Betsy Bradley, Director of theMississippi Museum of Art,and Madge Bemiss, the museum’s architect from Richmond, VA, envisioned a place where children could play; a place full of vivid sights and sounds that would attract families with children as well as people who would not normally visit a museum. A committee, headed by Bemiss and Bradley, included a landscape architect, several artists, engineers, construction experts and others who worked together for several years to realize Bradley and Bemiss’s vision of an expansive green space containing different areas for activities and various works of art. One of those areas would be a children’s fountain featuring artwork by Martha Ferris.

The McRae’s Children’s Fountains were based on Ferris’ designs which began as drawings inspired by Mississippi ponds that provide a natural habitat for an abundance of flora, fauna and wildlife, including alligators, snakes, waterfowl, turtles, frogs and water lilies.

The brilliantly colored designs include two porcelain mosaic tile splash pools with seven fountain heads each. These fountain heads spray water from the center of each water lily. Additionally, three matching mosaic frogs are inlaid on the concrete patio surrounding the two pools. One blue mosaic frog leads to the first pool, one lies between the pools and a third mosaic frog leads from the second pool to the front steps of the museum.

Ferris worked with Jim Burnard, President of mosaic specialist Colorco, to choose unglazed ceramic mosaics from American Olean and Daltile Keystone porcelain tiles in 36 different colors selected by Ferris. “It was the only feasible tile in that situation — there was no other tile that would have been appropriate to the wear and tear from all those little feet and the weather,” said Ferris. “Porcelain tile is very durable.”

Burnard also commented on the durability of the product. “Theoretically, you can never wear the pattern off,” he said. “They are slip proof, frost proof, and there are no sharp edges.”

As for the colors of the tile, “My color choices had been extremely vivid, with lots of primary hues, and I was concerned when I saw the samples were more subdued and earthy than the colors I had imagined,” explained Ferris. “But I soon found them to be more elegant than my initial choice, and in the end, I preferred them. And when the tiles get wet, they really pop.”

Linking disciplines

The next step was to fabricate the tiles, but there were a few key components that Burnard had to consider to perform a successful fabrication job. “The main challenge was that it was a splash pool for children, with a fountain built into the design,” he said. “The artist’s artwork and the sprinkler somehow had to line up with the flower heads [which would serve as the fountain heads].”

To overcome this challenge, CAD technology was used to communicate across the different disciplines. Project architect Madge Bemiss e-mailed Ferris her CAD drawings, which gave exact dimensions of the two pools as well as the whole pool area in front of the museum. Using PhotoShop, Ferris placed her “Mississippi Pond” into the dimensioned outlines of the CAD drawings. Burnard needed those highly specific CAD renderings to get exact measurements of the design space, so Colorco could accurately fabricate the mosaics for the pool floors.

Installation Details

INSTALLER: Bill O’Hearn

TILE PRODUCTS: American Olean unglazed ceramic mosaics and Daltile Keystone porcelain tile

INSTALLATION PRODUCTS: Granirapid Powder and Granirapid Liquid from Mapei of Deerfield Beach, FL

NUMBER OF INSTALLERS: 1 installer and 2 helpers

INSTALLATION TIME: 5 days

To fabricate all the pieces, it took about two and a half months of “old school, all handwork, like a traditional mosaic,” explained Burnard. In addition to fabricating the tiles, Colorco took it upon themselves to do a template for the designs so that the construction team who poured the cement for the splash pools would know specifically where to place each sprinkler head.

“It was important for the sprinkler heads to come out of the appropriate places in the artwork,” said Burnard. “By us providing a template, it allowed us to link up the mosaics to the mechanical sprinkler heads. That was an incredibly important aspect of the project.”

The craftspeople at Colorco were thinking ahead in terms of the installation of the mosaics as well. All of the mosaics were made into large 3-foot puzzle piece square mats so that they could be transported from Colorco’s facility in New Hampshire to the project site in Mississippi. The mosaics were secured onto a plastic backing and were numbered according to an overall grid plan. A grid key, which numerically linked the placement of the square mats to the design, was given to the installers.

A  challenging  installation

The mosaic tile installation was completed by one installer and two helpers, who were contracted by Colorco. According to installer Bill O’Hearn, they used Granirapid Powder and Granirapid Liquid by Mapei to complete the job. With the Granirapid Liquid, the installer used a latex additive that gave the adhesion for the mosaic to bond with the concrete slab.

“The concrete slab was out in the courtyard, and the shallow pools had already been formed,” said O’Hearn. “All we had to do was apply the mosaic to the concrete which needed a thin set, not a mud set.”

But the Mississippi weather posed some unexpected challenges for the installers; the installation took five days, which was longer than had been anticipated. “July in Mississippi was when the installation happened, and it was hot and humid,” said Ferris. “Then the unexpected torrential rains came one day during the installation process.” O’Hearn and Ferris overcame each installation challenge in the following ways:

• When the plastic backing of the mosaic pieces had expanded due to the high temperatures and humidity — causing the mosaic tiles to expand — O’Hearn cut the tiles to fit on their designated area on the concrete.

  • Throughout the week, it was important to keep the work area shaded so that the hot sun would not dry out the thin set. O’Hearn bought a couple of awnings to work in the 95- to 100-degree temperature weather.
  • When torrential rain came one day — causing 30% of the mosaic tiles to come off of their respective plastic backings — Ferris worked with the installers to adhere the pieces back in place.

“Martha was a huge help,” said O’Hearn. “She put the loose pieces of tile in little baggies — marked according to where they had to be put back. We spent a whole day re-sticking the pieces that fell off because of the rain. We used adhesive spray to stick them back in place. This fix prevented us from having to return to the fabricator in New Hampshire.”

After the installation

The Mississippi Museum of Art’s fountains were opened to the public on September 29, 2011. “Kids are really enjoying them, particularly in the warmer months,” said Ferris. “The director of the museum, Betsy Bradley, and the architect, Madge Bemiss, had the vision of turning a parking lot into an art park for the museum. Realizing their vision was a long grueling process, but it was a wonderfully collaborative process as well. In the end, they turned the Joni Mitchell song on its head when they ‘unpaved a parking lot and replaced it with a bit of paradise.’”