How did you get started doing Ceramic Portrait Tiles?
I have always drawn from a very early age. According to my sister, I didn't do any color pictures until I fell off my horse when I was 20 and was knocked unconscious. And that sounds about right! I started doing pastel portraits of people and then migrated to animals. I also experimented with watercolor, acrylic and oil. I prefer the permanence of acrylic and oil over pastel after my 2 year old niece destroyed one of my paintings in a matter of 2 seconds.
In 1988, I put my art on hold to pursue a career as a pilot for the airlines. I flew everything I could get my hands on from Cessna 120 tail dragger to Boeing 727 Jet. I still retain my CFI Certified Flight Instructor Certificate. I taught from 1990 to 2005 and some of that was flying for a local Ski Diving company. After 3 years of instructing, I started flying single pilot charter in twins and quickly moved on to a commuter flying a Beech 1900 -19 passenger turbo-prop for US Airways Express feeding US Air. I went on to Dallas to fly the B-727 as a Flight Engineer and then upgraded to First Officer flying passengers in the US and Mexico and then for USPS flying the US mail from New York to LA.
But, I always wanted to own my own company. So after a 10 year flying career, I started Alexander Art LLC. I took a sculpting class in Taos, NM with a well known artist. I did a whole series of baby horses in bronze. I was then commissioned to do larger horses in bronze. When the price of bronze went up 30%, I decided to work in a medium more affordable for a larger audience.
I started making the 3d ceramic animal portraits after designing a walk in shower for my Greyhound "Serena". I personalized the shower by making tiles of my Boxer "Garvey" and my Cat "Salvador". Everyone that saw the tiles loved them and I started getting orders!
What were your early challenges with your business?
Well I had never run a kiln before, so I had to learn all about that and I'm still learning! I have evolved since I started making the tiles in 2004. The eyes have become life like and I think that's why my tiles have become so popular. I've had people ask me where I buy the eyes. At first I would take my tiles to a local ceramic store to be fired, so it was nice when I finally got my own kiln so I could experiment. Also, when the clay dries, it shrinks and even more so when fired. I've had to learn to overcompensate on ear and nose length because they tend to shrink more in length than in width. That can make a Greyhound look like a Jack Russell in short order.
What is your process?
When I was learning to sculpt for making bronze, we used an oil base clay and that's what I use for my tiles. I love it because I can reuse the clay over and over. After the piece is sculpted, I make a mold using plaster. The plaster pulls the water out of the water based clay so it will release from the mold. When the tile is completely dry, I fire it for 24 hours. Then after the piece is cool, I paint and glaze it and put it back in the kiln for another 7+ hours. Usually my favorite piece is the one I'm working on at that moment, because I learn so much with each tile. As a wise woman once told me, If I'm not growing and learning with each piece, then I'm not advancing.
How long does it take to make a portrait?
It depends on the picture/s that are sent to me and how much detail is available. I have to do my homework and Google or search through books to find out more about bone & muscle structure before I start. The sculpting on average for a 6"x6" tile takes around 3 hours. The whole process with drying and kiln time is around 3 weeks.
What's your favorite customer story?
I love working with my customers. It's so much fun to be able to create with them something that is so near and dear to them. This is something that they will have for a life time to cherish their beloved pet. I never knew this journey with my customers would be so emotional for me. I received a commission from a man for a tile of a Golden Retriever "Shamus" who had cancer at the time. While I was working on the order, he called to tell me Shamus had died. I never met either of them, but I got a lump in my throat and then the tears just started rolling...for both of us while on the phone. Later, I found out he was a retired airline pilot and we still keep in touch exchanging Christmas cards. The picture is of Shamus.
What else do I sell?
I have branched out and started making Tissue Box covers and Treat jars using the tiles as the front. And the great thing is, customers can choose from any of the tiles I have sculpted already or commission me to sculpt their own pet for their own creation. I also make the memory box that can be used as an Urn. If the customer has an imprint of their pet's paw, I can make a mold of it to press in the Urn as well. I still do custom bronze.
What do you see as the main challenges of memorial art?
The main challenge is getting a good picture to sculpt from. But since it's so easy to use cell phones as cameras now days, it's getting to be less and less of a challenge. If anyone is interested in memorializing their animal, they need to start taking pictures that best depict the pets character now not later.
What is the favorite part of owning business your own business?
And my most favorite thing is who I work with in my studio...three cats and three dogs! It's the best job in the world!