Yakima is famous for its apples, and Toppenish is known for its murals. By this time next year, community leaders in Tieton hope their city will be recognized for something that combines the two: seven huge glass mosaic murals portraying vintage apple box labels, which will adorn buildings all over town. It’s an ambitious goal, and inside the former apple warehouse that houses Mighty Tieton’s glass studio, apprentices have been scrambling all summer cutting sheets of glass into thousands of small pieces. The murals must be finished by next August.
The Tieton Mosaic project started with Ed Marquand’s fascination with subway signs. He creates handmade art books and art pieces at his Tieton studio, and is also the creative director of Mighty Tieton — the arts incubator bringing new life to town. He points to a photo of a vintage tile sign in the mosaic studio. “I’ve always been drawn to the subway station mosaics in New York. They’re the most attractive things about the subways, they’re over 100 years old and for the most part, they’re still in good condition,” he says.
He wondered why companies weren’t making signs out of tile anymore, and thought with his background in typography, it would be a truly unique business if Mighty Tieton started making typographical mosaics with glass tile. The Tieton Arts and Humanities organization applied for a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, thinking it would never happen. When the news came in 2013, Marquand says, “We thought we’d never get it — and said Oh my God now we’re going to have to do this!”
That’s because neither he, nor anyone else in the organization had experience in mosaic making. They rushed to find artists to teach them. A guy named Steve Morgan read about the project in the Yakima Herald-Republic, and just showed up. Marquand put him to work. Steve’s background ranges from graphic arts, to welding, to warehouse work. “I’d never really played with glass at all but it looked interesting, it was in the arts field, I thought maybe this can turn into something, so I came up and talked to Ed,” he recalls.
The basic tools for cutting glass tile are simple: A glass cutter with a diamond wheel, a T-square, and a table. Steve grabs a piece of glass, slides the cutter along it, and snaps off a perfectly straight strip. He then cuts small pieces of angled tiles, which, when lined up, will create the rounded top of a letter like an “O” or an “S.”
It’s easy to cut tile, but making a typographical mosaic out of it is another story. A single 12-inch by 12-inch panel can take days to make. First, Steve creates the design and picks the colors from shelves that wrap the studio, packed with sheets of glass in every color and texture. Then he gets to work. He says “I get in a groove and I don’t even really think about it, it just starts flowing, things start falling into place.”
With the NEA grant, the studio was able to hire apprentices to help Steve create the first project — tile signs welcoming people to Tieton, telling the history of city landmarks, and asking visitors to “Come Back Soon.” They add a flair of fun and creativity to the old farm town’s streets. That project was so successful, Mighty Tieton decided to take on a project to beautify the city post office — but they ended up taking on the entire U.S. Postal Service instead. It slapped down their plan to cover the building’s facade with a giant blue and white stamp mosaic. Marquand grins at the memory. “33,000 post offices across the country … imagine all the others that would want to do the same thing! They were anticipating lawsuits and angry committees.”
But the failure of the post office project turned out to be a good thing. Marquand says all the national publicity probably helped them get a new $45,000 grant from the NEA this summer, which was matched by a private family foundation. The fresh influx of money is being used to create the giant new mosaics, all portraying vintage fruit labels from Yakima Valley growers. Marquand says it will give tourists something dazzling to see. Steve and his apprentices completed the first one just in time for Highland Community Days. “Tieton will suddenly have something comparable to the Toppenish murals or other attractions in other towns. It will give people a reason to drive up the grade and visit,” says Marquand.
As to which vintage labels they choose, Mighty Tieton is discussing sponsorships with longstanding local fruit companies in order to complete the project. “We’re hoping the fruit families in the area see it as an eternal billboard, a testament to what their families have achieved,” he explains.
Local students are helping cut and set tile for a small stipend, and Marquand hopes community members will get involved too. “Anybody who gets to put down even one tile feels some emotional connection to the finished product,” he says, and picks up a tiled letter “E,” displaying it as proudly as if it were the Mona Lisa. “This is the most beautiful “E,” he marvels.
Who knows where it will go from here? Mighty Tieton is reaching out to architectural design firms, and restaurant design firms across the country — hoping to turn the tile studio into a viable commercial business. Marquand hears that transit officials on projects going on around the country are interested in mosaic and ceramic tile and are looking to cover larger spaces. A company in Germany gets most of the contracts now, but the pressure to buy American is increasing.
Steve just finished a big sign for Marquand’s Paper Hammer shop in Seattle, and they’re hoping business owners will see it and want one for themselves. Tieton Mosaic is the only company in the country specializing in typographic mosaics. “That puts us in a pretty good position,” Marquand grins.