Diana Gillispie’s eye for design and acute attention to detail has made her a fixture in the Asheville, North Carolina art scene for more than three decades. Having first moved to the area in 1978, she became one of the pioneering artists of Asheville’s River District when she started a small pottery studio with a couple of like-minded colleagues. After taking a several year hiatus earning her Master’s Degree at the Rhode Island School of Design, she and her husband, architect Michael Robinson, returned to Asheville in the early 1990s.
It was around this same time that Diana started attending Asheville’s Annual Arts & Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn, and was really taken by some of the tilework that she found there. With her background in pottery, it didn’t take long for her start trying to make some of things that she had seen, and soon she was creating her own handmade tiles. “I read a book about tile and I had enough of a background in ceramics to be able to set up a shop pretty quickly,” Diana says. And that’s when her studio, Asheville Tileworks, was born.
Early on, Diana was producing traditionally themed historic reproduction tiles, but that quickly evolved into her creating her own designs. “I was incorporating some of the motifs from the Arts & Crafts Movement – the ginkgo leaf, maple and oak leaves, the dragonfly – and it just kind of grew from there,” she says. “When I was first starting out, I attended a conference in Santa Barbara where I was able to see some of the original Batchelder tiles in person, and I caught the bug right then.” Since then, she’s been honing her craft and expanding her offerings, often collaborating with young artists from Asheville’s fruitful art scene.
“I like to work with people who have a real appreciation for design and an attention to detail,” Diana says. “We’re fortunate here in Asheville to have a great resource called the Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts, that has a residency program that helps people who are fresh out of an undergraduate ceramic program establish themselves.”
The Asheville Tileworks collection has grown over the years beyond those traditional reproductions, to include custom commemorative tiles, along with flora and fauna themed display and accent tiles, as well as Diana’s latest deep relief tiles (below).
“I’ve always admired the Batchelder tiles,” Diana explains, “but it’s taken me a long time to get an iteration of that landscape idea to really work. I did have an earlier version of relief tiles, but they didn’t have the volume that’s present in my current work. I’m really attracted to wood carvings, and I was after a look that was reminiscent of traditional block prints, but had more dimension to it. I’m really happy with how these turned out – they’re unique – but they were definitely influenced by Batchelder.”
All of the tile-making takes place in Diana’s studio, located just 100 feet from her back door, using traditional handcrafted techniques. “It’s all pretty low-tech,” she explains. “The first tile is carved out of clay, and then a plaster mold is cast around it. To make the actual tiles, blanks of clay are then hand-pressed into the mold.” After they’re cured, a custom glaze is applied and they’re fired in an on-site kiln.
“It’s more of an intuitive process when it comes to the design layout,” Diana continues. “I like to design tiles with recurring themes and colors that will coordinate visually with other tiles that I’ve already done.” Which makes perfect sense, because if someone chooses a number of different motifs, the overall feel of the finished installation can be unified by color or texture in a cohesive manner. “I also design them in standard 4×4 and 6×6 sizes so that people can drop them into a field of commercial tile.”
Her most popular styles are the 6″ Tree of Life and the 6″ Nouveau Ginkgo, but with an eye towards the future, Diana is always kicking around ideas for adding new designs to her collection. “I know that I’ll be adding another landscape tile, and I’m going to do something with a bee, as well as a crow, and probably something else with a river.” Through it all, Diana maintains a happy, humble attitude. “I’m not trying to be big, and I’m not trying to be famous,” she says, “I’m just trying to do good work.”
For more information, and to see Diana’s complete collection, please visit:
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