Nature made: Form follows function in Suzanne Crane’s botanically inspired tiles

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Suzanne Crane began making tiles at Mud Dauber Pottery in Earlysville "to give my collectors a way to use wall space to show my work." Photo: Courtesy Suzanne Crane Suzanne Crane began making tiles at Mud Dauber Pottery in Earlysville "to give my collectors a way to use wall space to show my work." Photo: Courtesy Suzanne Crane

Graduate school brought Suzanne Crane to Charlottesville, but clay has kept her here. With her husband, Matthew Crane of Arterra Design and Construction, Crane opened Mud Dauber Pottery in 1996, and began making tiles “to give my collectors a way to use wall space to show my work.” She initially made framed tile murals, with wide hardwood frames in the Arts and Crafts tradition, and some of the first tiles she sold locally were to an architect who was redoing a floor in concrete. Since then, Crane’s made fireplace surrounds, kitchen backsplashes, shower tiles, accent tiles, framed tile mirrors, and mirror surrounds. And since her husband is a design/builder, “making tiles for installation in some of the custom homes he builds seemed perfectly logical,” she said.

What also seemed logical, was to ask Crane a few questions about her work and her penchant for using real botanical specimens in her tiles.—Susan Sorensen

Are you from the Charlottesville area originally? I am from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I came to Charlottesville in 1984 to pursue a graduate degree in English, and I never left.

Describe your aesthetic in five words or less. Botanical, serene, Arts and Crafts (or mission), intricate, not-white-subway-tile. Where do you stand on form versus function? With tiles, form follows function.

What are you working on right now? I am designing a fireplace surround for a local astrophysicist who wanted to incorporate the fiddleheads of ferns in the tile design, and because I use the impressions of real botanical specimens to make my tiles, we had to move quickly to make samples of fiddlehead tiles in both 8″ and 6″ squares, with two different border designs. He also wants to use Virginia Creeper from his own land on another part of the surround, so I had to make a design that could be completed in separate parts; Virginia Creeper doesn’t really get going until long after the fern fiddleheads have unfurled completely.

What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever made? A huge, square, tile topped coffee table for Andrea Doudera. Laying out the tiles after firing was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. I also enjoyed making two vessel sinks for the Montana home of Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons. I had to work with his on-site landscape designer and have her overnight mail me wild black cohosh leaves from the property.

Are your tiles for sale to the general public? I have a wide variety of single 6×6″ and 4×4″ tiles, which customers can buy from me at my gallery. There are always a few 1-tile by 3-tile murals already made, and we have a good number of framed tile mirrors, and a few tiled tables.

What’s the process like for creating a new piece for a client? If you’re a local customer, you can work directly with me and [my assistant] Brenda. My tiles are also shown in a number of tile/floor showrooms around the country. And if you have the misfortune to have to stay at Martha Jefferson Hospital, you may have encountered one of my 12″ square tile murals in the bathroom of your private room. I was commissioned to supply at least 15 murals, along with other local tile makers.

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