Everything Falls into Place

Every two years, the Rush Holt campaign commissions a local artist to design
a fine art print, which becomes a poster for the campaign. This year’s print
depicts original tile artwork of artist Katherine Hackl of Lambertville. Her magnificent tiles of the region’s historic landmarks can be seen in the Princeton Room in the Princeton Public Library.

Rush Holt will unveil this year’s print at a reception Sept. 13,  6-8 p.m., at the D & R Greenway Land Trust’s Johnson Education Center, One Preservation Place, Princeton (off Rosedale Road). Hors d’oeuvres, wine, a beautiful setting and a chance to see the print can be had for a contribution of $150, but attendees are welcome to contribute whatever amount they feel comfortable with. What a wonderful way to support Rush Holt’s re-election!

Here’s what I wrote about artist Katherine Hackl a few years ago:

For some of us, life can be like a Jackson Pollack painting: a dribble of some red over here, a trail of green over there, maybe a big white splotch dominating the center. We may find passions for pursuits leading us in one direction, then a career may take us along a transgressing route, and we find ourselves asking, How does it all fit together?

For ceramic artist Katherine Hackl, everything falls neatly into place. After majoring in history at the University of Chicago, she completed an apprenticeship program at the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, Pa., and has gone on to create ceramic murals in public spaces. These murals depict the history of the region they adorn. Her work can be seen at each of the 20 station stops along the RiverLINE, the light rail system from Trenton to Camden, as well as the information center at Batsto Village in the Pine Barrens, and even Princeton Public Library.

Growing up on a sheep farm in Stockton, Katherine’s passion for ceramics flourished while she attended George School in Newtown, Pa., where she studied with Judy Bartella. “The extraordinary facility and faculty at George School beats what is offered at many colleges,” says Ms. Hackl one cool summer morning in her Swan Street Studio in Lambertville.

Before owning this converted carriage house ever crossed her mind, she had worked here as an apprentice for studio potter Byron Temple during the year she took off between George School and college. “I begged and pleaded with him to take me on,” she recounts.

Later, she went to Japan and studied with a family who had been ceramic artisans for seven generations. But never imagining she’d be able to make a career out of it, she went to the University of Chicago to focus on modern European history. Meanwhile, she kept up a studio in her parents’ garage, and after college entered the four-month apprenticeship program at Moravian Pottery and Tile Works where she studied the Arts & Crafts style of Henry Mercer. Immediately following the intensive work/study program, she received a commission to work on a tile renovation project for the New Jersey State House.
The original tile work had been crafted in the early 1900s by Herman Mueller, a ceramic tile artist well known to those who study New Jersey history for the tile decorations of the historic Rotolactor at the Walker- Gordon Dairy in Plainsboro.

“It had been renovated so many times, it was damaged, so they wanted me to reintegrate the old into the new,” Ms. Hackl says of the State House project. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts was looking for a specialist in regional Arts & Crafts style, and selected her from five other apprentices from the Moravian Tile Works.

The project took a full year, both to create new tile work that integrated with the old – Ms. Hackl based her mosaics on Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” – and to recreate the recipe for the background glaze without using lead. Lead has been used to help lower the melting point of glass, but because of its toxicity Ms. Hackl does not use it in her studio, even for tiles that do not come into contact with food.

“The fun part of tile work projects like this and like the one at Batsto is to dig in and do the research on what you want to depict, what stories you want to tell and how to render them artistically,” she says. “I enjoy ceramics as a way to tell stories.”

Herman Mueller’s original tiles “had a curious assemblage of animals, so I added stories that would get people to engage and interact with it,” she says.

In her perfectly ordered studio – there are shelves and shelves of glaze ingredients in uniform bottles with blue caps – it’s hard to focus on the conversation with visual distractions such as the Little Red Riding Hood scene atop a work table. This commission – most of Ms. Hackl’s work is done on commission – is for the hood of a stove.

“The clients bought a Wolf (brand) stove with bright red knobs and so the idea came to them for this,” she says. The tile is ornamented with her trademark carving technique, white background and black relief. The scene is a study in black and white, except for the bright red cape of Red, the red bow tie on the wolf and a red door on a cottage nestled in the woods.

One can only envy Ms. Hackl’s clients who have the resources to decorate their personal spaces with her designs. They appeal to both the child and the adult within. For example, one client in Puget Sound had her create three-dimensional octopus mosaics for a shower stall. In a New York City bathroom, Ms. Hackl retold Aesop’s Fables with tile depictions: we see three mice watching as the giant-sized face of a cat peers through the mouse hole for “Who’s Going to Bell the Cat.”

She starts by rolling out tan clay that dries as a light-colored stoneware, dips it into a bucket of black slip (liquefied clay with colorant), then sketches in the design. She sculpts away the outlines and carves away the background space to give it a carved woodcut appearance. All this is done when the clay is in its leatherhard stage, then wrapped in plastic to hold its moisture content. Eventually it will be dried, bisque-fired, treated with a clear transparent glaze and fired again.

In addition to tile work, Ms. Hackl throws cups, bowls, plates and other functional items on the wheel. She has a part-time assistant, Charlie Balfour, who helps to roll out slabs and cut tile, as well as design and manage her Web site.

For the RiverLINE project, she worked with two other artists, Hiroshi Murata and Marilyn Keating, who were individually selected in 1997 by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, New Jersey Transit and others. The three had never met but worked together successfully for the five-year duration of the project.

“We all had different personalities and artwork, and now we’re dear friends,” says Ms. Hackl, “but it was a miracle to put together three independent artists for a five-year collaboration.”

Not only did the artists have to work together, but they had to coordinate their efforts with the architects and engineers of the stations. Besides the ceramic tile work telling the story of each stop, there are works of sculpture, planters and obelisks. At the Aquarium stop, for example, there are large fish head sculptures covered in ceramic tile by Ms. Hackl. And in her studio, Ms. Hackl has samples of the cast-aluminum egrets designed by Ms. Keating that appear at each station.

The ceramic tiles are made from molds Ms. Hackl develops out of plaster, so she is able to reproduce the tile. There are several examples from the RiverLINE in her studio. A mosaic from the Palmyra stop depicts the Tacony Palmyra Bridge over the Delaware River, with yellow rosebushes blooming in front of the Walt Whitman house in the foreground. Ms. Hackl had wanted to include Japanese beetles on the rose blossoms – apparently the voracious insects were first introduced into this country near Riverton on a ship from Japan in 1916 – but during community feedback sessions, the idea was rejected. The people of Palmyra didn’t want their town to be commemorated for having introduced the pest that turns leaves to skeletons.

Columns at the various stops have smaller tiles depicting the local flora and fauna along the corridor. These include grasshoppers, shad, goldfinch, corn, rays, a bumblebee, monarch butterfly, redwing blackbird and a farmer riding a tractor. One fondly recalls the old New York City subway tiles that brought to life the attractions at the station: beavers at Astor Place that were used to make men’s top hats, the double B emblem for the Brooklyn Bridge stop, the junction of Broadway and Bowery at the Union Square station.
For the Princeton Collections Room on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library, Ms. Hackl was commissioned to create mosaics telling stories of Princeton’s past: mules pulling a barge along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the Walker Gordon Rotolactor, the Mercer Oak, quarry workers, “War of the Worlds,” the Dinky, black squirrels at Nassau Hall. It is obvious that the hand behind these tiles has a head for history.

Even with deadline pressure, “I love what I do,” says Ms. Hackl. “I know I’m extremely fortunate.” And so is the community at large who get to view her stories on the walls of public spaces.

For information on the locations of Katherine Hackl’s public art, private commissions, studio or places where her ceramic work can be purchased, visit her website: www.katherinehackl.com

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