When Joan Gardinerʼs Alphabet is formally installed at The Hill School this month, it will join a legacy of important work created by the local tile maker in her charming Unison studio. The Hill School installation includes rhymes by Gardinerʼs husband, author John Rolfe Gardiner, and important contributions by Rick Conway, drama teacher at The Hill School whom Gardiner met when they were both teaching in an outreach program at the school. “It is an honor to have a commission in Virginia,” says Gardiner. “Very few works of art are commissioned here.” Joan Gardiner, the daughter of a military doctor, began her artistic training as a painting major at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore. She learned to work with clay while apprenticed to Jill Hinckley a noted Washington D.C. potter. It was her love of horses that drew her to the Middleburg area. “I wanted so much to live and
work with horses,” she said. After she purchased her Unison farm 30 years ago, Gardiner worked as a farrier shoeing horses in the area. Since then she has completed installations in local schools and churches, designed many private works and, in 2001, showed her framed tile ʼBay of Pigs Invasionʼ work at The Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C. Gardiner, and her husband met after she moved to Unison and, according to friends, he romanced her by building her surprises while she was away. Among those surprises were an arbor, a brick oven, and her studio. She began designing tiles when they were putting an addition on their house. “John had written a short story about a husband and wife who are both artists,” Gardiner explained. “In the story, the wife makes a porcelain bas-relief piece of pottery, and I identified with this fictitious figure by
visualizing my kitchen tiles in relief in my mind.” From then on, her main medium has been tile. Discovery Gardiner asked Weller Tiles in Ashburn to install her first kitchen tiles. Mr. Weller told me he was confident his customers would want original tiles like these and it all started there. To this day, Weller Tiles installs all of Mrs. Gardinerʼs work. Joan Gardinerʼs wonderful studio is a board and batten creative space devoted to art, getting your hands dirty and form and function. It overflows with life and energy and the passion of a woman whose lifeʼs work is creating art out of clay. Joan Gardinerʼs tiles are not your run-of-the-mill bathroom floor tile, although sheʼll be happy to make those too. These tiles are unique and vibrant works of art. Together they create large works of art that tell stories and create memories and capture intense color and movement. She
makes her tiles from terracotta because it looks more natural and it is closer to the European roots of clay. She says itʼs a gesture to Virginia red clay, giving her tiles local flavor. Gardiner then applies slip and uses a Majolica glaze, an old European technique which requires careful control because of the watery but vibrant colors. She learned the Majolica technique while living in Portugal for a year. In addition to being both decorative and functional, Gardinerʼs tiles have real texture.
Gardiner works closely with her clients in private home installations. Whether the tiles are for a kitchen, a backsplash, a shower or a bathroom, it is a cooperative exercise. “It becomes a
collaboration,” she says. “ I have to interpret what friends and customers want. Perhaps theyʼve seen something in a store that I have not seen, or they would like a color combination I wouldnʼt have chosen.” Like everything Gardiner engages in, the planning process becomes a creative endeavor. Once the concept is shaped, she moves to her clay or ceramic studio in Unison where she works in different techniques and clay bodies to complete the work. One of her favorite projects is in a shower she once completed for a private residence. “The tiles depict a police line that holds back crowds of crazed people – as if you were at a Beatles concert – so the person in the shower will always feel desired.” Her creativity and willingness to explore all options keeps her customers coming back for more.
Joan Gardiner finds the work she does in the public arena to be the most satisfying. Her project currently on display at Purcellville Library was her first. “Itʼs nice to think itʼs open to everyone.” Among her many public commissions is a 14-piece tile work of the Stations of the Cross for the All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in downtown Washington and an Ashburn Library installation she created to illustrate the townʼs history by creating tiles that depict a cross section of the earth. The Ashburn installation begins with the bones of prehistoric fish in lower sections, continues through the Civil War era with depictions of military artifacts, and concludes in the modern era with a man plowing farmland. The Hill School alphabet installation in Middleburg will have a traditional black and white checkerboard look, and Gardiner hopes it will have a timeless quality. “Rick Conway has made an invaluable contribution to The Hill School work,” Gardiner said. “Rick has worked in theater and is a wonderful set designer. He quickly learned to scale his artistic vocabulary from theater to tile design. He made all the field tiles and created some decorative tiles for this work.” Hill students also painted tiles for the installation. Each tile depicts objects of importance to the student painter. Despite all the fanfare about her beautiful tiles, Mrs. Gardiner remains grounded, intelligent and creative. Now working on an art series that will depict a history of slavery, she hopes to do more framed-tile work but she says she is also waiting to “find the customer who would let me do scissors in their shower. “I love scissors – they are all different sizes and shapes and for different purposes. Iʼm still waiting to find that customer who says, ʻYes! I definitely want tiles depicting scissors in my shower!”
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