First I had to research the subject matter. I soon learned the important role that the Virgin Guadalupe played in many peoples’ lives. This mural was to become an outside altar for people to come and pray at as well as location for the celebration on December 12 each year when over 30,000 worshippers come to pay their respects. This alone was a little daunting but then there was the challenge of even coming up with the images I had to paint. What did Guadalupe look like when she appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in the year 1531? The scale of the project both dealing with larger than life images, an arch spanning 120 feet, and painting for 2 years only seeing small kiln-load sections at a time were all new challenges for me. The additional problems involving painting the correct current national flags, waiting for consensus of opinion from the various church officials and depicting the images staying true to legend and lore made for a very involved, labor intensive project.

To create the images I relied on many sources. I found two models to pose for me and after sewing up some appropriate attire, buying roses and studying other artist’s renditions of the miracle hired a professional photographer to stage the photo. Capturing Guadalupe’s gaze required several rolls of film to get it just perfect- no easy task for the model knowing she was going to be painted as a Saint revered by so many. The flags of the smaller nations kept changing depending on their political status but after lots of library and on-line research I settled on the current ones of the times. I sought others expertise when it came to calculating the 220 foot arch. When the measurements were prepared we went so far as to find an empty parking lot one early Sunday morning and chalked out the entire mural to make sure it was right. Large wood templates were made and careful measurements on the tile were repeatedly made. This span had to remain constant with no mistakes and only at the end of 2 years of painting starting at one end with every tile painted, fired and installed, the last one landed precisely opposite the first.

Being a mountain climber I resorted to climbing guidebooks to get the correct pictures of the volcanoes but one of them was threatening to erupt which would have changed that too. I learned from the church that my background clouds couldn’t radiate out from the center and ‘flames’ had to go around the Virgin’s aura. Details that had to be included on the gown and the Virgin’s positioning were all critical. Many layouts and samples later I was ready to start.

Once the design had been agreed upon I created a scaled down version of the entire mural using 1’/1″ on large grid paper. These small squares were numbered to represent each tile and were relied upon for not only my source of information but also the tile-installer. From there I expanded section by section to actual size, transferred the design to the tile and started painting. As I proceeded it was important to assure that the correct numbers were painted on the back of each tile. With the design being so massive in size only very small sections could be worked on and viewed at one time creating further organizational challenges. To view and arrange the mural as I painted working vertically as with the Guadalupe and Juan scene or horizontally for the arch of flags I had large tables mounted on wheels so I could move large sections at a time in different configurations. To paint detail work such as the faces, which required many intricate layers of glazes I needed to remove the selected tiles and paint them on an easel.

My artwork is produced on glazed commercial tiles and sinks or on my own handmade tile or pottery. For this project I selected 12″x12″ white porcelain floor tile as my canvas. I use many types of colored and clear glazes fired to 1900° F to achieve a huge range of effects that have a durable permanent finish. I primarily use an airbrush to create my images but also rely on many traditional and non-traditional methods from glaze-chalks and pencils, a myriad selection of brushes, sponges, sticks, clumps of straw- anything to get that special effect. In a way, the painting was the easy part. Waiting for a kiln to cool down wondering if any tiles had cracked in the firing process and how I would match a replacement when each tile has up to 30 layers of glazes applied was the hardest. The total firing time for the project was over 150 days so there was much nail-biting going on. In the end only 2 tiles broke that had to be replaced and on most projects I have had good fortune in that respect finding patience in the heating and cooling of the kiln lowers the risk of breakage. When it does happen I repaint several samples of the same broken tile changing the glaze consistency and technique slightly on each one, fire them and then select the best match.

The sheer weight of the 2000 tiles became a factor not only in the installation but also in the daily handling of them. At over 2 pounds each, the stacking, unloading, cleaning, restacking, numbering, arranging, loading the kiln, unloading the kiln, arranging again, boxing then delivering the tiles became quite the workout. The wall where the tiles were to be installed needed engineering not only for earthquakes but also its sheer mass. Expansion joints had to be incorporated every 10 feet as well.

Whenever possible I personally supervise the installations to insure that the tiles are put in correctly. Even this project had a few surprises. One of the Juan’s’ feet was put in upside down by the tile setter. It seems surprising it wouldn’t be obvious to the setters but I find they are too close to the murals to get an overview- the ‘forest from the trees’ syndrome. I caught the mistake quickly but of course I in timately know every square inch of the project as well.

 

I loved the opportunity to paint this project and the reward of seeing so many people enjoy viewing it has made it all worthwhile. To research and become so involved in the process, to understand the purpose and intent of the artwork, then to create it with my interpretations and knowledge of glaze applications- this is why I enjoy my work so much.


 

The Process
Initial process begins by creating the images that will eventually be transferred to tile.

Layout
After the design ideas have been worked out, individual elements are transferred to a grid the same size that the finished art will be. The tiles sizes and composition have to be considered during this step of the process. Then the tiles are set on this large lifesize image and numbered to corresponding numbers on the grid.

Painting
Each individual tile is hand painted to match the corresponding square on the large grid.

Firing
The tiles once it has been determined that the painting is finished, the tiles are glazed and fired to 1900º to ensure the color fastness of the art.

Installation