Tale of a Tile Maker: One-on-one with Claudia Riedener

‘Elk Trap’ by Claudia Riedener at South Tacoma Library. Photo courtesy of the artist.

On a warm August day, I drove to Claudia Riedener’s house that she said would be easy to find “because we painted it orange.”  (Actually it is the color of pumpkin for pumpkin pie, just after you have mixed in the cinnamon and cloves.)  Against that unusual color, a bevy of plants, created a happy profusion of color and scent, owed in part to Claudia’s degree in botany, but mostly to her artistic eye. We went to the shade at one end of the fascinating back yard, a place that could have been a story all by itself.

Riedener’s story begins in a 1735 farmhouse near a small Swiss village set in the hills. Her family was self-sustaining.  They grew their own vegetables, hay for their livestock and foraged in the surrounding forest and fields for plants, roots and berries.  A favorite was to find young pine shoots and make a soup of those.  Because it was a working farm, all four children had their chores to do.  But they still had time to be off on their own, sometimes for hours. This was a formative time in which Riedener developed a very keen eye and passion for nature as well as a certain sense of independence.

At home, in school, and in society in general, there were no gender preferences in terms of opportunity, experience, or what positions or jobs either gender should pursue.  In spite of this, there was a problem for Claudia: she did not like dolls. It was surprising, but nevertheless her mother kept trying to interest her in what became a series of dolls.  But as early as five, she had her mind made up.  Dolls did not interest her . . .but, rocks did.  She would collect rocks and color them with crayons.  She didn’t draw faces on the rocks.  What she drew were designs of her own making, a foreshadowing of her future.

Riedener’s designing ways had no influence on what education she would receive.  Claudia’s mother insisted that she take courses in the medical field, an education that would help her earn a living.  (In Switzerland, being an artist is not an officially recognized occupation unless one has earned a degree in art and had some success.)  Although her secondary education and experience were in the medical field, after final exams Riedener quickly branched out, choosing to sample a variety of jobs.

In due course, Riedener married, and with her husband, moved to the United States.  The couple eventually settled in Chicago where she worked for the Chicago Botanic Garden. She also earned a degree in botany.  It was around this time when she began to consider learning to make tiles.  She found an instructional book that laid out tile-making in an easy, step-by-step process. To her delight, she had learned a way to combine nature with her creative spirit.

Riedener did not immediately forsake her horticultural background by plunging into tile making,  So, when they moved to Tacoma in 1999, she turned the garage into a studio but also worked at Lakewold Gardens.  In 2004 she transitioned to full time tile work.  (She gives kudos to the City of Tacoma for being “easy to work with” when she was starting her business, Ixia Tile.)

Reidener developed a reputation for quality work with design elements that were often based on plants in her own yard, and for collaboration with fellow artists.  The latter included helping launch the 100th Monkey monthly gathering of artists of all disciplines.  She is also a member of two professional organizations, Madera Architectural Elements and Artisan Tile Northwest where she is president of the board. She has also participated in the studio tour during the November Art at Work month.

In the studio there is no inventory of pieces from which a person can purchase.  Instead, there is a sample board that covers one end of the studio.  From those samples, Claudia invites the client to consider possibilities.  At this time in her career, Riedener is more interested in creating entire pieces, not just part of one even though she has enjoyed working with others as she did on the Zina Linnik Peace Park.  Her mural, “Elk Trap,” at the South Tacoma Library, is a testament to her creativity.  She is currently working on two large commissions, one to be installed at Point Ruston, and the other for Sound Transit’s Art Program (STart) for the 66th Street Underpass. The latter requires a lot of preparation, like getting rid of lead paint, but sometime in September you will be able to see her finished project, a gateway to the Manitou neighborhood.

She shows at various galleries and has installations around town, such as the ones on both the inside and outside of the Masa restaurant in Tacoma on 6th Avenue.  In addition to the October project completion, another opportunity to see Riedener’s work, as well as that of 40 others, is to attend A Handmade Tile Show (see below) in November.

Perhaps it is the influence of her natal country’s insistence on a degree in art that makes Claudia shy about calling herself an artist.  When asked how she describes herself she says, “I love my work. . .I could carve clay all day long . . .I am a tile maker.”