PPP: Piece By Piece

October 1, 2005
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Santa Theresa Tile Works is inspiring numerous communities and individuals with its colorful tile mosaics.

A mosaic designed by Santa Theresa Tile Works for Soleil restaurant, Tucson, Ariz.
Founded in 1986, Tucson, Ariz.-based Santa Theresa Tile Works, Inc. has risen from its humble beginnings as a backyard startup to become a leader in the decorative ceramic tile industry. Perhaps best known for its public art installations across the country, the company also services the commercial and residential sectors, bringing its colorful mosaic pieces to office buildings and private kitchens and bathrooms throughout the Tucson and Phoenix areas. A thriving retail business, complete with workshop offerings, rounds out the equation.

Despite its success, Santa Theresa has managed to avoid the bottom-line business approach typical of many of its mass-production counterparts, instead choosing to focus on the quality and uniqueness of its work. Such is the prerogative of a relatively small specialty outfit, but it's a philosophy that pays dividends when it comes to creative freedom.

A Public Affair

Susan Gamble was an elementary school art teacher in Tucson when a desire to focus on her own work put her on a path that would lead to the opening of Santa Theresa Tile Works. After completing her master's of fine arts degree in ceramics at California State University-Long Beach, Gamble launched Santa Theresa-loosely named after Teresa of Avila, the 16th century saint responsible for reorganizing the Carmelite order of nuns-as a showcase for wheel-thrown and highly decorative ceramic pieces. Though gallery sales were a staple of Santa Theresa's first years, Gamble's need to work on a larger scale prompted a switch to more elaborate mosaic works using handmade ceramic tiles.

"On the wheel, I was basically making very large plates that I could decorate," Gamble says. "I eventually discovered that I could decorate tile without bending over a wheel all day."

In 1988, Gamble landed the first of many large public art projects for which Santa Theresa would gain national recognition: a 5 x 4-ft wall mosaic commissioned by the Tucson International Airport Authority for $5000. This comparatively modest beginning allowed Gamble to hire on Santa Theresa's first part-time employee in 1990 and further commercialize the business through retail tile sales.

Santa Theresa began work on perhaps its most notable project to date in 1995, when the City of Boston awarded it $98,000 for a series of mosaic installations in Paul Revere Park. Gamble worked closely with landscape architects to ensure that her designs for signs, bench backs, a Paul Revere map and a nautilus lookout meshed with a collective vision for the park located near the Charles River dam. Though only three workers were needed to set each tile by hand for the project's first phase, Gamble's crew grew to eight for the final installations. The park opened in July of 1999.

Santa Theresa's experience working with the City of Boston was fairly typical of other public art projects the company has undertaken. Federal, state or local organizers will first issue a "Call to Artists" that specifies budgetary allowances. Artists then submit portfolios of past work, thus demonstrating their qualifications through slides and statements. "Essentially, the project organizers set the amount, and the artist says, 'This is what I can do for the commission amount,'" Gamble says of the process.

While Gamble concedes that luck is the most important factor when it comes to winning public art commissions, she does allow that an air of professionalism can only help an artist's chances for selection.

"Santa Theresa has a reputation for reliability," she says. "We try to dispel the misconception some people have that artists aren't going to be businesslike."

Because public art projects are usually connected to larger public improvement contracts, a commissioned artist often must wait until all other elements of construction are in place before beginning their own installations. The wait can range anywhere from a few months to years. Santa Theresa uses the downtime to focus on its retail and gallery sales, workshops and, of course, other public art projects.

Santa Theresa's average commissions for public art projects fall between $100,000 and $150,000. The company's most recent client was the Blue Planet Water Environmental Center at the North Mecklenburg Water Treatment Facility in Huntersville, N.C., for which Gamble designed a 5 x 20-ft interior wall mosaic, a series of outdoor benches and a kinetic piece consisting of a 13-ft-tall buoy-like tower in a tank of water with a sculptural piece on top.

Created for the Memorial Student Union and Bookstore at University of Arizona (Tuscon), this 26-ft A-shaped spire features a base clad in handmade tile, plasma-cut steel panels with "wings" of steel tube and mesh, and 18 solar panels that illuminate the piece at night.

A Colorful Contribution

According to Gamble, the move from wheel-thrown pieces to mosaic tile has enabled Santa Theresa to maximize the potential of its resources. Though the company once fired with gas kilns, it now uses electric kilns exclusively, which allows for easier access to power and the use of multiple, smaller-sized kilns.

"Smaller kilns allow more firings of fewer tiles, which is better for our production process," Gamble says, citing the company's need for a range of tile sizes.

Of the five kilns at Santa Theresa's disposal, four are 7-cubic-foot kilns that can each fire 21 square feet of tile; the fifth "baby" kiln is reserved for testing purposes. Brand names used in the company's production process include Shimpo ConeArt, Skutt and Cress.

However, it isn't kilns or firing capacities that strikes clients or retail customers when they see Santa Theresa's works on display, but the artistry behind each handcrafted piece. Having researched an installation's natural surroundings, the company incorporates a folk element to its final design whereby items in a composition (flowers, animals, etc.) are brought to life through characterization, as opposed to a more literal, "photographic" representation.

Another Santa Theresa trademark is the use of brightly colored glazes. While fashionable, this practice has functional origins in working to combat the washing-out effects of the hot desert sun. Gamble credits Woodbridge, Ontario-based Spectrum Glazes with providing the vibrant colors so crucial to Santa Theresa's distinctive look.

"Historically, it's been difficult to get bright colors in a high-temperature firing range, which is what we need," Gamble says. "Spectrum's chemists are also good at formulating high freeze/ thaw-resistant glazes that have great color. I can tell Spectrum I'm looking for a particular color-say it's a matte yellow at cone five that will hold up to medium traffic in an

outdoor application-and they'll develop what they can in that range."

Gamble notes that reliability and flexibility are her major concerns when it comes to choosing glaze products.

"Our tiles tend to be layered with many different colors, which can be tricky if you don't know what to expect from a glaze," she says. "Spectrum eliminates much of the guesswork and lets me focus on what I do best-painting mosaic pieces."

Hollyhocks and hummingbirds can be seen in this "window" (48 in. in diameter) on a stucco garden wall. Small three-dimensional tiles, sculptural grout and an unglazed frame add texture.

A Creative Outlet

According to Gamble, Santa Theresa's goal is not to make a killing in the ceramic tile industry, but to serve as an outlet for creative people, whether they are artisan employees yearning for a fresh challenge with every job, retail customers searching for unique materials for their own DIY projects, or workshop participants looking to exercise a seldom-used hemisphere of the brain by learning a new skill. To this end, efforts have been made to stabilize the business through incorporation and by purchasing the building it has called home for seven years now. Gamble has also committed herself to further developing the creative side of the company in anticipation of her own retirement, and there's even talk of implementing a profit-sharing plan for its seven artists in the near future.

As for the future of the ceramic tile industry, Gamble sees great opportunity for producers of handmade products. "We may not be able to do what larger ceramic manufacturers do as far as mass production goes, but they can't do what we do, either," Gamble says. "Their business models don't allow them to put the necessary time into a handmade product."

Gamble feels that the personal touch Santa Theresa offers will come in handy as consumers increasingly turn to tile to personalize their homes, offices and public spaces.

"In Europe, something like 60 or 70% of homes use ceramic tile for flooring, countertops or walls; in the U.S., it's less than 10%," she explains. "There's a huge potential market in this country for ceramic tile. We're hopeful that a certain portion of the market will look to us for their decorative needs."

For more information on Santa Theresa Tile Works, Inc., visit www.santatheresatileworks.com.

Contact information for the suppliers referenced in this article can be found in Ceramic Industry's Data Book & Buyers' Guide, in print or online at www.ceramicindustry.com.

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