CASE STUDY: Glass Mosaics Reflect Tribal Traditions
November 13, 2007
Glass tile mosaics not only create a visually pleasing design for Red Lake Middle/High School in Red Lake, MN, but they also reflect the history of the tribal community that resides on the reservation. The project, which included adding brightly colored mosaic designs to both interior and exterior applications, was the second phase of planned renovations to the Red Lake Public Schools in northern Minnesota. The mosaic tiles were a key component in transforming a group of outdated and unfriendly buildings into a modern school.
“They liked the mosaic idea because of the beading aspect of their culture,” said Project Designer Sue Herrington of DLR Group in Minneapolis, MN. The tiny tiles closely mimic the staccato effect of traditional Ojibwe tribal bead work.
The designer explained that initial discussions with the project architect revolved around the use of brick, but then shifted towards mosaics after she came across a design book from Trend, the tile manufacturer for the project.
“Trend has a design book, and I was looking through it one day,” said Herrington. “They had flowers and border motifs. In my initial presentation, I presented a design with more generic flowers. The tribe liked the idea of tile and the motif so much, that they wanted to incorporate a personal motif as a teaching wall.”
Tribe leaders presented Herrington with a book of history, and she read it to learn more about their heritage and traditions. Mosaic motifs were designed for the exterior walls of the school as well as for interior walls and column bases. The nature design is one that is often displayed in bead work created by local artisans.
“They work around Mother Earth and Father Sky,” she said. “The blue on top [of the exterior mural] is meant to represent Father Sky, and the green represents Mother Earth. The vine motif is something that is a pattern that connects nature and berries are something that they farm and grow in their community. So it is a combination of a bigger community.”
Herrington explained that traditional tribal bead work includes an intentional “mistake” or off-pattern bead to humble the artist and illustrate the cultural belief that “we are not perfect, only the Creator is perfect.” As a result, an “off” tile was placed in the motif every so often to reflect this tradition. “We actually had a miscellaneous box of random tiles brought to the site so the installers could put an off tile in every once in a while,” said the designer.
According to Herrington, glass mosaic tile was an appropriate choice for the exterior of the building because it is dimensionally stable. “It doesn’t expand and contract [in freeze/thaw cycles],” she said. “We did need to specify a mortar bed and grout system though that could handle extremes in temperature.”
It took approximately six months to create the motif designs, and construction was completed in a little over a year. “Being a school project, it did take a little bit longer than normal,” said Herrington.
According to the design team at DLR Group, the glass tile mosaic displays are helping to change the perception of the schools and education on the reservation. Community members believe a renewed interest in the tribe’s traditional values can help improve life on the reservation and renew a sense of community pride.
“They love it,” said Herrington. “I am a tile person, and I like to do mosaics on the side. I made a mosaic pot that matched the tile work, and I gave it to them when the school opened.”
Recently, the project received a 2007 Award of Merit for the Commercial Spectrum Award, which honors outstanding achievements in the use of ceramic tile. Red Lake Independent School District and DLR Group were recognized at the Annual Spectrum and Prism Awards ceremony by the Coverings show management team for exemplary use of ceramic tile throughout the facility.