Tag Archives: public art

We did it!

Ceramic Tile Murals Tell the History of a Tampa Neighborhood

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake

Mural I

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake     handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake Natalie's public art grant installation in Tampa, Florida is complete!  Natalie and Nick rolled back into the studio last Thursday after spending 18 days on site mortaring and grouting 3, 6' x 15' ceramic tile murals onto concrete walls that run the perimeter of a new mixed-use development in Tampa.   This installation was made possible through a generous public art grant awarded to the studio in 2013 by the City of Tampa, and Trio at Encore LP.  Through this grant, Natalie researched the history of this largely African-American neighborhood and then traced its 200-year history in a series of three large murals. Through interviews and consultations with several historians and community members, Natalie compiled a rich history of this incredible community. She then translated these collected stories, using a blend of abstraction and realism onto three, 6’ x15’ murals comprised of 18” square ceramic tiles.   The title of the piece, "The Gift of Gathered Remembrances," is inspired by Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel.  In this book Prechtel recounts the story of a people who are deeply secure in their cultural identity because of their daily remembrance and reverence towards their ancestors. As Natalie says, "It is so awesome to make clay tiles.  As I move into making public art, I appreciate more and more that my ceramic tile murals can be part of the story-telling.  The tactile quality of my carved tiles means that the viewer can appreciate the work through several senses.  I love the permanence of tile too.  The mural not only relays the history, but becomes part of the history as well.  It's an art form that we shouldn't lose." In a playful moment, Natalie carved a replica of the Encore development into the third mural. Then, on the wall that lines the development she carved a little sun, the recurring element in each mural.   You'll find her signature in the lefthand corner of the second (middle) mural.   handmade, carved, ceramic tile by Natalie Blake Natalie Blake carving ceramic tile wall art IMG_0520 After months of carving, glazing and firing 120, 18" x 18"  tiles, we were ready to begin the installation. Nick Marchese, Natalie Blake Studios' installer, and Alan, his assistant, drove the tiles to Tampa to begin the job. The installation got off to a rocky start as Nick and Alan were delayed by rain and thunderstorms for the first two days. But after a few fitful starts the project got rolling.  They prepped the concrete walls by scoring them (slightly scraping the concrete surface so that the tiles would adhere better).
Trio at Encore development

Before: The concrete walls onto which the murals would be mortared.

After a week Natalie flew down to relieve Alan. By that time many tiles had been mortared to the concrete walls and the mood on the site was much better! Nick used the ultimate thin set for porcelain and glass tiles.  The mortar is so strong that it is used for tiling swimming pools. In fact, a crew of workmen who were installing a swimming pool on site, came by to watch Nick work and were impressed with his choice of mortar.  After admiring the mortar (as tilers will!) they hung around to admire the murals too.

Nick installing tiles

installing ceramic tile murals Natalie Blake Studios The work site quickly became a hub of colorful activity. Natalie and Nick (and all other workers on the development site) had to wear bright, fluorescent shirts and hardhats for safety. The murals themselves were glazed in rich colors and the concrete walls around the murals were stained in lush orange, blue and purple.
Natalie on the work site

Natalie on the work site

Nick not only installed the tiles, but also created a beautiful "frame" of stained concrete around each mural. First he applied a deep orange acid stain to the entire concrete wall.  Then he and Natalie went back and, with small sponges, dabbed on a soy-based stain in blues and purples. This "faux finish" look was then sealed with a soy-based product that created a beautiful sheen. He and Natalie were very happy with the results.
handmade, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake

Nick staining the concrete walls

handmade, ceramic tile wall art by Natalie Blake

Nick staining the concrete wall

There were other visitors to the work site: Three older Black women who lived in one of the apartment buildings in the complex dropped by one day and told Natalie that they'd grown up in the neighborhood. So Natalie invited them to look at one of the murals.  Natalie heard them laughing as they peeked under the protective tarp at the tiles.  They were traveling down "Memory Lane" as they saw Natalie's depictions of historical events from their lives. Then one of the women, her hand raised as if in a High Five, exclaimed to Natalie, "Memories!"  For Natalie this was the most special moment of the installation. Natalie and Nick also received kudos from representatives of the Bank of America (a major funder) and the Tampa Housing Authority. "It's greater than my expectations," said David from the Tampa Housing Authority. Melissa LeBaron, Tampa's Public Arts Coordinator, also dropped by and was so relieved to see that the last box of tiles had arrived safely from Vermont. (the backstory is that some of the tiles had cracked during the firing process--due to a bad batch of clay--and the studio staff were hard at work remaking those tiles in order to get them to Nick for the installation) Natalie and Nick really enjoyed their time in Tampa. For the most part the weather was beautiful, though quite hot! Because the sun beat full blast on their job site starting at about 1 pm everyday, they began work at 7.
dawn on the job

Driving at dawn to the job site

As Natalie says, "We were honored to be part of this amazing project to revitalize this important neighborhood. There's so much history here; the ancestors are watching and waiting to see how it will all turn out.  We made our own offering to the ancestors; with the leftover mortar and grout Nick made his "heavy hearts" and we put them in special locations. Now, it is up to the residents to breathe new life into this neighborhood.  We trust they will."
concrete sculpture by Nick Marchese

Nick's "Heavy Heart"

Watch this video clip of the unveiling of the murals:   Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 4.06.50 PM The Gift of Gathered Remembrances, I, II, III
handmade, carved, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Gift of Gathered Remembrances, I

handmade, carved, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Gift of Gathered Remembrances, II

handmade, carved, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Gift of Gathered Remembrances, III

Musings on our Tampa public art grant…

  Natalie writes:   Coming to work and seeing Elliot mixing mortar to thin-set the backs of our 18" x 18" tiles...wow, like we are really about to install these murals for the community to see in Tampa, Florida!
mortaring the backs of handmade, ceramic tile

We apply mortar to the backs of the undulating tiles to create a level surface for thin setting the tiles to the walls

  I am honored to have been chosen to create three large, 15' x 6' murals for the City of Tampa's Trio at Encore development project.  It's been an amazing year researching the history of the largely Black neighborhood of Central Avenue in Tampa, where the murals will hang, and then designing and carving the murals.  The murals depict historical scenes from this neighborhood, like in the mural details seen below-- of Ray Charles at the piano, and musicians at the Blue Room night club. This neighborhood was  a "hoppin'" music district in the early 1900's.  It is said that many people including B.B. King, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Asa Harris, and others played up and down Central – it was the place to be. I've titled this installation "The Gift of Gathered Remembrances".  The title of the piece is inspired by Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel, who recounts a people who are deeply secure in their cultural identity because of their daily remembrance and reverence towards their ancestors. This project has been my humble attempt to gather some of this neighborhood's memories and to give them back in these 3 murals.   Capturing memories and retelling stories is a gift, for the teller, and for those who "listen".
handsculpted, carved, ceramic tile by Natalie Blake

Ray with piano, detail of larger mural

handsculpted, carved, ceramic tile by Natalie Blake

Ink Spots

Who would have thought that after years of making vessels, I would have embarked on a journey of making ceramic wall tile--and large, sgraffito-carved, tile murals, at that!   I don't consider myself a drawer, not even a carver, but somehow I have found myself doing a lot of that, albeit on my favorite medium: clay.  I'm thrilled to be creating beauty for people to hold onto. What's incredible about this particular journey of gathering the remembrances of a people together, is that I get to make beauty that is for not only a wider audience, but a specific community, one that has struggled, overcome, undaunted, blossomed and survived.
Now, on to loading another kiln with tiles……….we begin installing next week!
Natalie Blake loading a kiln with handmade, ceramic art tile

Natalie loading the Tampa tiles into the glaze kiln

Finishing up the Tampa, FL public art murals

Natalie is finishing the third (and final) ceramic tile mural for the City of Tampa, Florida's redevelopment district, called ENCORE!  The work was commissioned by the City of Tampa and Trio at Encore LP through a public art grant awarded last year. Natalie's three murals, each comprised of 40, 18" x 18" tiles, will be installed on the walls that run the perimeter of ENCORE's Trio apartment homes.  
Screen Shot 2014-03-11 at 10.33.05 AM
The murals are designed to showcase the history of this largely African American neighborhood from the late 19th century to the present, a time when this neighborhood was the principal business and entertainment district of Tampa's African American community. Read more about Natalie's thoughts on the designs here.
Watch excerpts from Natalie's work making one of the murals:
Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 10.57.24 AM
The installation of the murals will take place over a two week period from March 25-April 9, when each tile will be carefully mortared onto the wall and the entire mural will be grouted.
Here is a section of one of the murals, depicting: 1) the Scrub, the community of freed slaves that developed after Emancipation that is now the site of Encore! 2) verses from the National Negro Anthem; 3) the Industrial Revolution, including the cigar boom of Ybor city; 4) commemoration of the first African American vote; 5) African-American-owned churches and businesses.
handmade, ceramic art tile by Natalie Blake
This detail shows: 1) the Emancipation Proclamation; 2) initial trade between Tampa and Cuba  3) a freed slave 4) The Counselor and Interpreter, Abraham, who served as a liaison between the US President and the Seminole Indians; 5) the first Tampa Bay Hotel.
handmade, ceramic art tile by Natalie Blake
This detail shows the Buckingham Theatre Saloon, one of the first African-American-owned businesses in the late 1800's.
Natalie Blake public art grant

Making the Rose Circle

In 2012 we  installed "Homecoming", a campus-wide art installation at Chabot College, Hayward, CA. The most wonderful part of the Chabot installation was the first two days of the semester, when, finishing up our installation, we got to hear direct feedback from the students and staff. The campus was packed. Students of all ethnicities walked back and forth past this busy intersection of sidewalks where we were installing the Rose Circle piece. They gave us encouragement, thumbs up, big smiles, and genuine thank you's. We were feeling good about the work we were installing, and yet we didn't realize how much it would mean to have all those people whose home this was, support what we were trying to achieve. The Rose Circle is comprised of 28, 25”w x 22”h cast, lightweight concrete tiles created from original in carved clay. The concrete tiles were thin-set mortared to the existing concrete ring which is 2’ h x 58’ circumference. The tiles were acid-stained in blue and russet tones. Watch video footage of the making of the Rose Circle installation. Art does not exist in a vacuum. It's made for the eyes and hands of the viewer.  Our Rose Circle piece was made not only for the viewer but for the tactile  admirer.  The deep relief carving on the tiles draws you in and you can't help but run your hands over it. One can sit on the concrete ledge that is still exposed "rose garden water" at their feet. Here it is before....and then after....  
The Rose Circle: Before

The Rose Circle: Before

cast, lightweight concrete tiles by Natalie Blake Studios

The Rose Circle

  Here are a few closeups of the carved concrete:   concrete detail small file 2     concrete detail small file

Grandmother Tree: From Inspiration to Installation

Our blog has closely followed the creation of several works of ceramic artwork that we installed at Chabot College after receiving their public art grant. Before any designs were drawn or tiles carved, Natalie and Cynthia traveled to the campus to find potential installation sites and gather inspiration from its spaces and its students. Custom Designed Tile Mural, Public Art Natalie and Cynthia also got to speak with students, who had influential requests: “Give us beauty” and “a feeling that we are in nature.” “Remind us that we are HOME.” “Delight us with color to brighten our day.” “Don’t give us anything cliché.” There were a lot of artistic possibilities at Chabot, but this location jumped out immediately – a towering orange wall in the midst of a wide open space in the newest building on campus, a faculty building. It begged for a custom designed tile mural of massive scale. Like this perfect spot, it was hard to pass over images of the amazingly stoic and ancient redwood trees characteristic of northern California. A big, grand tree seemed the perfect symbol for this faculty space, representing knowledge and wisdom of generations and the ages in sculptural art. Cynthia, our project designer, found a fitting design in an interesting way:

"When we were designing our proposal for this public art award we took one of our favorite trees and digitally stretched it onto this column. Shifting scale really changed the feeling of it; we loved the way it transformed the space and the column. The campus voted on their favorite ideas and then the arts committee gave us the go ahead. We were so psyched to take that digital concept and make it into a reality of ceramic artwork.

It was more than three times bigger than the trees we had been making so to accommodate it in our work space we sgraffito carved it in sections starting with the roots. Carving it was like a meditation on each aspect of the trees structure and the vital flow of energy which it embodies." Cynthia Parker-Houghton

The finished sculptural art mural had 84 tiles, and at a total height of 252 inches, presented a totally new challenge of installation. So, we rented a mechanical lift, and the rest is history – or at least, a timelapse.

Timelapse: Ceramic Artwork Installation

See more images of our Grandmother Tree installation at Chabot College and all of our work on Pinterest.

Custom designed ceramic artwork, Public Art Installation

Natalie and Nick installing at Chabot College

Natalie and her fiance, Nick, are installing their artwork at Chabot College, Hayward, CA. This is the final installation of the public art grant the studio was awarded in 2010.   This is the Rose Circle installation: concrete tiles made by Natalie and her fiance, Nick (Hand of Man Builders).  The tiles are acid-stained, concrete positives of Natalie's original carved clay tiles. handmade, concrete tile by Natalie Blake handmade, concrete tile by Natalie Blake   This piece, the Blue Ripple Mandala is being installed on a 20-foot wall.
handmade, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Blue Ripple Mandala, ceramic tile

handmade, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Blue Ripple Mandala

handmade, ceramic wall tile by Natalie Blake Studio

Blue Ripple Mandala, Chabot College

Creating “The Rose Circle” piece for Chabot College

Natalie and Nick (her fiance) are working on creating "The Rose Circle,"  an installation comprised of concrete tile.  The piece will be installed on the campus of Chabot College, as part of a large public art grant the studio was awarded last year. This piece requires Natalie to make a "positive" tile -- a thick hand-carved piece, 25 x 22 inches. Natalie and her helper, her niece Magda who has just graduated from high school and is working in her studio for the summer, have rolled four tiles that are about 1.5 inches thick. Using a technique Natalie used in a workshop through the North Studio Conference by ceramic artist Marc Leuthold, Natalie cuts the design out of the thick tile with a paring knife.  The leather hard tiles are covered for two days with a latex rubber compound that will stiffen to a flexible perfect casting of the tile.  Fine concrete will then be poured into these molds to re-create Natalie's original design in durable concrete. After drying for a week or two, the concrete tiles will be colorized with acid stains. Here is an image of the "positive" tile. Click on the image to watch a short video of Natalie carving it:   ceramic tile by Natalie Blake studios

Rubber mold for Rose Circle tiles

    Here are the rubber molds Nick made.  

Installation images from Chabot College

In 2011 Natalie Blake Studios was awarded a public art grant from Chabot College in Hayward, CA. We've posted several articles about our work on this grant. We now have installation shots from Natalie's recent trip to install some of the work.


Finally installed, the Grandmother tree looks like it has been there for a century. The Grandmother tree's long flowing lines draw the eye up from the waterfall of blue tiles at the center of Chabot's faculty building.  The second floor balcony provides another vantage point for this central oasis.

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile

Grandmother Tree, installed at Chabot College

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile

Grandmother Tree, installed at Chabot College

The Chavez Plaza where students gather outside the Student Center now has two new pieces installed: the Chavez Tree and the Mandala. The Chavez Tree was inspired by sliding thumb puzzles (those little plastic square puzzles from the 80's where you slide the little squares to unscramble the image)  giving the eyes a game to play moving from color to color and section to section. When carving this one section at a time I was immersed in roots then trunks, branches then leaves. Each section had a different quality from the next. The roots are at eye level; the rest tower above in their architectural niche.

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile

Chavez Tree Installed at Chabot College



handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Installing Natalie Blake Studio tiles at Chabot College

The Mandala resonates on a human scale. The life force expands outwards flickering into different colors. It ties into the quatrefoil architectural motif found around the campus. (Quatrefoil:  an ornamental design of four lobes or leaves as used in architectural tracery, resembling a flower or four-leaf clover).

handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile

Mandala being installed at Chabot College


handmade, sgraffito-carved, ceramic wall art tile by Natalie Blake Studios

Mandala installed at Chabot College


Working on tile mural for Chabot College

Natalie Blake Studios received a grant from Chabot College to create and install art throughout the campus.  Here's Natalie creating a tile mural, Mandala, for the project.


natalie Blake Studios, handmade, ceramic wall art tiles

Natalie Blake creating Mandala for Chabot College

Natalie Blake creating Mandala for Chabot College

Natalie Blake creating Mandala for Chabot College

Chabot College Grant Update

Natalie Blake Studios was awarded a grant to provide art for Chabot College in Hayward, CA.  See our June1, 2011 blog post for details.

Here's an update on the project....

Cynthia has completed the mural for the Chavez Court. It's a grand, 64-tile mural of a tree. These are 12" square tiles--all handmade!  The glazes are: honey, turquoise, blue and cashew.


Natalie Blake Studios ceramic wall art tile

Chavez Court mural, Chabot College

Here's a photo of Natalie and Cynthia, taken this spring in Hayward, CA when they visited the Chabot College campus to scope out the project.

Natalie and Cynthia in CA