Pieces fall into place for artists

Mosaics: A couple has built a business that is drawing national attention from designers while boosting the economy of Virginia's Eastern Shore.

January 05, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

EXMORE, Va. - Dressed head to toe in black - cotton blouse, jeans, knee-length duster - Sara Baldwin looks as if she could have stepped from a New York gallery or design studio.

Instead, the 36-year-old artist/entrepreneur, apparently unconcerned about the coat of white granite residue that covers the sprawling production floor at New Ravenna Mosaics, is on her hands and knees with half a dozen workers.

A looming deadline for a delivery to Washington has her husband, Eyre, alternately pacing and stepping outside to puff on cigarettes, but she carefully directs the finishing touches to the intricate pattern of the medallion that will soon accent a refurbished U.S. Senate fitness center.

"I guess I'm something like a master editor for our design team," says Baldwin as she deposits a 1-centimeter granite square into a green, leafy pattern. "I don't like to ever get too far from the hands-on."

In this fading railroad town 175 miles from Baltimore, in the middle of Virginia's Eastern Shore, the couple has methodically built a company that is attracting interest from architects, homeowners and interior designers all over the country.

The Baldwins' granite mosaics have graced the homes of such celebrities as Tom Hanks, Madonna and James Earl Jones. The company has completed a 5,000-square-foot design for a restaurant in Mexico City and tile work for a casino in Kansas City. One client traveled to Greece to copy ancient designs that New Ravenna duplicated for an elaborate bathroom.

In Annapolis, their work is on display as the state seal of Maryland on the floor in the Thomas V. Mike Miller Senate Office Building.

Through New Year's week, a team of eight mosaicists installed their designs for the U.S. Senate health spa.

The couple credits much of the company's success to a loyal, home-grown staff of artists and craftspeople who have helped it become one of the largest private employers in a job-starved area where the poultry industry is king. Most workers start just above minimum wage but can quickly begin earning $12 an hour. Quick, talented employees earn as much as $20.

"This hasn't been like one of those dot-com stories where you had overnight success and no real substance, no real product," says 40-year-old Eyre Baldwin, who married Sara in 1997 and officially took over sales and marketing for the company in 1999. "Sara started out on a kitchen table, and now we have a staff of people who were working in chicken-processing plants who are able to express their creativity at work."

Sara Baldwin, who earned a master's degree in fine art at the University of Pennsylvania, came home to the Virginia Shore in 1991. A single mother with a toddler to support, she had a plan for melding the artistic with the practical.

"I realized I could teach, I could wait tables and paint on the side, or I could come up with something that was practical as well as pretty," she says. "Everything that interests me in design has that practical element."

With a $5,000 loan from her parents, who gave her a place to stay in her late grandmother's house and a year to sink or swim with the business, she quickly attracted clients, schlepping her designs to such places as the Fine Line, a tile and stone retailer in Chicago. It is one of nearly 100 showrooms nationwide that carry Baldwin's work. Last year, New Ravenna tallied about $5 million in sales.

"I was one of the first to carry New Ravenna; Sara and I pretty much started in business at the same time," says Fine Line owner Kim Preis. "The thing that makes her work unique is her art background. It's a company now, and she has plenty of design people, but Sara will jump right in and get her hands dirty."

Unlike most of its competitors, which use only set patterns, New Ravenna also turns out custom designs, some from rough drawings sent by fax by customers. Such work costs anywhere from $50 to $600 a square foot.

"They are the single best mosaic house I know of," says Rob Morrison, chief operating officer of Waterworks, a Connecticut-based company with 33 showrooms featuring stone, tile and bath fixtures.

New Ravenna's growth has translated into a sizable investment in staff - about 130 people - and buildings as the company has taken over two renovated Exmore landmarks, the old Cameo movie theater and a block-long, 30,000-square-foot building still known by residents as "the shirt factory," its former incarnation.

Granite that arrives from Italy, Greece, Latin America and Turkey is cut by water-cooled saws into 1- and 2-centimeter tiles (in 50 colors) that are tumbled and trimmed to give them the worn look of old mosaics. They are then assembled from paper templates worked out by Baldwin's design team in a second-floor office above the production room.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.