TIETON, Wash. — Dotting this small town with art-quality glass mosaic signs sounds like an odd idea.
The signs — which will carry a style and typography inspired by New York City’s subways — have a cosmopolitan boutique quality that contrasts with Tieton’s rural Americana aesthetic.
Then again, the production of such signs could be a novel way to create a few jobs in this small town of 1,191.
Mighty Tieton, an arts-focused for-profit small-business collective and entrepreneurial incubator, has already helped launch two other businesses in Tieton. Now with the help of a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it has created the Mosaic Project with hopes of creating a small production company lasting long after the grant is gone.
It’s a business model built on the notion that in the globally interconnected 21st century, a high-end artistic enterprise can thrive in a small town with relatively low rent and labor costs.
“We’re pretty limited as far as the number of businesses we have,” Tieton Mayor Stanley Hall said. “This is something that could go national.”
The NEA grant will be administered by Mighty Tieton’s nonprofit community-arts arm, Tieton Arts and Humanities, which will raise $113,000 in monetary and in-kind donations for a total of $163,000. It will fund an apprenticeship program for local youth and a mosaic studio that will create the first six mosaic signs for display around town.
After that, backers say it will become a small business, Tieton Mosaic and Tile, maintaining an apprenticeship program while creating paying jobs and producing art-quality custom signs.
“We really do want and need another business like our own to help everyone reach critical mass,” said Ed Marquand, co-founder the Mighty Tieton, “The mosaic project falls into that, because as soon as we reach a level of competency, I can start placing orders immediately.”
The grant will be officially announced Saturday during the city’s annual Highland Community Days, at which point the one mosaic that’s finished will be unveiled. That piece, a 3-foot-by-5-foot blue glass tile background with “Mighty Tieton” in white letters, was constructed by two professionals — designer Sarah Silfen, who moved to the Yakima Valley from New York, and jeweler Arland Boehler, a Yakima native who just returned to the area from Vancouver, Wash. — and two teenage apprentices — Arturo Solorio of Cowiche and Kaili Molina of Naches.
They started work on it in June during the Tieton Mini Maker Faire, a Mighty Tieton-sponsored celebration of the region’s creativity. The former pair did the precision work, while the latter did the glass cutting for the background.
“We’re starting the studio now, so we can figure out who’s good at what, what can they contribute,” Marquand said.
It’s not decided yet exactly where that first sign or the other five as-yet-unfinished mosaics will go. That will be determined by a public-input process that will take place at city meetings during the first half of next year. By the end of 2015, all six mosaics should be completed and in place throughout town.
After that, Tieton Mosaic and Tile will be done with its public-art phase and will become a small company in its own right, Marquand said. It will join the ranks of other Mighty Tieton-backed storefronts, such as Tieton Cider Works, Tieton Farm & Creamery, the Goathead Press print-making studio and the Tieton location of Marquand’s Seattle-based art-book publisher, Paper Hammer Studios.
“The idea for Mighty Tieton has always been about creative ambition brought to a local situation, employing local resources and taking it back and selling it to a national or international market,” he said.
Marquand believes the market is there already for such signs.
“There are only a couple of companies in the country that really specialize in them,” he said.
If he’s right, and if the transformation of Tieton into a culturally relevant small city continues, that will only foster more economic growth in the future, he said.
“Then you get the traffic through here to support the longstanding businesses — the restaurants and the cabins — and it becomes a destination.”