“Inorganic Compound” – Art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway

Learn how it was made, step by step.
Rock + Steel = River?
Bonus: Stained glass masterpieces.
Artist: Kevin Christman.
Ashland Public Art Series.

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Kevin Christman

How were the rocks wrapped in metal?

Inorganic Compound sculpture
Close-up of Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Look at those large river rocks. Do you wonder how they were wrapped in steel as you look at the sculpture? I sure do. The sculptor would say, I want you to wonder about that. 

The steel looks like it grew around the large rocks, or perhaps melted around the rocks. It is all so seamless, so organic looking for a sculpture called “Inorganic Compound.”

If you keep reading, I will tell you what I learned from Kevin Christman.

Impact of the Almeda fire: “It’s as if I’m starting over with my sculpture.”

Kevin told me he wants to create more “public works of art that inspire people, and hopefully you walk away feeling better after you experience it than when you came to it. Part of the impetus of doing a sculpture out of the ashes of this fire is to affect people and have them resonate with it and feel hopeful; you have obstacles in your life, you overcome them, and you’re better because of it.” 

Kevin was in the process of moving from one art and sculpture studio to another. In the meantime, he had packed almost everything from his studio in a large, seemingly safe storage container. Sadly, the Almeda fire destroyed everything he had stored there. Some things, like his tools, can be replaced. Others, like a lifetime of drawings and sketches organized in file cabinets, are irreplaceable. The hardest blow of all is the loss of all his sculpture molds, which allowed him to make and sell additional copies of his most popular sculptures. All are gone.

The massive community loss, combined with his personal loss, stimulated Kevin’s idea to create a public artwork for the Talent/Phoenix area to be made using scrap metals left from homes and businesses destroyed by the devastating Almeda fire. He sees this as a way to both remember the devastation and also to provide hope for rebuilding, renewal and new life.

“Everything Kevin has done, he has done with a community mindset.” I think of these words Libby Edson told me as I marvel at Kevin’s response to this tragedy. 

Kevin’s artistic journey 

“When I was eight, my father signed himself and me up to take the art class with the parish priest. That was my first formal training.” 

Kevin Christman

Kevin loved art from age six. “Everyone in my family knew that I could draw and would give me charcoal and art books for every birthday and holiday gift.”

He continued, “When I was eight years old, I was an altar boy at the Catholic Church in St. Martin, Minnesota, where I grew up. The parish priest there was really good at painting oil paintings of chapels and churches. He had large paintings in his house and he was going to be teaching an art class on how to paint.”

After Kevin took the priest’s art class, all he wanted to do was paint. In high school, he had the keys to the art room. After school, other kids would play sports and then take the athletic bus home after practice ended. Kevin went to the art room every day after school to paint and draw, and then joined the other kids on the athletic bus to go home. 

Kevin’s detour from art

Surprisingly, he took a detour from art. After an engineering degree, he worked in the aerospace industry for a few years. It was exciting to work in the Research & Development Department on the B-2 Stealth bomber at Northrop Corporation. But he wasn’t painting, so there was a huge hole in his life.

B-2 “Stealth” bomber in 2006. (photo from U.S. Air Force, on Wikimedia Commons)

Painting landscapes in every state!

Kevin returned to painting in 1988 through classes at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. When he realized his painting style was not a good fit for the college, he had a crazy idea to travel the United States and paint landscapes in every one of the “lower 48” states – and he did! He and his first wife lived out of a Jeep for a year as he made this crazy idea a reality. Kevin described it as “a real eye-opening year. That’s when I thought, ‘this is the beginning of an art career…this is where it starts.’”

Kevin Christman painting
This photo shows Kevin Christman painting on location in France. He has also painted on location in Italy, Germany and the Caribbean, preselling his paintings to collectors.

Following that cross-country trip, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1990 to work in a foundry. He became passionate about sculpture there and eventually apprenticed with many of the finest sculptors in the Santa Fe area. He assisted them in making molds and sculptures, while beginning his own sculpture career.

“Why did you move to the Ashland area?”

In response to my question, Kevin began: “My fiancee’s cousin was involved in the Ashland Elks Lodge. He had settled here and kept saying, ‘You have to come to Ashland. You have to check it out. It’s really a beautiful place.’”

Kevin married in 1997 and the newlyweds visited the Oregon coast for their honeymoon. Afterward they stopped in Ashland for a few days and were struck by the sense of safety in town, which was very different from their experience of living in Santa Fe.

They moved to Ashland the following year. In the years since then, Kevin has lived both in Ashland and Talent. He currently resides in rural Talent and loves the community. To him, “It feels like home.” 

Kevin laughed as he told me, “I was sort of reluctant to move to Talent, only because when you are corresponding with artists outside the area, or in New York, for an artist to live in a town named ‘Talent’ is just a little too cliché.” But he has made his peace with that “problem.”

I will tell Kevin’s complete story of the “why” behind his move to Ashland in another article. 

Public art along this stairway

I previously wrote three articles about three Ashland public artworks located along the “Bandersnatch Trail art walk.” I discovered another three-piece public art walk in Ashland, on the Calle Guanajuato stairway between Ashland Creek and Granite Street. 

(#1) Inorganic Compound by Kevin Christman is located along the stairway, towards the bottom. (#2) Fall Splendor by Annette Julien is located along the stairway, towards the top.  (#3) Rio Amistad by Sue Springer and Karen Rycheck is at the top of the stairway, next to Granite Street.

Inorganic Compound sculpture
This is Inorganic Compound. Further up the Calle Guanajuato stairway, you will find two other Ashland public artworks. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“What does the sculpture mean to you?”

Kevin replied that he likes public art that relates to its environment. He doesn’t like artists who tell viewers what they “should” see in the artwork. However, he thinks it can provide a richer experience for the viewer to know how the artist sees the artwork. As Kevin said, in addition to the natural setting, “I am part of the context of the piece.” 

Kevin gave me two ways that he sees the sculpture. One is that is looks like a molecular compound, the living microscopic world blown up using rock and stone for us to see in the macro world. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
The Inorganic Compound sculpture in process, in the studio. (photo by Kevin Christman)

He was also influenced by the natural setting along Ashland Creek. He told me, “With this piece in particular, it’s the feeling of the river flowing by. So the stones sort of represent the rocks that are sitting in the river and the metal encasing them is like the water flowing over them.” 

How the Inorganic Compound sculpture was made

Drawing on that inspiration, the rocks in this sculpture are actual river rocks. Kevin found them on a friend’s property along Carberry Creek in the Applegate valley. The metal is mild steel that was forged around the stone. 

Inorganic Compound sculpture
River rocks were collected for Inorganic Compound, then wrapped in steel. (photo by Kevin Christman)

If you are like me, you might be wondering right now how Kevin got steel and rock to flow together so tightly.

Kevin said he took the steel and “bezeled it on to the stone.” When I looked up the word “bezel,” the descriptions I saw referred to setting a gem or design in fine jewelry. Ten pound stones are a little bigger than fine jewelry!

The mild steel was weld-forged onto the stone. This is how Kevin described the process. “I started off with a 2” wide strap of metal and clamped it to the stone. Then I heated it with a torch until it turned red and pounded it to the contour of the stone until I came all the way around. After I formed it and welded it, I had a narrow bezel.”

“Then I would add another band on the side of that. I’d weld as I’d go. There are three or four strips of metal, all welded together.” I interrupted Kevin at this point, “Wait a minute. That’s a lot of welding. I can’t even see any of the weld marks.” He replied, “That’s good. It’s sort of a mystery. I wanted it to feel like jewelry as well, with the bezel. But how do you wrap 1/4” thick steel around a stone? I wanted it to be from a technical standpoint somebody would look at it and think, ‘How did they do that?’”

Dedication, public art and community

Inorganic Compound was installed and dedicated in 2009. Kevin’s sculpture was first considered as part of a rotating art plan for the Calle Guanajuato stairway. The idea was to have artwork on loan from artists for a year or two along the stairway. Though a good idea, it was too complicated to make it work in practice. I spoke with Libby Edson, who was on the Public Arts Commission at that time. She told me she suggested that the city buy Inorganic Compound because of the quality of the sculpture, which was done.

Libby added to my understanding of public art as we talked. We discussed the impact of where public art is placed, as well as the impact of public art on community. For Libby, both of these elements are crucial for a deep understanding of Inorganic Compound. 

She sees the sculpture’s placement along Ashland Creek as a perfect fit. The sculpture expresses the connection with nature through river rocks, but the way they are stacked and wrapped in metal expresses the intersection of humans and nature. She sees Inorganic Compound as representing “people living in harmony with nature, with a strong bond to protect nature.”  

In our discussion, Libby kept coming back to the importance of community. It takes community to realize the value of public art and to preserve it through the decades and centuries. It takes community to realize the value of the natural world that surrounds us and to preserve our environment. Art reminds us of these values.

The concept of community also ties in with the placement of this piece, per Libby. “It is on the Calle Guanajuato, which represents our relationship with our sister city in Mexico. It represents those community bonds as well.”

How to find the sculpture 

map
Arrow shows the location of Inorganic Compound along the Calle Guanajuato stairway, between Calle Guanajuato and Granite Street. (map from google maps)

You can reach the Inorganic Compound sculpture from Granite Street or Calle Guanajuato. 

The top of the stairway is on Granite Street, near the intersection with High Street. At the top of the stairway you will find a bench and a mosaic artwork, another piece in the Ashland public art collection. Near the bottom of the stairway, you will find Inorganic Compound.

From Calle Guanajuato, cross Ashland Creek to the path on the west side of the creek. You will see Inorganic Compound from the path, situated near the bottom of the stairway.

Other art by Kevin Christman

St. Mary’s School Chapel

St. Mary's School Chapel
St. Mary’s School Chapel exterior. (photo by Ezra Marcos)

The new chapel at St. Mary’s School in Medford is the most meaningful artwork of Kevin’s long artistic career. He told me it took “five years of work all in one building.” For this huge project, he created 32 stained glass windows and 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures! Here is a taste of the beauty there. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

My wife and I had an opportunity to visit the chapel in person on a sunny day. The sun’s rays lit up Kevin’s brilliant colors of stained glass on three sides of the intimate building. 

Kevin Christman stained glass
St Mary’s School Chapel stained glass by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “The Resurrection”. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

The 16 bronze bas-relief sculptures are not as bright as stained glass windows, but like the windows they invite extended viewing to look for meaningful details. 

Kevin Christman sculpture
St Mary’s School Chapel bronze bas-relief by Kevin Christman. This panel is called “St. Damien of Moloka’i.” (photo by Ezra Marcos)

A beautiful book has photos of the stained glass windows and bronze bas-relief sculptures, plus a description of each one and an “artist’s statement” about each one. It is available for $35.00 by contacting Bethany Brown, Director of Advancement at St. Mary’s School. If you would like to see St. Mary’s School Chapel for yourself, please contact Bethany Brown first to set up an appointment. Bethany’s email address is bbrown@smschool.us.

Havurah Shir Hadash stained glass window

Kevin Christman stained glass
Stained glass window representing the Tree of Life, at Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland. Artist is Kevin Christman. (photo by Havurah Shir Hadash)

Another work of religious art, at the Havurah in Ashland, also has deep meaning to Kevin. “When I did the stained glass window for the Havurah, the feedback I got from that, knowing that people were spiritually affected by a work of art that I did, was really impactful. It was an eye-opener to the power of art in a public setting and how it can affect people well beyond my lifetime.” 

“Making an impact that continues to resonate with people long after I am gone, I feel like that’s the highest calling I can think of for what I do.” 

Ashland Public Art on the Bandersnatch trail (three articles)

You can read about the Elevation sculpture here.

Read about the Pacific Fisher mosaic here.

My article about the four-level Water is Life mosaic is here.

References:

Note: The feature photo shows sculptor Kevin Christman with his public artwork “Inorganic Compound” in October 2020. (photo by Peter Finkle)

Christman, Kevin. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. Kevin graciously shared some of his personal photos with me.

Edson, Libby. Interview and personal communications, October 2020. (Libby Edson is a former member of the Ashland Public Arts Commission.)

St. Mary’s School. The St. Mary’s Chapel: The Jewel Box of St. Mary’s School, L&R Publishing, 2020. 

Old Willow Lane photo essay

Mickey Mouse.
Mosaic rock designs.
“Science is Real” signs.

I found Mickey on Old Willow Lane

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, Mickey yard art
Here’s Mickey, next to the sidewalk on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

This lawn art was a fun surprise on my short walk. I almost walked right by it, because I wasn’t looking down at the grass. I have learned: When I am “walking Ashland,” look everywhere! You never know what you will find.

What I did not find was an “old willow.” If I missed it, someone please tell me where it is.

First impressions

Old Willow Lane, Ashland

To find Old Willow Lane, take East Main Street to Fordyce Street. Heading north on Fordyce, Old Willow Lane will be the fifth street on your left. Here’s what it looks like from Fordyce Street. I was happy to find it filled with interesting sights in its one block length. At the end of the street is a large open field. I expect Old Willow Lane will be much longer someday when that field is developed for housing.

field at the end of Old Willow Lane
Old Willow Lane ends in this large field. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Big truck on small street

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Here is the roof truss delivery truck that caught my eye. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

As I walked the street in October 2020, the first thing that caught my eye was a truck filled with prefab roof trusses. The truck was delivering to a house under construction near the end of the street. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
On the right is the house being constructed, waiting for a roof. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

As you can see from the photos, Old Willow Lane is lined with street trees. The truck driver faced a challenge – how to lift the trusses to the house construction site without damaging any street trees. Before I finished walking the street, he had figured it out. His first roof truss lift is shown in the photo below.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
An impressive lift, on a smoky day. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Old Willow Lane
A week later, the roof trusses are on the house – and the sky is blue. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Signs of the times

I keep my eye out for yard signs as I walk Ashland’s neighborhoods. Many are copies of the same popular signs. Sometimes I find a sign that is home made and unique. This house has a combination of both kinds of “Science is Real” signs.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
“Science is Real.” (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)
Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Purchased sign and home made sign make the same point. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Yard art variety

Ashland is full of creative people. Some show and share their creativity in front yard art. This is a good reason to have a camera at the ready on your walks. Old Willow Lane is especially rich in yard art for being only one block long.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, rock mosaic
Overview of the rock art mosaics. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

You won’t miss this one if you are walking on the sidewalk. It is mosaic art, all done with colored pebbles. Each of the three designs is subtle, balanced and beautiful.  Below are close-up photos of the three designs.

rock mosaic, Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Old Willow Lane, Ashland, rock mosaic
rock mosaic, Old Willow Lane, Ashland

I did a double-take as I approached 1269 Old Willow Lane. I have seen many Canada geese flying over town and I was momentarily fooled. 

Old Willow Lane
Are Canada geese visiting this neighborhood? (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

I love this metal art and stone front yard at the end of the street. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Yard art on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Gate and tree

I found one unique and interesting gate on Old Willow Lane. I haven’t noticed a metal gate like this before.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
Unique gate on Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

One massive tree caught my eye and seemed worth sharing with you. 

Old Willow Lane, Ashland
This is a beautifully proportioned tree. (photo by Peter Finkle)

End of street

There is a large field at the end of Old Willow Lane. All I see there is an unusual small barn (pictured). It will be interesting to see what kind of housing develops here in the future.

barn
This is the barn visible at the end of Old Willow Lane. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

I noticed a short path at the end of the street, so of course I followed it to see where it leads. It is a pedestrian shortcut to Village Park Drive and another neighborhood.

path
Path between Old Willow Lane and Village Park Drive. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Photographic highlight

Walking the short path, one sight caught my eye. Rough, wavy, golden wood grain, black knothole, delicate pink flower on a slender stem, all adds up to a photographer’s dream. Here it is for you.

Old Willow Lane, Ashland, flower
My artistic photo for the day. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Old Willow Lane is one of many short, quiet streets off Fordyce Street. I will have an exciting article about Fordyce Street for you soon.

“Water is Life” – Mosaic Art on the Bandersnatch Trail

Karen Rycheck’s amazing artistic journey.
Honoring watershed animals.
29 photos!
Artist: Karen Rycheck.
Ashland Public Art series.

“In this sculpture, I was trying to make people aware of all the life that is supported by the Ashland watershed; how important it is to keep it clean, not just for our use but also for the wildlife in the area.” 

Karen Rycheck

Try the Bandersnatch Trail art walk

“Water is Life” is a dramatic sight as you ascend the Bandersnatch trail from Lithia Park up the hill toward the Siskiyou Mountains. It is the third, largest, and most complex sculpture you will see on this art walk. If you don’t know the Bandersnatch trail, I give instructions to the trail at the end of this article.

Water is Life on the Bandersnatch Trail in Ashland. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“When did you first create art?”

Artist Karen Rycheck replied: “I’d say before pre-school. I started taking art classes when I was five with the local art association. My dad was instrumental in that, because he was an amateur photographer.” In her Oklahoma K – 12 schools, she didn’t get much support for art. For example, the art teacher was a football coach and they had to bring their own art supplies from home. 

During her high school years, she thought she would become an architect. Jon Keith Swindell, a professor and mentor at University of Kansas, inspired her to pursue fine art. She also pursued furniture making for a while.    

“How did you become a mosaic artist?”

Karen’s response turned into a fascinating story. “I kind of fell into mosaic art,” she told me. “There was a guy in St. Louis who was a sculptor. He was also a real estate mogul, which is how he supported being an artist. He would buy up old buildings, rehab them and flip them. In the process, he bought a 10-story building that had been vacant for a long time.” The photo below shows the 10-story building after he developed it into a museum.

St. Louis City Museum
Exterior of the St. Louis City Museum. Notice the full size school bus “driving” off the roof. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I interrupt the story of Karen’s artistic journey for a brief description of this no-longer-vacant building from the City Museum website: “Housed in the 10-story, 600,000 square-foot warehouse of the International Shoe Company, City Museum is a mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of found and repurposed objects. The brainchild of internationally-acclaimed artist Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor, City Museum opened for visitors in 1997.” I looked at the website and wished I could transport myself to St. Louis to see the astounding place they have created. If you want to see it, including a drone video tour, here is the link: https://www.citymuseum.org

In Karen’s words, “He turned the building into a huge art experience. People started donating materials to him. A large donation came from a ceramic factory in Oklahoma, which donated two full truckloads of tile, seconds from the factory, all different colors and shapes and sizes.” What to do with them? The warehouse floors were cement, like a parking garage. Cassilly decided to mosaic the huge expanses of floors, thousands of square feet. Initially a couple women with some ceramic tile experience began laying the donated tile on the floors, a little each day. 

St. Louis City Museum
Intricate mosaics at the St. Louis City Museum. (photo from St. Louis City Museum website)

This brings the story back to Karen Rycheck. One day in 1997 she was waiting by the elevator to go to an upper floor and paint the ceiling. Cassilly saw her there and said, “Hey, have you ever done this mosaic thing?” Rycheck replied, “No, but it looks really cool. I’d like to try it.” He said, “Then go over there, where they are laying tile.” And for the next year and a half she laid mosaic tile every day, 8 to 12 hours a day. It was an intense learning-on-the-job experience, and she has loved working with mosaic tile ever since.

That brings us to Karen’s creative mosaic sculpture called Water is Life.

How “Water is Life” was chosen for this site

Karen submitted a design idea to the Watershed Art Group for a sculptural mosaic piece. She highlighted flora and fauna that are present in the Ashland watershed, especially animals and plants that people might not notice. Her proposal was accepted and she built the piece over the next year or so.

“I like to look at the big picture, and also focus on the tiny little critters and plants that we take for granted or don’t even know are there.”  

Karen Rycheck

This was only Karen’s second sculptural mosaic artwork! Her first sculptural piece, a reclining nude made in 2010 or 2011, is displayed at Paschal Winery in Talent (and is for sale). 

Karen and her “Reclining Nude” mosaic tile sculpture.

Meaning of the sculpture

I asked Karen about the overall meaning of the Water is Life sculpture. She replied, “I was trying to make people aware of all the life that is supported by the Ashland watershed; how important it is to keep it clean, not just for our use but also for the wildlife in the area. [The watershed] supports a lot of plants and animals, many of which are not found anywhere else in the United States. The Siskiyou region is a really unique area biologically, so protecting the land here is really important.” 

Each of the four levels of the sculpture depicts different plants and animals. Let’s learn in Karen Rycheck’s own words what she portrays in each level, starting with the bottom.

Bottom (first) level

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Water is Life, bottom (first) level. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

“The bottom layer is imagery of the forests and mountains. I moved here from the Midwest, the flatlands. We went to the mountains on family vacations. That’s where my love of the mountains originated, so I wanted to have that as a base.”

The bottom level shows the Ashland watershed’s “greater ecosystem, a forested mountainous area.”   

Second level

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Salamander on level 2 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

This level honors small, ground-dwelling creatures in the watershed. The small native salamanders live in moist areas near streams. Karen: “They tend to hide out so you’re not likely to see them unless you are looking for them, and that’s one reason I wanted to bring some attention to them. They are dependent on moisture and plant life in the area.” 

Notice the variety of plants in the mosaic design around the salamander. Karen took walks in the area where her sculpture was going to be installed. She found local plants to feature. Near the salamander’s head is a small, easily overlooked native flowering plant with tiny purple blooms. Above the salamander is a fern and by its tail another local plant. The green tiles below the salamander represent the mosses in its habitat.

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Rough-skinned Newt on level 2 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

On the other side of the second level is a rough-skinned newt, another animal in the watershed. Karen explained that “They have a pebbly-textured skin, so I found some tile that had a lot of texture to it.” You can see the texture difference in the photo and feel it on the sculpture.

Delightful details — notice the pebbles

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Notice the pebbles the artist found in Ashland Creek and incorporated into her sculpture that honors the Ashland Watershed, its animals and its plants. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Here’s why I like to talk with the artist, when possible. I didn’t notice this detail when I viewed the sculpture. I didn’t even notice this detail as I looked at my photo of the salamander on the second level of the sculpture. 

Take a look at the salamander’s front foot. What is it resting on? Those are not mosaic tiles. Those are pebbles that Karen picked up in Ashland Creek! This truly gives her mosaic creation a sense of place. 

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Notice the pebbles from Ashland Creek making up the “creek bed” on level 3 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

Again, look for the pebbles in this detail photo from the third level. The third level features fish amidst the flowing multi-colored blue hues of river water. What is below the water, in the real world and in the sculpture? Pebbles in the creek, and from the creek. I love that creative touch. Learning that little detail helps me appreciate the entire piece even more.

More delightful details — notice the plant leaves

Each of the small ceramic tiles needs to be cut to shape. This is much more challenging in a rounded mosaic artwork like Water is Life than in a flat mosaic. Now look closely at the leaves next to the salamander and the newt on the second level. Unlike all of the other tiles, which have smooth edges, many of the leaves have serrated edges. 

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Detail showing the serrated plant leaves on level 2 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

I asked Karen how she could add that kind of detail to hard ceramic tiles. She explained that most of her tiles with smooth edges are hand cut. However, to create the serrated leaf shapes she needed to use a tile “wet saw,” which has a diamond-encrusted grinding blade. In fact, she had to use different kinds of wet saws to give the leaves their individual details. I haven’t counted the leaves, but that’s a lot of individual serrated leaf creation. 

Third level

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
Level 3 of Water is Life contains stylized steelhead or salmon. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

A variety of blue-themed shapes, colors and sizes of tiles make up the flowing stream in which the stylized steelhead or salmon are swimming.

Back to details, notice how many tiles shaped as small scales are on each fish. “Each of those little tiles I shaped like scales was hand cut and then ground on a glass grinder to shape the curve better.” Karen added, “At the time I was doing this, my dad was in the hospital. I would go to the hospital with my tile and my nippers and a clear plastic bag. I would sit there and I would nip the fish scales by his bedside. It was my therapy as I was there with him.”  

Fourth (and top) level

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
The Bald Eagle is soaring on level 4 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

This is the level of sky and birds. The Bald eagle is soaring above (and within) a green forest in a blue, cloud-filled sky. 

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
One of Karen Rycheck’s favorite local birds is the Spotted Towhee, here on level 4 of Water is Life. (photo by Peter Finkle, 2020)

On the other side is a Spotted towhee, a favorite of Karen’s and one of the common birds of the Rogue Valley and Ashland watershed. 

How Water is Life was made

I was surprised when Karen told me that the core of each sculptural level was made of 2” or 3” thick insulation foam board laminated together. I had assumed the cores would be made of concrete, but that would have made them much too heavy for a four-level sculpture at this location. The recycled foam board was much lighter than a concrete core would be, and she could hand carve it to just the right boulder shapes. Karen told me insulation foam board is used a lot in creating theater and movie sets. 

Water is Life by Karen Rycheck
“Boulder” base made of foam board. (photo by Karen Rycheck)

The ceramic tiles were attached to fiberglass mesh, which was attached to the foam board base with Thinset cement.  

Here is the bottom level showing tiles attached to fiberglass mesh. (photo by Karen Rycheck)

Each tile was attached individually, glued on with Thinset, a special type of mortar made for attaching ceramic tile. Early in the process, Karen created drawings and a small model of the sculpture. For the flatter areas of each level, she was able to transfer her drawings to the concrete as a guide for placing the tiles. The curved areas were much more challenging and often required cutting tile pieces smaller to make them fit. 

You can see four real rocks in between the mosaic “boulder” layers. She got these rocks at Leave Your Mark in Phoenix. They were kind enough to drill holes through the rocks for her. A long steel rod holds the levels together and anchors them to the concrete base.

Ashland Parks Department staff assisted with Water is Life installation in early 2018. (photo by Karen Rycheck, 2018)

The levels of Water is Life were assembled on site with the help of Parks Department staff. Karen is very grateful for their help!

Ashland Parks Department staff who helped Karen install Water is Life. (photo by Karen Rycheck, 2018)

Water is Life dedication

A dedication had been planned for early 2018, but it was rained out. Karen laughed as she told me a few people showed up anyway, so there was an informal ceremony in the rain. Except that Karen wasn’t there because she had been told it was cancelled!

Water is Life
Karen Rycheck (on the left) and Stef Seffinger of the Watershed Art Group at the formal dedication. (photo provided by Stef Seffinger)

Fortunately, later there was a formal dedication on a sunny day in September 2018. It was held the same day as the dedication of the nearby sculpture “Elevation,” by Cheryl Garcia.

Other artwork by Karen Rycheck

“I love public art. I love the idea of art being free to everybody. I know that there are a lot of people who never get to go to museums, so I like that they can live with it in their community.”  

Karen Rycheck

Karen makes both private commissions and public artworks. As you can tell from the quote above, she loves to create public art, especially in collaboration with others. See examples below of both public and private pieces she has created.

Talent Bee City U.S.A. mosaic

This community mosaic was designed by Karen Rycheck. (photo by Karen Rycheck)
Detail of the Talent Bee City U.S.A. mosaic. (photo by Karen Rycheck)

Karen initiated and designed this stunning 32′ long mosaic for the City of Talent, Oregon. This mosaic flower garden was once a blank cement wall at the base of a stage that is used for music during the Harvest Festival and other gatherings. Karen told me, “People sat there facing the blank wall and I thought it needed to be brightened up.”

She took her idea to the Talent Public Arts Committee, which loved it of course. They presented it to the Talent City Council, where it was approved.

Karen explained the purpose behind this mosaic. “We tried to focus on plants that were host plants for pollinators in the valley, some native, some non-native. We wanted it to be educational, so people could see what kinds of flowers people could plant in their yards to attract pollinators. It’s around the corner from the Pollinator Garden in front of Talent’s City Hall building.”

This is truly “public art,” as over 100 community members worked on the mosaic with her. Following training by Karen, the individual flowers were initially laid out on fiberglass mesh by many different people. Then Karen put them together in the overall design. The mosaic was dedicated on June 22, 2019 after about a year and a half of community creativity.

“Home of the year” in St. louis

Cover of St. Louis Homes + Lifestyles magazine, 2000.

In the year 2000, this house won the “Home of the Year” award given by St. Louis Homes + Lifestyles magazine. All it takes is a brief glance to see how stunning it is. Using plaster, Karen crafted the snake that surrounds the kitchen entry. Wow! Those are seashells circling the snake.

Karen, Red Keel and one other woman designed and laid the ceramic tile on the floor, kitchen countertops and backsplash.  Following the nature and ocean theme, the floor mosaic is a huge squid.

“mosaic marathon” healthcare mosaic

This mosaic designed by Karen Rycheck (pictured) is at La Clinca Wellness Center in Medford.

This mosaic was created during an Ashland conference put on by the Contemporary Mosaic Artists organization in 2015. Karen designed it, but it was put together by attendees of the conference during a “mosaic marathon.”

Tiles for this project were provided by a Los Angeles group called “Piece by Piece.” Karen worked closely with Dawn Mendelson, the Managing Director of the organization. Since 2007, their mission has been to “provide low-income and formerly homeless people free mosaic art workshops using recycled materials to develop marketable skills, self-confidence, earned income and an improved quality of life.” I looked at their website and was very impressed. Here is a link if you’d like to learn more. https://www.piecebypiece.org

This circular mosaic hangs at La Clinica Wellness Center in Medford. When Karen told me that, I immediately thought of Jeremy Criswell and his mentor Lilli Ann Rosenberg. Mosaic artworks by Jeremy and Lilli Ann are also in La Clinica buildings. At the end of this article, you will find a link to the article about Pacific Fisher, Jeremy’s public art sculpture that is also on the Bandersnatch trail.

How to find “Water is Life” on the Bandersnatch trail

Just above Lithia Park, the Bandersnatch trail is one of the easiest Ashland trails to access. It begins near the swimming hole on Ashland Creek. If you are driving or biking, take Granite Street south to the swimming hole, then turn left on Glenview Drive.

Glenview Drive, Ashland

After a short distance, you’ll see a parking area on the right that can accommodate about eight cars, followed by a larger parking area on the left. If you are in a car, park here.

Ashland trails

Near the smaller parking area is a sign that says, “Waterline Trail” and “To Bandersnatch Trail 820′.” 

Keep an eye out for mountain bikers zooming by in this section of the trail because this section is a multi-use trail. When you reach the Bandersnatch trail, it will be only for pedestrians and equestrians.

Ashland trails

You’ll know you are heading the right way if you pass this gate and sign.

You will reach the Elevation sculpture about 1/10 of a mile from the parking lot, while you are still on the Waterline trail. Next to Elevation is another sign pointing to the beginning of the Bandersnatch trail.

Ashland trails

When you see the Bandersnatch trail sign, head uphill a short distance to see the other two sculptures on this art walk: Pacific Fisher and Water is Life.

Built in 2012 for walkers and equestrians, Bandersnatch trail is 1.7 miles long and intersects multiple trails, so you can hike in a loop or just go straight up and back. 

Ashland Public Art series – Links to other articles

Elevation by Cheryl Garcia

Pacific Fisher by Jeremy Criswell

Street Scene by Marion Young

References:

Anon. City Museum website.
https://www.citymuseum.org

Rycheck, Karen. Interview and communications, August and September 2020.
Karen Rycheck kindly shared some of her personal photos with me for the article.

Seffinger, Stef. Interview and communications, August 2020.