Two sculp­tors marry and make beau­ti­ful tile.

Arts and Crafts Homes - - PORTFOLIO - BY MARY ELLEN POL­SON

CALL IT SERENDIP­ITY. Al­ready well es­tab­lished as artists in clay, Gary Cargile and El­iz­a­beth Whit­field-Cargile met in a ceram­ics class both had joined solely be­cause it of­fered ac­cess to a kiln. “Nei­ther of us owned one,” says El­iz­a­beth. “We needed the kiln to fire what we had been mak­ing.”

For El­iz­a­beth, a Tu­lane grad­u­ate who had won a Na­tional Fel­low­ship for the Arts re­gional fel­low­ship, that meant sculp­ture, and her art shines through in many Terra Firma pieces. Gary holds a BFA in sculp­ture and ceram­ics from the Univer­sity of South Carolina. Given their re­spec­tive back­grounds, it isn’t sur­pris­ing that the cou­ple soon re­al­ized there was a mar­ket for ar­chi­tec­tural tile, es­pe­cially in the Arts & Crafts tra­di­tion. By 1997, Terra Firma was on its way.

El­iz­a­beth and Gary now live “rather iso­lated in the mid­dle of a wood” near Aiken, South Carolina. Many of their de­signs are in­spired by na­ture, but oth­ers are in­formed by the pre-Raphaelites, Flem­ish paint­ing (es­pe­cially al­tar pieces), Celtic and Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture, In­dian tem­ples, and African art.

Their wide-rang­ing in­ter­ests come through not only in the tiles, but also in how they name them: ‘Bull Wrestler,’ based on a clas­si­cal Greco–Ro­man mo­tif; ‘Am­monoid,’ a fos­silized shell done in three vari­a­tions that sug­gest slices through the shell. As for their cus­tom glaze col­ors, the shiny dark brown Teche, for in­stance, comes from the French word for snake. “It has a wet look, that glaze,” says El­iz­a­beth, like the wind­ing, shiny black rivers of her home state.

While El­iz­a­beth is usu­ally the one re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing and carv­ing dec­o­ra­tive re­lief tile, or decos (there are well over 100), Gary is the ge­nius be­hind Terra Firma’s four dozen glazes. Pro­duc­ing them was a process of trial and er­ror in­volv­ing thou­sands of for­mu­la­tions. “Most have a com­plex mot­tling or iri­des­cence that sug­gests semi-pre­cious stones,” Gary says. “The thick­ness of the glaze ap­pli­ca­tion makes a dif­fer­ence in the color of a re­lief tile once it’s fired.”

So does fir­ing tem­per­a­ture, which can af­fect both the thick­ness or thin­ness

of the glaze and the chem­i­cal in­ter­ac­tions that pro­duce vari­a­tions in color. The Cargiles care­fully mon­i­tor kiln tem­per­a­tures by com­puter.

Their stoneware tiles are la­bo­ri­ously hand­made, and the Cargiles em­ploy four oth­ers, pro­duc­ing up to 250 square feet of tile per week. Lead times are un­usu­ally short for an art tile op­er­a­tion—as lit­tle as two to four weeks. Since ev­ery­thing is high-fired, tiles are suit­able for use in­doors and out. (The sta­ble glazes are not af­fected by pool chem­i­cals.) Prices be­gin at $50 per square foot for field tile. Decos sell for about $21 to $52 per piece. Terra Firma’s work is dis­trib­uted na­tion­ally through tile show­rooms.

They also sell gift tiles and framed tiles on­line (a new web­site is sched­uled to launch this year). Frames are made by master craftsman Bert Zim­mer­man, who uses quar­ter-sawn oak in mitered-and-splined and mor­tise-and-tenon de­signs.

ABOVE LEFT: This con­cept board for an art panel is made up of mul­ti­ple field and deco tiles, fea­tur­ing ‘ Egrets’ re­lief tiles. LEFT: Gary Cargile and El­iz­a­beth Whit­field- Cargile with their three dogs. RIGHT: This con­cept board fea­tures two fac­ing ‘...

LEFT: A kitchen back­splash in­cor­po­rates whim­si­cal pairs of sculpted ‘ Foot’ tiles and Terra Firma’s theme tile, ‘ Tree of Life’. ABOVE: De­signed as an in­tri­cate puz­zle by El­iz­a­beth, the ‘ Float­ing Lo­tus’ con­cept board could stand alone as a work of art.

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