Ceramic Tile Murals Tell the History of a Tampa Neighborhood
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. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”