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SF Chronicle: Mosaic artist Pippa Murray an intricate blend

SF Chronicle: Mosaic artist Pippa Murray an intricate blend

Many thanks to Lisa Hix for publishing this article on local Bay Area mosaic artist Pippa Murray (article reposted below). In a strange coincidence for Fireclay Tile, we only recently learned of Pippa and her amazing work when she visited our tile showroom in San Jose earlier this week. Pippa came in to meet with Paul, our founder and Chief Ceramicist, to discuss a new spa project she is working on.

Pippa Murray Mosaic Tile

Pippa Murray Mosaic Design

Pippa Murray Mosaic Design

We admire Pippa's work and her commitment to embodying old world techniques to satisfy modern day clients. Like Fireclay Tile, Pippa embraces locally manufactured products and goes to great lengths to deliver solutions her clients adore. Though generally working with stone, Pippa has done work with ceramic tile, which is what her current project calls for. We look forward to working with Pippa and alwyas love meeting local artists!

Mosaic artist Pippa Murray an intricate blend

August 26, 2010

In her workroom in a Sausalito studio, mosaic artist Pippa Murray picks up a strip of off-white marble, places it on a hardie, and strikes it with a hammer. She picks up the square and keeps chopping it until she has a little slither. When making a floor, a backsplash, or an artwork, she goes through this slow, deliberate process, cutting hundreds, sometimes thousands, of little pieces by hand.

"It's probably one of the most labor-intensive things I know," says Murray's "right-hand man," Daniel Purbrick, a fellow mosaicist who's been assisting her for four years. "I like that about it."

The pieces in most stone mosaics installed in homes today, like those offered by architect favorite Ann Sacks, are mass-produced in factories, cut by saws, lasers or water jets. Murray offers something unique: Personalized mosaics for floors, kitchens and bathrooms made using methods developed in ancient times. Of course, she doesn't make perfect little squares, but "that gives it soul," she says.

Her work, though, is often sleek and modern, with fluid lines and smooth finishes, the intricate stonework barely discernible from afar. For one client, Murray and her crew installed a tan stone floor with a sinewy line of greenish stones that ran through the entire house. For a bathroom in the 2009 San Francisco Decorator Showcase, she repeated the swirling-line motif, with the mosaic rocks curling up the wall in places, like a few blades of grass. In spiral patterns resembling nautilus shells, Murray has employed elaborate patterns of tiny stones that seem to wrap around and contain the larger tiles like a ribbon.

Purbrick works diligently, smoothing stone pieces in Murray's "dirty" workroom. He's surrounded by big crates of construction castoffs and rock recovered from slab yards, and jars full of shimmering colored glass, a special Italian glass made for mosaics called smalti.

"We like stone," says Murray, who rarely uses ceramic tile. "It's an honest material. It's the same thing all the way through, and it's nature made. It's what builds all those old buildings I like so much."

When a client suggested they try water-jet cuts, Murray had sample pieces made but "it just doesn't hit the heart strings."

"The design might be from hand, but then it's got to go into the program to get that line, and you lose something," Purbrick says. "It didn't look like our work, that sample. It just looked too cold or hard. We do a lot of finishing on the stone, rounding everything, and it becomes really tactile and smooth and has a really nice glow to it."

Murray's "clean studio," a few steps away, is an elegant space with endless eye candy. From her interior design work, she has mosaic samples, stunning watercolors made as a preview, and a bulletin board showing photos of her floor-installing process. There is art, too, like the intricate three-panel wall piece of a lush pomegranate tree, made of tiny hand-shaped brightly colored stone fit tightly together. Toward the ceiling, there's a real tree branch, with mosaic bubbles clinging to it like pearl-crusted wasp burrows. And on the ground, small square-like mosaic stones known as tesserae wrap themselves round small boulders and large rocks like scarves.

When she was growing up, Murray's art historian father, who specialized in French gothic architecture, took her all over Europe, where she gawked at cathedral steps and pieces hanging in museums.

But it wasn't until she was an art student at Columbia University that she found her calling. During the summer of 1993, she took a job on an archaeological dig in Crete, Greece, where she drew pictures of the pottery and small finds they unearthed. Since she was the resident artist, the archaeologists asked her to create a pebble mosaic for the dig house. Made from pebbles collected from the beach, the 9-foot-wide piece was Murray's first mosaic, incorporating motifs from the pots she was drawing.

"This really captured my imagination, because it was art, it was sculptural, it was ancient, it was haptic, it was heavy, it required skills," she says.

She got a master's degree in Greco-Roman mosaics at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, where she studied the ancients' designs and process in depth. After that, she came to California to get a master's of fine arts at California College of the Arts. It wasn't long before her reputation as a mosaic expert grew, and she started getting commissions, from private clients and even the Bay Area Discovery Museum.

In 1999, the late Spanish designer Victor Carrasco flew her to his home to make pieces that looked like Roman artifacts. When she was done, Carrasco asked the curator at the Seville Museum to come over and date them. "He did," Murray says with a smile. "Second Century Eastern Empire."

This is what makes Murray so rare: She carries this deep knowledge of ancient traditions, she's got all the technical skills of a craftsperson, and she has the perspective of a fine artist, says Lillian Sizemore, a mosaic artist and art historian who works with Murray as a business consultant.

"What's unique about Pippa is that, yes, she has a classical background, but she can take that, work with a client and get something that's beautiful and fits well into a modern setting," Sizemore says. "For example, I live in a 1963 Eichler. It's very modern, very austere, and I could put a modern mosaic in here, and still, it would fit. And that's what Pippa is really good at seeing, how to use the medium and use her skill set."

While one might assume these custom mosaics would be pricey, Murray says she can work within a limited budget. Certainly, she can match the price of installing mass-produced stone tile work, which runs about $250-$400 a square foot.

"I do bring the whole gamut between being competitive with what you get at a tile place to much more, because I can do things that are much more intricate and special," Murray says. "In that price, we always include the whole thing from design to installation to sealing to maintenance."

Outside of private homes, her work can be seen at the Bay Area Discovery Museum's 800-square-foot octopus-wrapped compass. She also had art in last May's Decorator Showcase and she's working on pieces for the Global School Silicon Valley in San Jose and the Sonoma Horse Park in Petaluma.

As an artist, Murray, who lives on a teak sailboat with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, says she loves working with clients because they present her with challenges, like how to incorporate a dark-colored 50 million-year-old gar fish fossil with light-colored travertine tile or how to maintain a pattern in a piece of marble slab for a shower.

"Since it's a collaboration, there's their thoughts, what they want, what they need, their budget," she says. "Then there's what I'm coming with, what I think, what I like, what I can do with certain things. Instead of being in your studio alone, working on one thing, it takes you on paths you wouldn't expect.

"Every time I get us into doing something tricky again, and I'm in there putting it in I say, 'Daniel! The next time I talk us into doing something crazy, kick me!' But then we end up doing it again. It's fun to push yourself."

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