Although the population of Swan Hills, Alberta is only around 2,000, artist Jan Black says the community support she receives is phenomenal. Working out of her garage, Jan calls her home-based enterprise Broken Stone Mosaics. Using pieces of broken tile, usually floor tiles, she creates pictures that are used in a variety of ways. So far she has sold her work and received commissions only in Swan Hills. Word of mouth is her best advertising although she also has some pieces displayed at the local hardware store.
Jan moved to Swan Hills 20 years ago as a bride. She loves the small, northern community and she and her husband, Keith, feel it is a wonderful place to raise their three children. When the children were young, Jan looked for something she could do at home. As willow was abundant in the area, she tried willow creations. Her Christmas wreaths and decorations made with willow and other natural materials sold out each year at the Swan Hills craft sale.
Then her truck broke down and she didn’t get out to get her season’s supply of willow. When she learned of two stores in neighbouring towns that had leftover tiles from discontinued lines, she thought it would be interesting and challenging to create mosaics. She was successful in obtaining the tiles and, using the knowledge she already had plus what information she could find, she started experimenting. Although she developed many of her own techniques as she went along, she also had the help of a friend, Vickie Erickson. Vickie researched techniques and materials as well as giving encouragement and support.
Broken tile mosaics can be used in many ways — as decorative pictures, tabletops, kitchen back-splashes, floors, stair risers. Jan has done them all either for her own home or on commission for others. She loves working for other people and finds it satisfying to create mosaics that reflect their interests and likes.
Sometimes, Jan says, she’ll get an idea in her head and she’ll just have to do it! That’s the case with a large picture she’s currently working on which, when complete, will be hung on the side of the barn where she keeps her horses. The picture began with old harness hames which were set into the greenboard and then the horses’ heads were made with tiles.
When Jan begins a project, she’ll usually do a rough drawing to help organize her ideas and then she’ll choose the type and colour of tiles. After that comes the fun part; the part that her children sometime help with — smashing the tiles. Most of the pieces she uses result from “random busting” but Jan also uses “nippers and cutters” to try to get pieces of certain shapes and sizes. Once the tiles are broken, Jan starts arranging them. Although the drawing helps, Jan works mainly from the idea in her head. She says she “plays with the tiles till it looks right.”
For large pictures or anything that will be outside, the tiles are placed on cement board or greenboard. When Jan is satisfied with the picture or design, the pieces are glued into place. Grout is used to fill the cracks around each piece and, when it is complete and dry, a sealant is applied.
For smaller indoor pieces, Jan arranges the pieces on a mesh backing and covers them with a clear tape. When the mesh and tiles are cemented to the wall (or wherever the mosaic will be mounted), the tape is removed and grout is applied followed by a sealant.
The community support Jan receives is not only in the form of commissions but also in encouragement and ideas for her work. She loves having customers come with an idea and want to know if she could do it. Often people give Jan leftover tiles from their home renovations or projects. Sometimes friends just drop by to see what she is working on.
Now that her children are older, Jan is able to spend more time on her mosaics. She says she wants to expand her ideas and projects as well as the area in which she markets. Each mosaic she does involves a lot of time, care and creativity. Jan can be reached at 780-333-4649 or [email protected]
Dorothy Mack writes from Lone Pine, Alberta