Potter creates 3,000 tiles for light rail's sole artwork


April 14, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Three thousand ceramic tiles made by potter Norma Wallis will form the only work of art on the entire light rail line.

Ms. Wallis formed the interlocking tiles by hand and fired them. They'll be laid in a small plaza at the Mount Washington light rail station. The terra cotta decoration will feature flowers and insects indigenous to this woodsy, old Northwest Baltimore neighborhood.

Ms. Wallis says the project "was very much worked out by the neighborhood."

Ms. Wallis' studio, on Smith Avenue in Mount Washington, is in the Baltimore Clayworks, an old Enoch Pratt Free Library branch where many local ceramicists have their potter's wheels and kilns.

She conceived a traditional Spanish-Moorish design for the 25-foot-wide artwork that will feature black-eyed Susans, summertime day lilies, water lilies and irises and will have an octagonal shape to mimic the shapes of two historic, eight-sided Victorian homes in Mount Washington. One of these houses is now the much-restored Octagon on the grounds of the USF&G property, just up a hill from the light rail station.

Ms. Wallis' artwork is also meant to be practical.

"You must work within guidelines," she says. "Other people want the freedom to do whatever they please. When you work architecturally, there are strict rules. It has to fit the spot exactly. It has to meet the requirements of weather. It has to last a long time."

Her initial commission came from members of the Mount Washington Garden Club. The Mount Washington Improvement Association also backed her. But the cost, which Ms. Wallis declines to discuss, went out the window. She initially estimated her tiles would consume 2,000 pounds of clay that is suited for hard-fired terra cotta. So far, she's used 7,000 pounds. She has made up the difference herself.

"The initial estimate was for a tile that might not have withstood freezing and thawing. The station architect required it be made thicker," Ms. Wallis says.

Her tiles will be set into the octagon-shaped area at the end of the station's south platform, adjacent to the rushing waters of Western Run. Each day hundreds of passengers will walk across the tiles' surface. They cannot be slippery when wet.

Most of the tiles will be a traditional terra cotta color, the shade of a flower pot. But the highly intricate bands that run through her design will be cobalt blue and emerald green. The octagon's center is a labyrinth Ms. Wallis copied from a French cathedral.

There will be benches placed around the edge of the artwork. And she hopes that school children will make paper tracings of the work.

So far, the project has taken 16 months, and the artwork will be installed this summer. The tiles are stored in the garage of Janice Adams, a garden club member.

Ms. Wallis, who was born and reared in Chicago, describes herself as a "lifetime learner." She was a geologist at the University of Illinois before moving to Maryland with her husband, Dr. Fred Stemler. They bought a house in Perryman on the Bush River and raised their three daughters there.

She went back to school at Harford Community College, then to the Maryland Institute College of Art, where she still lectures.

In 1987, Ms. Wallis became the artist in residence at the Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., a long-established art tile studio renowned for its traditional designs.

Nearly 80 years ago, the Doylestown artisans made tiles for several Baltimore landmarks, including Zion Lutheran Church facing City Hall and the old Hansa Haus at Charles and Redwood streets.

"It was at Doylestown that I really learned tile technique," Ms. Wallis says. "After I returned to Baltimore, I visited H. L. Mencken's house on Hollins Street and discovered he had set Moravian tiles in his garden wall."

But it was on a tour with University of Maryland Baltimore County students that she visited Spain and Portugal a few summers ago.

"I was visiting all those buildings and ruins and gardens and came home and designed this," she says, pointing to a watercolor of the light rail artwork.

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