Lincoln Artist Profile: Su Harvey
By Ladd Wendelin"Nature is what we know," wrote poet Emily Dickinson, in poem 668, "yet have no art to say."
This point, no matter what the Belle of Amherst contends, could be argued. Consider the work of local artist and longtime Eagle resident Su Harvey. For the past five years, Harvey has captured all manner of flora and fauna within the quaintly condensed confines of a space no bigger than a bathroom tile - clean, shiny and blazed to a crisp luster.
Her work has been featured in just about every room of her patrons’ homes, in local art galleries including Gallery 9 and the Lux Center for the Arts, and, coming very soon, the Antelope Valley Project.
The blossoming of Harvey’s talent could be seen at a very young age and revolved around the most primordial of goop - mud.
"I clearly remember digging clay out of my Mom’s garden and making mud sculptures, usually animals," says Harvey, who spent her younger years in Manhattan, Kansas before moving to Lincoln at age seven. "Mom would let them dry on the windowsill and then display them."
Harvey attended Lincoln East High in the mid-70s before receiving her B.A. in Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. While at East High, Harvey honed her love of meticulous, detailed craftsmanship that would become her stock and trade through loom weaving, stone carving, and silver-smithing under the permissive guidance of art teacher Mrs. Martin. By the time she entered UNL, the school already had an established reputation for being one of the top ceramics schools, both at the undergrad and graduate levels, in the country. Since then, Harvey married, raised three boys, received her Masters in ceramics from UNL and founded her Eagle-based ceramics studio and business Prairie Mile Tile in 2005.
It’s easy to take tiles for granted. To most, they’re merely functional, covering the floors and walls of our living spaces - easy to clean up, tastefully selected and arranged by color so as to match the wallpaper. For Harvey, they’re much more than decorative, especially when the inspiration for many of her tiles can be found right outside the front door along the Mopac trail, which winds through Eagle and stretches from Walton to east of Elmwood.
"We walk our dogs (Beaumont, the yellow lab, and Charlie, the chocolate lab) along the trail," relates Harvey. "Those stretches are some of my favorite places to visit for inspiration. The trees out there are just beautiful. I actually just did a portrait of a tree for our most recent show that was inspired by one we saw along the trail." Other sources of inspiration include the works of English philosopher/artist John Ruskin and stained-glass master Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose influence can be seen in many of Harvey’s tiles.
When attempting to describe Harvey’s tiles, you might conjure up such base descriptions as simplistic or colorful, with soft seasonal pastels and other naturally occurring hues firmly planted deep into the raw material of each tile. But upon closer examination, attending to the detail and craftsmanship, patterns begin to emerge. The lines and sharp contrasts between earth and sky that compose, for example, a heron or row of trees creates a stunning impression that lives up to Ruskin’s comment on the utility of art, "Let there be nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
This is not an easy thing to do by any stretch of the imagination. In a day and age when monster flatscreen TVs seem to predominate the expanse of living quarters or pre-fab furnishings serve to accommodate, but hardly inspire the atmosphere of the home, Harvey takes special care to ensure that each tile is not only imbued with her own style and aesthetic, but is unique unto itself. However, the quality of the product cannot be guaranteed with the craft and precision facilitated in the process. It takes talent, a careful consideration of the elements that go into a single tile, and most importantly, time.
"I use a combination of methods - ancient, traditional and modern, and often develop my own techniques. I utilize traditional methods, such as ‘cuenca’ or tube-lining (a classic Art Nouveau method) in which the design is outlined in slip on wet clay before the bisque firing. Different glazes are then pooled into the outlined areas and the tile is re-fired at a higher temperature," Harvey explains.
She continues, "Our tiles are made of a high density, vitreous stoneware/porcelain clay. Each tile is made by hand, one at a time. I concentrate on utilizing glazes that have an inherent variability and a rich tactile surface, not unlike those used in Arts & Crafts ceramics and unattainable in mass-produced commercial tiles."
"The tiles are then fired to over 2,200 degrees (brick firing temperature) in state-of-the-art computerized kilns. Firing in an oxidation atmosphere allows me to maintain a balance between the changeable nature of the hand-forming methods and glazes. This is especially helpful when preserving the style of a series of coordinating pieces. Working in this manner imbues each piece with the ‘mark of the hand’ and insures that no two tiles are ever identical, giving you a truly creative and unique piece of art."
But as with any unique piece of art, the remarkable individuality each piece achieves is all in the details. "A lot of people don’t recognize the chemical science aspect of ceramics and I find that part fascinating," says Harvey. "You’re starting with wet clay and changing it on a molecular level into a different material during the firing process. The glazes are basically a combination of clay and glass and because of that and the methods that I use, a lot of people will confuse what I do and think that it’s actually stained glass."
Harvey’s tiles have been accenting floors, walls, bathrooms, kitchens, and other assorted rooms in the home for the past five years, but her ambition and vision goes far beyond her Eagle based studio. Coming in 2011, in association with Stacey Roach, JJ Yost and Lynn Johnson at the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, Harvey’s tiles will be featured in 16 gigantic murals ranging in scale from 40 to 80 square feet installations along the curved retaining walls between O & R St. for the Antelope Valley Project.
"We’ve had to adapt the way we work in order to accommodate projects of this scale, which has been interesting," Harvey said. "Mark Canney, the designer at Lincoln Park and Rec. supplies me with a concept drawing for each mural. I work that into the final tile design and then make the actual mural. The first mural is in full production and we are starting the second and third very soon. It’s really interesting to work on such a large scale, definitely challenging, but very exciting!"
The fruits of Harvey’s labor will finally be on display in the summer of 2011 at the opening of the Union Plaza as part of the Antelope Valley Project. Tiles can be purchased by interested parties to commemorate a birthday, memorial or anniversary and will incorporated into the final design.
While busy baking tiles for this extremely ambitious and highly-anticipated project, Harvey’s tiles can still be viewed and purchased at several locations, as well as online. In addition to showings at Gallery 9, the Lux Center, and at Renditions in Weston, Missouri, tiles are for sale at www.etsy.com (Along the search bar at the top of the page, select "Sellers: username" and entire "PrairieMileTile" [all one word]). For contact information, please visit www.prairiemiletile.com.
To conclude poem 668, Emily Dickinson writes of nature, "So impotent Our Wisdom is to her Simplicity." Or, infusing a wealth of blissful interactions and a lifetime of inspiration into each tile, in the words of Su Harvey, art is simply "Nature distilled."