Claudia Riedeners walls grow like a jungle. Tendrils curl up door frames, bamboo sprouts in the bathroom, fleas jump around the kitchen. Whats more, its all her own work. Riedener is one of Tacomas best-known tile artists, and her pistachio-and turquoise-painted house is a showcase for her nature-based art tiles, made in her garage studio and inspired by plants in her overflowing garden.
Tile work is a highly practical art form, mixing aesthetics with function, and this weekends Northwest Handmade Tile Festival in Seattle offers an ideal chance to see the best of local artisan tiles including Riedeners.
I had a book, Handmade Tiles from A to Z, says Riedener, of how she got into tile making. I just went through and followed the instructions. Its a lot more doable than throwing clay.
Riedeners comment belies her background, skill and aesthetic taste. Originally a horticulturist, the Swiss-born artist had already amassed a huge knowledge bank of plants and insects before she started incorporating them into clay.
Her garden is full of unusual specimens, exuberantly growing annuals and sculptures (concrete, metal, painted doors) that add splashes of color.
Learning the tile process seven years ago, Riedener taught herself the various techniques of handmade tiles: relief sculpting, carving, mold-making. She also perfected a spectrum of green glaze that inhabits her work like a signature, from eucalyptus to leaf to bright jade.
The result of the career change from garden specialist to garden artist has been recognition locally and nationally. Riedeners work is on view around the Northwest outside and inside Masa Restaurant, in galleries such as the Handforth, in the Pierce County public collection and she has a commission coming for a large mural at the South Tacoma Library.
Shes been featured on HGTV, is sought after for local residences and backyards, and is planning a tile-making workshop as part of Art at Work month this November.
So what makes an artisan tile special?
The uniqueness, for one. Riedener makes tiles from plaster molds she casts from her own carved reliefs, but she also hand-sculpts borders, corners and designs youll find nowhere else.
She makes single tiles of flowers and leaves, giant fleas and silverfish or marching ants, long stems of bamboo for mirror or door surrounds, and whole installations of landscapes. She creates outdoor mirrors, and birdbaths that combine tile leaves inset into concrete with three-dimensional sculpted ceramic snails. Throughout her work runs a theme of calmness, scientific detail and love of nature.
Then there are the techniques. Walk into Riedeners garage and, amid the huge worktables, kilns and tool benches full of rolling pins and dental picks shell point out the most important thing: an elongated rectangular container screwed to the wall. Its the extruder, which you set with a metal template and fill with clay to push out tile shapes.
Everything I make comes out of this, says Riedener.
After extruding the basic tile shape, Riedener does the design work. Sometimes shell carve leaves from rolled-out clay and fix them to the tile with slip (a gluey mixture of water and clay). Some shell sculpt up out of the tile surface itself or sculpt downwards for bas-relief. Shell roll an actual leaf or spray of grass onto other tiles, imprinting the outline into the clay and later filling it in with dark glaze. The result is always extremely tactile and three-dimensional.
You can tell if a tile has been handmade by looking for space underneath the carving, says Riedener. If you just filled a plaster mold, that wouldnt be there.
These days, Riedener is looking beyond her garden for inspiration. Her recent work features crosses with fingered leaves taken from Suzani embroidery work from Uzbekistan cream on gold, intricate yet with a folk-like simplicity. Like the leaves, it shows an attention to individual details thats the mark of an artisan tile.
Says Riedener: I just love the patterns.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568