RORG’s Ceramics

By Layne Knoche, RORG Landscape Designer

If you’ve been out to the garden lately, you’ve probably noticed an artsy addition: twelve ceramic mosaic tiles placed around the garden’s perimeter along the sidewalks. The mosaic tiles were an instant hit at the garden, and the number one question we hear now is “Who made those beautiful tiles?!” The answer is yet another collaboration between the Red Oak Rain Garden and a UIUC class! This time, we worked with Unit One/Allen Hall Instructor Catherine Wiesener and her Fall 2019 ARTS 210 class.

Catherine’s twelve students each designed and created a tile with a mosaic depicting specific species of flora and fauna that exist in or benefit from the rain garden – from plants and birds, to insects, and even fish. And we love them all!

Installation

The tiles are installed in the granite border along the sidewalk for two reasons: 1) to guarantee the best public viewing, and 2) to ensure the safety of the tiles themselves. The crushed granite is a very dense material. I used a hammer and a chisel to excavate the square that the heavy tiles fit in, which minimizes the chance of vandalization. When setting them, I used a level to make sure the tiles were leaning slightly, ensuring water will run off the tiles and won’t pool and freeze in winter. I also had to make sure the highest edge of the tile was below the grade of the sidewalk to help ensure snowplows don’t damage them.

An Interview with Catherine

Catherine Wiesener

I recently interviewed Unit One/Allen Hall ARTS Instructor Catherine Wiesener to learn about her background, her collaborations with the RORG Team, and how she helped her students make such beautiful art for the garden.

We also chatted about her own art and she shared one of her gorgeous pieces (see photo at the end).

Q: What is your background?

A: My father is an artist so we grew up well acquainted with the art scene and artists’ life so when I started college, it was with the intent to major in anthropology and NOT art – but I took too many art classes and eventually decided to switch majors. I received a BFA with a concentration in Ceramics and Foundry as an undergrad and eventually moved here to pursue my MFA. Since graduate school I have been a practicing artist and instructor for the last 20 years. 

Q: What is your history at UIUC? 

A: I moved to Champaign County in 2000 to start graduate school in Sculpture/Glass. I was encouraged by glass phenom Bill Carlson and was specifically interested in learning to cast glass as it had some crossover with foundry. I met many amazing artists during my time as a grad student here. A few years later, I was hired to teach ceramics at the Allen Hall/Unit One program by Howie Schein, the longtime director and part-time potter. (now he’s retired full time and makes great pots!)

Q: How did you get into art/ceramics?  

A: (beyond the initial family connection) After graduate school, I sustained a back injury and felt I needed to back away from the heavy lifting required by larger sculptural projects, so I was drawn back to clay, specifically porcelain clay. At first it was easy to sit in one place and use it, but eventually the material demanded to be run through a band saw, assembled from multiple parts, and slip cast from complex molds.

Q: How did you get involved with RORG?

A: [RORG Director] Eliana Brown approached me and my Introduction to Digital Video class at Allen Hall/Unit One more than 10 years ago about a collaboration for a campus anti-littering campaign. We have been collaborating ever since.

Q: How did you get the idea to have your students create tile mosaics for RORG? 

A: Funny thing, I created this project for fourth graders at Parkland College’s “College for Kids” class that I taught a few years ago. In brainstorming with Eliana about something indestructible that’s also made from clay, I couldn’t think of a better idea. Layne gave us a list of flora and fauna that the garden helps to preserve and each of my students selected one from the list.

Q: How were the mosaics made? 

A: The students were instructed to make scale drawings on paper. We reviewed the drawings and made minor changes to composition to help the imagery work within the square format. Once the drawings were complete, we transferred them to the same size slab of clay. The clay was then cut into many pieces, bisque fired, glazed, and then reassembled onto 12″ by 12″ pavers. The students learned the basics of tiling: cutting, mixing thinset, troweling, grouting, and sealing.

Q: What did the students think about the project? 

A: The students who didn’t “jumble the puzzle pieces” at any step in the process were much happier with this project than the ones who did. However, they were all thrilled and honored to have their artwork selected to literally become embedded into the campus of their alma mater.

Q: What do you think about RORG? 

A: I have been walking by that space for almost 18 years now and especially remember it as a mud pit. I am amazed by the transformation. I’ve seen all the hard work that has poured into that space and it must feel wonderful for everyone involved to shape a piece of space with such an impact. It has also inspired me to start a rain garden in a space of my yard that floods. 

Q: Will there be more collaboration/more mosaics in the future? 

A: Definitely. After my first look at the final installation, the RORG Team said “more please.”

Q: Tell us about some of your own art projects!

A: I have a few ongoing projects. I have been working on a series of porcelain sculptural landscapes made from poured out and assembled colored slip. In addition to this work, I have designed and made handmade tiles for a handful of kitchens and fireplaces around the C-U area. I also dabble in woodworking.

Hybrid by Catherine Wiesener

You can find links to some of Catherine’s other work here.

Final Thoughts

The RORG Team was thrilled to work with another University class, and we’ll hopefully be continuing this one well into the future once it’s safe for the class meet in person again. After all, there are vast numbers of species that benefit from RORG, and we have plenty of real estate for the tiles to take up.

If you are interested in collaborating, send us an email at redoakraingarden@gmail.com.

Learn more about the tiles and other artwork at the Garden in the brand new “Art” section of our website here.

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