 years ago. Mornings find him at his garage workbench, using the heel of his hand to press porcelain clay into hand-carved molds.

   
 
  Status Handcrafted Ceramics

There must be hundreds of them — borders and centerpieces — stacked on edge in cubbies. Iris, a gentle woman with snowy hair, applies glazes and runs the business end.

“This all happened by accident,” Bob Jewett said. “I was originally making garden pots with designs. Then after a while, people asked me to make tiles.”

While some designs are painted, their trademark Wilburton tiles are natural-toned, with a black glaze and crinkled edges that suggest ancient stone carvings ravaged by time. They include nature scenes of such fine detail — enchanted forests straight out of an Arthur Rackham illustration — that they might be etchings.

Like the Jewetts, many of their customers are gardeners. Some hide their tiles in secret places in the garden, “so only they know where it is,” Iris Jewett said. “If you’re a fanatical gardener, that’s not unusual.”

Another client used two vertical tiles to flank the opening of his fireplace, but instead of mortaring them in place, he attached them with Velcro.

“He’s going to move someday,” Bob Jewett said, “and he’ll take those tiles with him.”

By comparison, Dean’s tiles are more colorful and stylized, with simple, playful designs that are at once contemporary and reminiscent of folk art. In addition to mermaids, stars and abstract patterns, she has a line of animal tiles that includes chickens, bemused bunnies, herons, horses and Weimaraners.

Dean, who has a degree in ceramic sculpture, was a general contractor in Seattle before moving to Whidbey Island in 1999. She’s now a licensed tile installer and teaches tilemaking.

“I have a lot of clients who are making their own tile with me,” said Dean, who applauds the hands-on approach as a way to feel more connected to the tile in your home.

The upcoming festival also will feature two of Seattle’s larger handmade tile crafters — though “large” is a relative term.

   
 
  Wilburton Pottery

Kristin Ohberg of Architerra Northwest and Richard Scott of Status Handcrafted Ceramics work in warehouselike studios in historic Georgetown. Each firm has several employees, sells through showrooms and is geared for large installations such as kitchens and bathrooms.

“When people call me an artist, I say, ‘No, I’m just a craftsman,’ ” Ohberg said. “I’m just trying to fill orders properly.”

Field tiles (those with no pattern) and extruded trim may be her bread-and-butter, but Ohberg also handcrafts lovely decorative pieces, including relief tiles and custom orders. Her designs include traditional quilt patterns, plump berries and blossoms, 3-D “clothing” hanging on a line (for an upscale laundry room) and field tiles in the shapes of ovals and parallelograms.

“I want to encourage people to use tile creatively,” she said, “and get outside the square shapes.”

Status Handcrafted Ceramics is large enough to offer entire lines of tiles — the crackle series, the jewel tones, the “faux” series, etc. Scott hires local artists to create some art-tile designs; others are by staff artist Zsuzsa Bansaghi, who earned a doctorate of ceramic engineering in her native Hungary but says simply, “I’m a chemist.”

Bansaghi designed the company’s palette of 95 colors and prides herself on their deep, translucent quality — a result of using oxides (instead of light-blocking stains), which melt and become part of the glaze.

Inspired by the larger Minnesota Tile Festival, Seattle’s tile show is still a young affair, so its goals are modest — to educate the public about the beauty of handmade tile and the talented artisans in their midst.

As Iris Jewett put it, “We just want people to know we exist.”

TIPS

  • Artisan tile can be pricey. A 4-by-4-inch decorative tile might cost $12 to $35, depending on the artist and whether you buy direct or through a retail showroom. (Field or plain tile, with no pattern, is less costly.) But most artisans offer discounts up to 60 to 75 percent on “seconds” — tiles that were overproduced or don’t meet their picky standards. Contact individual tilemakers for details.
  • For oomph on a budget, use handcrafted artisan tiles to accent or trim inexpensive, machine-made field tile. (Bring samples of your field tile to the festival to match with accent pieces.)
  • Apart from shower floors (showerpans), which require professional, failsafe waterproofing, many installation projects are within the abilities of “properly motivated” do-it-yourselfers, said tilemaker Carol Rose Dean, a licensed tile installer. “The tiling itself is not rocket science. It’s about taking your time and being comfortable and having a good design.”

ON THE WEB

P-I reporter Cecelia Goodnow can be reached at 206-448-8353 or ceceliagoodnow@seattlepi.com