Working with a press, Linda Ellett of L’esperance Tile Works, creates a clay impression which will eventually be baked in a kiln and made into an ornament.
If you’ve been to SaratogaArtsFest, a small piece of fine art is probably somewhere in your house. Perhaps it’s on display: hanging in a sunny window or dangling from a wooden shelf.
For four years, since the first SaratogaArtsFest in 2007, the colorful square ceramic tiles that serve as admission badges for the June arts event have been handmade at L’esperance Tile Works in the Saratoga County hamlet of Rock City Falls.
Measuring 2-by-2 1⁄4 inches, each tile is looped onto a silky cord so that during the event it can be worn around the neck like a pendant or attached to a purse, tote bag, belt or backpack.
The development of the unique badge has been a team effort. L’esperance, where the tiles are pressed, cut, fired and glazed, is owned and operated by Linda Ellett and Don Shore. The SaratogaArtsFest logo was created by Christianne Smith of Designsmith Studio in Ballston Lake. The finished tiles are corded and decorated with beads at Saratoga Beads, a Saratoga Springs business owned and operated by Linda Schrade.
This year, 750 SaratogaArtsFest tiles were made at the 31-year-old L’esperance, which creates custom ceramic tiles for homes and historic sites across the country.
In 1998, Ellett and Shore moved their business from Albany to the former Rock City Falls Elementary School, where they live and work under the same roof.
A native of Lansingburgh, Ellett studied sculpture at Alfred University and apprenticed at the world-renowned Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Pennsylvania. The couple traveled to England to learn how tile was made in medieval and Victorian times using an encaustic process, in which patterns are made from different colors of clay, then hand-pressed and fired without glazing.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, June 13. Complete schedule of 75 events — music, dance, art, theater, film and literary — is available at saratogaartsfest.org.
WHERE: Indoor and outdoor venues in Saratoga Springs, including shops, galleries, museums, Congress Park, Skidmore College and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
HOW MUCH: ARTSPASS is $35. For seniors, $25; students, $15; children ages 4-12, $5; and free for younger children. A Family Four Pack (two adults, two children) is $70.
MORE INFO: L’esperance Tile Works, 884-2814 or lesperancetileworks.com.
L’esperance was the first company to produce encaustic tile in the United States since the 1920s when they re-created the fireplace tiles in the lieutenant governor’s office in the New York State Capitol in Albany.
The couple have done reproduction work for Olana, the historic home of artist Frederic Church; the Mark Twain House in Connecticut; New York City’s famed Dakota Apartments and the Georgia and Ohio statehouses.
They also make tile for Waterworks, a high-end national tile distributor.
In Saratoga Springs, you’ll see their tile on the facade of the drive-in area of the Adirondack Trust bank on South Broadway.
Ellett also makes smaller items, like tile-topped keepsake boxes and picture frames. Her ceramic spoon rests are sold at Compliments to the Chef, a kitchenware boutique on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.
Ellett talked with The Sunday Gazette in late May at the L’esperance factory.
Q: How did you get involved in SaratogaArtsFest?
A: We got a phone call from one of the organizers. They had seen our tiles on display over at Uncommon Grounds. Someone came up with the idea of a tile pass.
Q: How did you make the first tiles in 2007 and how do you make them now?
A: She [Christianne Smith] had designed the whole concept of the image, the logo. I took her design and scanned the image into PhotoShop. I matched the font as closely as I could. I simplified the design so it would read in a small tile. My process is to take a wax blank and then carve the design into the wax. From there, I make a plaster mold, pouring plaster into the wax. We put the clay into an extruder and it comes out in long ribbons. It’s much thinner than our commercial tile. I take a slab of clay and I press the tiles with a hand press. We punch the holes. Then they get all cleaned up, sponged all around. They get fired the first time, a bisque firing. And then they get glazed and fired again. This is all done by hand. They’re actually hand-cut tiles.
Q: What does the 2010 tile look like?
A: This year, it’s purple. The first year was blue, 2008 was green, 2009 was orange. The glaze gets sprayed on, so there’s a variation in how much glaze gets on every tile. Every one is different. Two tiles [from the same year] could look very different.
Q: Were there any challenges in making a ceramic ARTSPASS?
A: It was trying to figure out how to put the holes in the tile. The first year we used a hand drill and drilled in the holes. But the ends were popping off. We had to find a new process. Don [Shore] and Dave [Kiphuth, an artist and musician] and Linda [Schrade] and I looked at it and tried to noodle out a different production technique so they wouldn’t take so many hours to make. We tried a bunch of things.
Between the four of us looking at it and trying different materials, Don came up with a piece of wood that’s got two metal pipes that are the size of the holes, attached to a handle. You set the tile up in this little frame and it punches the two holes at the same time. But you still have to have the clay at the perfect wetness. If it’s too hard, you can’t get it to punch through. And if it’s too soft, it leaves huge clumps of clay on the back.
Q: This is the fourth year for SaratogaArtsFest. What happens to the tags after the event? Are people collecting them?
A: It’s definitely a collectible item. The whole idea with ArtsFest was to have something that was a visual reminder, something that would be beautiful, and that people would want to keep and collect. It’s a souvenir and it’s a piece of art. And what’s more important than a permanent piece of art in clay? That’s what anthropologists define as the beginning of culture.