Katia McGuirk is one of 15 children. Growing up on her family’s farm in Maryland, she was always up to her knees in mud. When she was 12 years old, she found her love for clay, when her mother enlisted her in a sculpting class. From there, she went on to study ceramics at Rhode Island School of Design, after which she began making tiles and renovating houses in Newport, RI.
Over the last 35 years, McGuirk has significantly grown her business — Katia McGuirk Tile Co., otherwise known as KatiaTiles — by designing, manufacturing and installing handmade tile nationally. As an artist-in-residence, she creates indoor- and outdoor-built murals. She also teaches ceramic and mosaic-making in various schools and communities, where she instills the importance of art in the younger generation.
Growing up in such a large family, nothing got wasted, which is a concept she has applied to her tilework ever since. “I repurpose and reuse everything that I can,” she said.
When it comes to her tilework, McGuirk explained how public art is, and has always been, near and dear to her heart. “It’s always been about the storytelling aspect for me,” she said.
In addition to her artistry and teaching, she works with underserved youth in North Philadelphia in areas where houses have been condemned, replacing these neglected, dilapidated areas with outdoor public artworks. “Ironically, when you have to engage the public in public art, it’s twice as hard,” she explained. “You have to accept it looks just as it is.”
In 2012, McGuirk added to her impressive resume by joining The Tile Heritage Foundation, a national organization that has preserved and protected the nation’s tile surfaces, practices and history since 1876, where she serves as a director.
As a practicing studio artist, McGuirk regularly exhibits her ceramic sculptures in solo and group shows in local galleries and museums, including Mercer Museum & Fonthill Castle, Philadephia’s Magic Gardens and The Clay Rat.
Earlier this year, McGuirk was enlisted by a close friend of hers, who bought a vernacular house built by a stone mason, to create a tile mosaic on the ground floor of the riverside home. The facade of the house features an eclectic arrangement of stones from the neighboring Delaware River, placed randomly on the exterior of the home. “Ceramic art, to me, is close to creation, a magical alchemy combining the four elements: earth, air, fire and water,” McGuirk said. “We landed on migration for the design inspiration. I tied the inside of the home to the outside — a very eclectic, artistic exterior. I needed to make the outside match the inside.”
Entrusted with the design, McGuirk immediately began creating the tiles for the mosaic in her studio in Doylestown, PA. “I began making the tiles, one by one, carving into wet clay in my studio, glazing and firing the ceramic tiles,” the artist explained. “I began drawing cartoon mockups of all of the walls. I thought about the story, a story of migration. This is the story of the owner and all the worlds that he inhabits, each distinctly different, from Hong Kong to Prague, from Pennsylvania to L.A. The lush natural beauty of a small Pennsylvania river town is what surrounded his river house and I was interested in echoing that. I emptied my tile boneyard of mostly every tile that had ‘collected me’ and hauled it over to the jobsite.”
From her collection of unused tiles, McGuirk crafted hundreds of different-shaped tiles in a variety of colors for the walls of her friend’s home office and corresponding bathroom. “I set up my saws, broke out my nippers, pulled out my glass cutter and began harvesting my repurposed tiles,” she said. “I started each day walking the banks of the Delaware River and ended each day walking the banks of the Delaware River until the river ran through me and onto the wall.
“I began sorting through and collating tiles, stone and glass, combining the rich textures and tones into tapestries surrounding my handmade tile elements,” she went on to say. “I gave myself the freedom to jump from wall to wall, paying close attention to the flow and the intersections. Eventually, the man cave began to come alive.”
One of her favorite parts of the project, which ironically presented the largest challenge, was the 15-inch x 6-foot backlit panel that was crafted using stained glass. “I cut out panels, put stained glass in the inserts and then backlit it,” McGuirk detailed. “This was the biggest challenge because it was a first for me. I was inspired to try my hand at setting tiles and stained glass on a thick Plexiglass panel and then backlighting it. I am pleased with the result when it is backlit or not. The scene depicts the Delaware River as seen from his yard, so it is a window, but not a window.
“Another challenge I experienced was a familiar painter’s dilemma, knowing when the painting is finished,” McGuirk continued. “What I was experiencing was a feeling that I was painting with tile and what tile would be the last one I would stick on the wall. Now, he wants me to come to Prague to do a mural there.”
The end result is a truly one-of-a-kind home office, with everything from intricately patterned trees and herons to the client’s company logo, encrusted in tile. “At one point, I thought of it as more of an art environment, rather than just an install,” McGuirk said.
Aside from the local recognition the mosaic has received, it was also awarded a 2020 Coverings Installation & Design (CID) Award in the “Special Recognition: Artistic” category. “With the COVID-19 lockdown, you’re inside and people are feeling the nature deficit. I’m more inspired now than ever,” McGuirk said. “Artists are instrumental in helping understand and interpret chaos in these difficult times of uncertainty.”
Point Pleasant, PA
Tile Designer/Supplier/Installer: Katia McGuirk Tile Co. (KatiaTiles), Doylestown, PA