PPP - Mastering the Art of Murals

September 1, 2002
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For Dennis Caffrey at Urban Clay, the challenge of making ceramic media conform to traditional art techniques has led to new methods of decorating tile.

This mural adorns a wall near a swimming pool at El Sereno Park in Los Angeles. Artist Elsa Flores first sketched the design on the tile using special "lithographic crayons" invented by Caffrey. The tile were then airbrushed and fired to complete the mural.
How do you transfer an artist’s idea into a beautiful, multi-story ceramic tile mural? Just ask Dennis Caffrey of Urban Clay Inc. in Los Angeles, Calif. For the past nine years, Caffrey’s tile mural fabrication studio has been helping artists embellish a wide range of public spaces, from the Crenshaw Metro Station in Los Angeles, to a swimming pool in El Sereno Park, Calif., to the North Hollywood Metro Station in North Hollywood, Calif., and a number of other buildings in between.

“I founded Urban Clay because I was interested in working with fine artists who have large-scale public commissions and were in need of either a place to execute their commissions or a fabricator who could do it for them,” Caffrey said. He quickly discovered that each new mural has its own unique flair—and often presents its own set of challenges. But rather than slowing him down, these challenges have provided Caffrey with the impetus to discover new ways to decorate ceramic tile.

“For each new project, I have had to invent a technique or system of working that I didn’t know existed before” he said. “It’s really enabled me to explore the creative side of problem-solving.”

A Colorful History

Caffrey began his career in ceramics as a tile setter, working alongside his father. But he wasn’t content with simply setting tile—he wanted to learn how the tile was made and get involved in the creative side of the ceramic business. Caffrey studied ceramics in both undergraduate and graduate programs. He obtained his master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1973 and spent the next five years teaching studio ceramics, first at the Art Institute of Chicago, then at The Ohio State University, and finally at the University of Wisconsin.

In 1978, he returned to the tile setting business, establishing his own contracting company to install high-end, hand-made, hand-painted tile from Europe. But the lure of creativity soon drew him back to the more artistic side of making tile. In 1981, Caffrey moved to Portugal and became an artist in residence at two different pottery factories—first at Santa Anna and then at Estrella de Conimbriga—where he became skilled at every aspect of making hand-painted tile.

When Caffrey returned to the U.S. several years later, he knew his destiny was to continue what he had learned, and in 1985, he established his own hand-painted tile company in Los Angeles, Calif. The company was called Tile Guild, and its reproductions of Renaissance, Portuguese, Greek, Roman Turkish and other historical tiles are still in high demand today.

For many people, establishing one successful company would be enough, but Caffery had never been one to settle. While he enjoyed making and designing products for Tile Guild, he was eager to find new challenges—new ways to push his own creative boundaries. So in 1993, when artist Buzz Spector (now a dean of fine arts at Cornell University) approached him and asked for his help in creating a tile mural for the Crenshaw Metro Station in Los Angeles, Caffrey didn’t hesitate. He purchased a new 13,000-square-foot facility in Los Angeles and filled it with tile presses, spray booths, electric kilns and other equipment—and Urban Clay was born.

The Crenshaw Metro Station mural is composed of 5000 square feet of colorful tile interspersed with hand-written stories gathered from people living in the communities near the Metro rail system.

Experience as Teacher

The Crenshaw Metro Station mural would be composed of 5000 square feet of colorful tile interspersed with hand-written stories in seven different languages, gathered from people living in the communities near the Metro rail system. Caffrey began placing ads in local newspapers for professional sign painters to help him create this work of art. But he had a problem: Professional sign painters typically work with one-shot enamels—not ceramic materials.

“People who work with traditional ceramic materials, such as stains, glazes or underglazes, generally need to have a great deal of experience with the medium because it’s so demanding,” Caffrey said. “I knew I couldn’t just train these professional sign painters to work with ceramic media. Instead, I had to come up with a technique that would allow them to paint with ceramic the same way they would with one-shot enamels.”

Drawing on his vast experience with ceramic materials, Caffrey began experimenting. He developed a unique medium that could be ball milled and mixed with commercial pigments to create a liquid that had the same texture and viscosity as one-shot enamels. With this new media, the sign painters wouldn’t have to learn a new process—they could simply pick up their tools and begin painting the signs, the same as they would on any other type of surface.

Working with such a large mural also posed another problem. The mural would be assembled in the station by tile setters, not artists, and they would need a way to quickly and easily lay the tile without having to worry about getting the different pieces out of order. “With this many tile, you’re talking about hundreds of boxes and several different pallets and crates being shipped to the job site. The tile setters have to be confident that the tile will come out of the boxes in a certain way—they shouldn’t have to take them all out of the boxes to figure out where they go,” Caffrey said.

Once again, Caffrey’s previous experience came into play. Knowing exactly what the tile setters would need, he devised a system that would enable the contents of each box and crate to be precisely labeled. “I constructed 100 rolling tables that hold up to 3200 square feet of tile at one time,” Caffrey said. “We label each tile, box it, and then move on to the next set of tile. We color-code each crate and make a map showing the setters where to put the crates. When the tile setters open the box, they know there is only one place that the tile can go. There’s no guesswork involved.”

A new medium and method of hanging tile enabled Urban Clay to create this mural of humpback whales for Wyland's studio.

Exploring New Ideas

By 1996, word of Caffrey’s new business had spread to a number of artists—including Wyland, the world-renowned “Artist of the Sea.” Known for his spectacular paintings of a wide variety of marine life and the landmark airbrushed murals known as Whaling Walls, Wyland wanted his new studio/gallery complex in Laguna Beach, Calif., to be a life-sized tribute to the immense size and beauty of the Pacific’s humpback whales. Wyland’s murals already adorned numerous brick and cement walls and buildings throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, but for his new studio, Wyland wanted the mural to be composed of ceramic tile. He turned to Urban Clay to help him bring his new creation to life.

Although the mural’s 130-ft-long by 29-ft-tall size made it smaller in scale than the mural at the Crenshaw Metro Station, it was much more complex than anything Caffrey had previously attempted. Because the mural would be airbrushed, new artists and another new medium would be needed.

“I needed artists who were capable of making the mural look real and getting it done quickly, so I decided to hire billboard artists. But traditional ceramic media don’t lend themselves to the airbrushing technique. Using a mixture of stains and some other ingredients, I created a new medium that would enable the artists to airbrush almost photographic representations relatively easily and quickly using traditional airbrush methods of frisket and stencils,” Caffrey said.

Unlike the first mural, which was essentially created in separate, smaller pieces, the Whaling Wall would have to be painted as a whole so that every piece would match when the mural was assembled. This provided Caffrey with another new challenge.

“Using the same materials the glass industry uses to support architectural glass and mirrors, I created a rack system that would enable us to wall-mount all of the freshly glazed tile so they could all be painted at the same time,” Caffrey said. “I had some people putting tile up on the wall while other people painted them, and then other people took the tile down and organized them to be fired, all in racks. On each rack, we wrote its exact position in the mural, and when the racks came out of the kilns, we laid them on the tables according to how the racks were labeled. We knew exactly where every tile went because as it came out of the rack, it went into its exact position in the map.”

As a result of these efforts, the finished mural was flawless—a multi-story replica of the humpback whales' underwater world.

Over the next several years, Caffrey helped artists create a number of other murals, most of which were painted using the sign painting and airbrushing techniques he had developed for his earlier projects. He also created ceramic versions of “lithographic crayons” that enabled artists draw on the surface of the unfired clay, just as if they were drawing with crayons on a piece of paper. But he was eager to discover other ways to create the murals’ designs.

In 1999, when artist Ann Marie Karlsen approached Urban Clay with a commission for the North Hollywood Metro Station in North Hollywood, Calif., Caffrey saw another opportunity to expand his portfolio—this time into silkscreen decals. By hand painting each tile and then fitting together mirror-image decals—some of which were up to 8 ft long—Caffrey and the artists he contracted for the project were able to precisely replicate Karlsen’s kaleidoscopic images of local culture and history on the more than 1000 8 x 8 in. tiles required for the 11 murals.

“The North Hollywood project was my first experience with decals, and it really made me want to explore the other possibilities of this medium,” Caffrey said.

Urban Clay created the murals at the North Hollywood Metro Station using a combination of hand painting and silkscreen decals.

The Beauty of Technology

Not long after completing the North Hollywood project, Caffrey was approached by the City of Santa Monica, Calif., to create 14 tile panels for its Urban Runoff Recycling Facility that would help educate visitors about the facility. Unlike Caffrey’s previous murals, which were primarily drawings or paintings, the murals at the water treatment facility would have to be photo-realistic.

“I took this commission, but I didn’t really have the slightest idea how I was going to do it,” Caffrey said. “Then I heard about a new color proofing system developed by DuPont, called Cromalin® Art,* that would enable the creation of high-resolution, photo-realistic images on ceramic surfaces, and I was immediately intrigued.”

Caffrey purchased the new system, and it enabled him to complete the Santa Monica project. But he discovered that the system had limitations. “Cromalin works really well for black-and-white or duotone images—we recently completed a project working with an artist named Jody Zellin that involves 225 8 x 8 in. duotone tiles that are all different photographs of architectural treatments in Los Angeles, and that was done with the Cromalin process. But Cromalin is too prone to problems for the four-color process, so I continued looking for alternatives,” Caffrey said.

Caffrey’s adventurous spirit recently led him to discover digital ceramic decals, developed in Germany by Michael Zimmer and distributed through Digital Ceramic Systems, a partnership between Zimmer and Stuart Jones, located in the UK. To create a digital ceramic decal, the artwork or photo is scanned directly into a computer. After image adjustments are complete and the decal sheet has been previewed on the computer monitor, the data is sent to a color server, which manages a laser printer containing specially formulated ceramic toners. The printer prints the image on water-slide decal paper, a covercoat is applied using either a laminator or a wet-screening method, and the finished decal is applied to the ware. The entire printing and coating process typically requires only one to two minutes to complete.

“The digital process is really the next step for Urban Clay,” Caffrey said. “My job is to give artists a faithful reproduction of their goal, and to do it within their budget. With the digital decals, I don’t have to hire a team of artists or painters—I can do most of the work using just a single graphic artist who works on the computer. And I can replicate the artwork down to the minutest detail.”

Caffrey has also licensed the technology from Digital Ceramic Systems so that he can help other potters and ceramic manufacturers benefit from the advantages of this new system.

For Caffrey, each new challenge in the mural fabrication process has provided a welcome opportunity to stretch his creative abilities. “I have a lot of experience—literally from production potter to running a tile factory to working with presses and all the different ceramic processes, whether it be creating hand-thrown pottery or formulating glazes—so I have a good background of knowledge and skills in ceramics to draw from. But with Urban Clay, I’m always learning something new.”

For More Information

For more information about Urban Clay, contact Dennis Caffrey at Urban Clay Inc., 2424 E. 55th St., Los Angeles, CA 90058; (323) 581-8702; fax (323) 581-0198; or visit http://www.urbanclay.com.

*For more information about Cromalin Art, contact Ferro Graphics, Inc., at (800) 726-6626 or visit www.dmc-2graphics.com/.

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