Alpena’s pine resources reflected in tile mosaic

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a six-part series on Alpena’s History of Industry Sculptures being created by a mix of local and regional artists. Today’s feature focuses on Sharon Smithem and her sculpture titled, Majestic Pines.

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It’s safe to say artist Sharon Smithem was “discovered” for the upcoming History of Industry Sculpture Series planned in Alpena.

The six commissioned sculptures – Smithem’s among them – are destined for installation on six locally quarried boulders artistically arranged along the Alpena Bi-Path. Thunder Bay Arts Council, along with Alpena Community College, took the lead on this initiative that seeks to bring more sculptural art to the popular bi-path. An unveiling ceremony is planned for Sept. 21.

“The TBAC Sculpture Committee was looking for a diverse array of materials/forms of art to be represented in the collection of sculptures for the series,” said committee member Tim Kuehnlein. “While metals seem to be the most pervasive form for large scale outdoor sculptures because of their durability, we were looking for another form to complement what we had already managed to assemble in terms of artists and art forms to represent different phases of economic history.”

Several committee members began considering the possibility of wood and clay/ceramic tile work being represented in the collection along with the metals.

“But we were having no luck finding an artist to fit the bill, especially one willing to produce on this scale,” Kuehnlein said.

It just so happened Kuehnlein was roaming through some galleries on the west side of the state when he stumbled upon Smithem’s work in the Bier Art Gallery and Pottery Studio in Charlevoix.

“Tim came in and noticed my work,” said Smithem, who has served as artist in residence at the gallery and pottery studio. “He asked who did it, and I just happened to be there.”

A conversation between the two ensued.

“Her work represented in the gallery was smaller scale individual tile work, but it reflected the style and quality that we were hoping for in this installation, magnified 36 times,” Kuehnlein said.

“A lot of my tiles are landscapes of the outdoors – pines trees and water. Tim said that would be perfect for representing lumbering,” Smithem said.

Their back-and-forth exchange covered concepts, design and logistics. In the end, Smithem agreed to create a series of tiles that would form the large installation needed for the project in Alpena. By last week, she had created 36 individual tiles of 6×8 inches each that will collectively form a mosaic.

Titled Majestic Pines, her tile mosaic makes use of a technique known as slip tiling.

“Slip tiling is where there is a line of raised clay and then I fill in that section with different colors – green for the trees, blues for the skies,” Smithem said.

She has created the entire tile mosaic from start to finish.

“I start everything from a block of clay,” she said. “I slap it out, cut the tiles, make patterns for each section of the tile and trace the design. Then I do the raised clay application.”

After the tiles dry, they are fired for the first time to achieve a bisque finish.

“Then I put the glaze on in between all the little sections and fire them again, so there’s a long process to getting to the finished piece,” Smithem continued.

Because she’s been working with so many tiles, the project required multiple firings to fit them all into a kiln. With the tiles being handmade, they don’t come out perfect every time, but as an artist Smithem said she believes that’s part of the beauty of the medium.

A New York native, Smithem received her BFA from Kendall College of Art & Design in Grand Rapids. Her areas of specialization include oil painting, large wall murals, ceramic and glass mosaics.

While she’s been doing artwork her whole life, it’s only been in the last four years that she branched out into making the tiles. Prior to that she concentrated on painting and has done several public murals, including one in the Michigan Department of Transportation lobby in downtown Grand Rapids. She’s also done a 20×40-foot mural at the Montague Volunteer Fire Station and one for the Spectrum Center for Health and Well-Being in Freemont.

Smithem, who has family in Alpena, has been to Italy to be inspired by the great masters and to Santa Fe, N.M. to paint along side the Native Americans. She has participated twice in the Art Prize competition in Grand Rapids and currently resides in Charlevoix.