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The tale behind the tiles

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By Lynn Burton
Special to The Sopris Sun

Hiding in plain sight, the Carbondale Clay Center’s Sopris Park restroom-tile project was four years in the making.

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“I always say this took four Mountain Fairs and two Potato Days,” project organizer Diane Kenney told The Sopris Sun. “I think we started in 2000 at Mountain Fair.”

The project eventually wrapped 600 individual ceramic tiles around the restrooms on the west side of Sopris Park.

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Kenney said the project was part of the Clay Center’s community outreach program to offer hands-on, participatory art-making experiences. “We also wanted to create public art in Carbondale,” she said.

Most of the tiles were painted by kids (probably elementary/middle school ages) during Mountain Fair and Potato Day, but adults and preschoolers also got into the action.

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At Mountain Fair and Potato Day, Kenney and other Clay Center mentors set up a table with ceramic materials, brushes and colorants. Back at the Clay Center at the east end of Main Street, mentors applied a soft background glaze called “majolica” to each 8X8 inch terra cotta tile before hauling them to the park. The majolica glaze rendered each tile surface dry and chalky for decorating. “It was a little bit like watercolor painting,” Kenney remembered. “All throughout the fair(s) we transported tiles back to the Clay Center as soon as we built up a load (for the kilns).”

The suggested donation was $5 per tile to help cover the project’s costs.

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Mentors usually suggested a theme the tile painters could choose from — such as family scenes, their house, pets, Mountain Fair scenes, self portraits or mountains — “or anything they wanted,” Kenney said. The younger the child the faster they seemed to get their tile painted. As soon as the child finished painting, the mentor asked them to describe what their painting was about.

“It wasn’t always obvious what we were looking at, so then we asked if it would be OK to add some black brush work to pull out what they had painted. Without the black brush work, a lot of the tiles looked pretty blobular,” Kenney said.

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The tiles were fired at about 1,900 degrees, so they are “incredibly” durable and are not affected by weather.

Each installation cost about $5,000, much of which was covered by grants that Kenney wrote. As noted on the restroom’s west side, the project was sponsored by the Aspen Valley Community Foundation Spring Board, Town of Carbondale, Carbondale Clay Center, and Carbondale Council on Arts and Humanities.

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The project attracted more than a dozen Clay Center mentors, volunteers and others. The Town of Carbondale assigned staffers to sandblast the walls to create a smooth surface. The Clay Center hired Steve Davis (of Capco Tile & Stone) to install the tiles. Others involved in the project included Marry Noone (who designed the mural on the east side), Julie Johnson, Judy Davis, Sue Kolbe and “maybe” Nancy Barbour.

“The tiles have pretty much been respected and untouched. I am proud of this project and it gives me joy to see it … to remember the joy that went into the making of it,” Kenney concluded.

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