A river of mosaic tile.
Rio Amistad = River of Friendship.
Art on the Calle Guanajuato stairway.
Artist: Sue Springer.
Ashland Public Art series.
“The Rio Amistad project was just the beginning of an important transition toward recognizing the importance of public art in our community.”Sue Springer
Origin of the “Rio Amistad” mosaic
Following the flood of New Year’s Day 1997, the Calle Guanajuato corridor required extensive rebuilding. After years of work, the improved flow of Ashland Creek through downtown reduced (but did not eliminate) the danger of another flood damaging Plaza buildings. The redesign also had the goal of making the new pathways and vegetation more park-like and pedestrian friendly. As the Calle Guanajuato stairway was repaired, a new Calle Guanajuato overlook was built at the top of the stairway on Granite Street, where High Street ends at Granite.
Ashland residents donated public art to the city as long ago as 1910. However, Ashland did not have a formal public art program until 2002, when the Public Arts Commission was created. The commission identified the overlook above Calle Guanajuato as a good spot for an artwork. In 2005, the Rio Amistad mosaic was the first public artwork installed after the creation of the Public Arts Commission.
As she participated in the dialog for what might go there, Sue Springer knew she wanted to incorporate a water theme and also honor Ashland’s sister city relationship with the Mexican city of Guanajuato. In her 2004 proposal for the artwork, she wrote: “I propose creating and installing a ceramic mosaic ‘river’ that would flow through the overlook area in a circular pattern. The ‘creek bed’ itself would be comprised of ceramic mosaic in shades of dark blue to dark grey to represent water.” Her idea was to “honor the natural flora and fauna of Ashland, Oregon and also of Guanajuato, Mexico,” as will be described in more detail below.
Sister Cities: Ashland and Guanajuato
“The visionary behind the ties between the two cities is known in Guanajuato and Ashland as Señora Chela, a professor emerita of foreign languages and literature at Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University—SOU) who saw similarities between the two cities, including impressive mountain settings, rich cultural legacies and top-notch theater.”Ashland Amigo Club website
The sister cities of Ashland and Guanajuato share much in common. Both are university towns. Founded in 1732, the University of Guanajuato has nearly 34,000 students on multiple campuses within the state of Guanajuato. Southern Oregon University traces its roots to 1872 and currently has about 6,200 students. With student exchange programs between the two campuses since 1969, “more than 1,000 students, faculty members and others have participated in exchange programs and some families have been involved for three generations. More than 80 marriages have united partners from Ashland and Guanajuato.” [SOU 3/26/2019]
Both cities are cultural centers. “Guanajuato’s counterpart to Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) is the International Cervantes Festival (Festival Internacional Cervantino), an annual three-week celebration that features artists from around the world. The festival is considered one of Latin America’s most important cultural events, just as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is one of the most prestigious regional theaters in the United States.” [Ashland Amigo Club website]
Both cities have a history of downtown flooding. The river that flows through Guanajuato flooded the growing town periodically in the 1700s and 1800s. The solution was a network of tunnels. “The longest of the tunnels, the “Túnel La Galereña”, was originally excavated in the early 19th century to divert the “Rio Guanajuato” (Guanajuato River) that flowed through the heart of the city. The diversion was required during the wet season, around August, as the river commonly swelled and caused significant flooding. The tunnel was blasted out using dynamite, using the skills and expertise mastered during the many years of mining operations. The river diversion prevented flooding in Guanajuato since the construction.” [from guanajuatomexicocity.com]
After dams were built on the Rio Guanajuato in the 1960s, the long tunnels beneath the city were converted to roadways for cars and buses.
The sister city relationship began formally in 1969 with student exchanges between the two universities. Large celebrations were held in both cities in 2019 for the 50th anniversary of the strong sister city bond.
Rio Amistad’s similarity to other Ashland public art
Sue’s proposal reminds me of other public artworks in town. I recently wrote articles about the three public art sculptures on Bandersnatch Trail, located in the Ashland watershed just above Lithia Park. All three honor the flora and fauna of the watershed. Through that theme, they aim to remind trail hikers of the watershed’s value for Ashland’s past, present and future.
This similarity with Rio Amistad’s theme becomes clearer when you learn that Sue Springer, along with Stef Seffinger and Pam Marsh, led the effort to place the Bandersnatch trail sculptures.
Rogue Valley creatures, with a twist
Sue incorporates local Rogue Valley creatures, but with a twist. As she wrote in her proposal, “Appearing intermittently in and along the ‘water’ would be the plants and animals that inhabit the Ashland Creek drainage. The animals and plants would be depicted in the rich tradition of Mexican design, in honor of Ashland’s ties to our sister city, Guanajuato.” Here again is the two-fold concept embodied in this artwork: our relationship with nature and our relationship with our sister city Guanajuato. This concept grew to represent a “river of friendship” – “Rio Amistad” in Spanish, as the artwork was named.
Building the mosaic begins with clay
The first step is making the ceramic tiles, each one hand-made.
The process starts with about 300 pounds of clay mixed with 150 pounds of water in a big industrial mixer. When the clay is the right texture, it gets rolled into slabs. The thickness is critical. Each slab has to be rolled to the right thickness for the project. Since clay shrinks as it dries, that has to be accounted for.
Any detail work or patterns added to the tiles is done on the clay before it dries. With an animal, the design is drawn on paper first, which is laid over the fresh, wet clay. The thin clay is cut into sections following the lines of the drawing. For larger animals or designs, all the pieces are numbered on the back, following a complex system, in order to put them back together in the design later in the process.
For the textured pieces and tiny animals and plants seen in pieces of tile, the design is pressed into damp clay before the first firing.
Heat and more heat – 1,800° and 2,200°
These damp tiles get fired in the kiln for the first time, at about 1,800° F. At this point, when the clay is hard but slightly porous, it is colored or glazed. The glaze base is generally made of silica-alumina.
As a color example, look at the blue “river water” in Rio Amistad. The tiles are darker blue through the center of the “river” and lighter blue towards the edges. Adding cobalt to the glaze gives the color blue in ceramic tiles. The darker blue tiles have more cobalt, the lighter blue tiles have less.
Glazed tiles are fired in the kiln for a second time. This one is an even higher temperature, almost 2,200° F. The second firing brings the color out as the glaze and the clay merge together. It also makes the clay extremely hard and tight (no longer porous). For the larger slabs, you take a hammer to them at this point and break them up.
The finished tiles were organized in the studio, where they made panels of mosaic tiles, each roughly three or four feet in length and width. Within each panel, most of the tiles were attached to tile-setting mesh using thin-set cement. However, in spots where panels met or where tiles curved, tiles were cemented on site. This involved more numbering, mapping and keeping track of hundreds of small pieces!
Here’s what you see
Sue hopes that each time you walk by Rio Amistad, “you will slow down and see something you haven’t seen before.”
Since the flowing lines of the mosaic represent a river, local river animals predominate. The largest animals depicted are herons and steelhead.
Smaller river critters include turtle, snake and salamander. But that’s not all. Sue told me her goal was to engage people, so “we put all sorts of little surprises in it.” This is a busy stairway that people use to walk from Granite Street and north-west of the Plaza into the Plaza and Lithia Park area. Therefore, many people walk by, or even walk right over, the Rio Amistad artwork multiple times each week. With so much detail in the mosaic, Sue hopes that you will stop and see something new each time you walk by.
There is plenty to see as you stop to view the mosaic. It ended up covering about 320 square feet of the overlook. In that 320 square feet, there are hundreds of tiles imprinted with tiny animals, plants and motifs. As she was designing and making the mosaic, she thought, “What is going to have meaning for the people who are going to interact with it?”
Notice the variety of tile colors, shapes, designs and textures. I didn’t realize until talking with Sue that the textured tiles have a purpose other than visual interest. They are scattered throughout the mosaic for safety, to reduce the chance of anyone slipping. Also notice the tiles along the border of the mosaic river. Their design is hand-pressed, based on a classic Mexican water movement motif.
If you have are familiar with Rio Amistad, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why hasn’t he mentioned the frogs?” Here you go. Sue explained, “Those frogs that are in the mosaic, those odd-looking frogs, they are pre-Columbian frogs. Guanajuato is known as ‘the city of frogs.’ They have frogs everywhere.”
The story goes that the name “Guanajuato” comes from an indigenous language that described the area as “hilly place of frogs.” The frogs in Rio Amistad honor the people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived.
The Rio Amistad team
This was a big tile project, so Sue had three or four people working on it with her. She said, “I had a great crew. I think we had two weeks to set the tiles in site.” Her primary helper for Rio Amistad was Karen Rycheck, who was working for Sue’s company Illahe Tileworks at that time.
Karen was already a talented mosaic artist. According to Sue, she did a huge amount of the work on this project and a few others. In addition, Karen did a lot of the design work for the tile blocks prepared on tabletops at the studio. You will find a link to Karen’s own public artwork in Ashland, called “Water is Life,” at the end of this article.
Dedication on November 4, 2005
It was raining the last few days before dedication was scheduled. The team was on the homestretch of completing the mosaic, but working in the rain slowed everything down. They set up tents and tarps over the work site so they could continue laying tile. Sue laughed as she told me they had to keep pushing the water off the tarps as it collected above them, so it wouldn’t come pouring down on their heads.
Finishing went down to the wire. According to Sue, “We literally were still grouting and trying to clean it up the morning of the dedication. The dedication, as I recall, was at 1:00 in the afternoon. We got it all finished, tarps removed, all cleaned up — just in time. With the dedication planned for 1:00, at about 12:45 the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was perfect timing.”
Sue Springer’s artistic journey
Art was not encouraged in Sue’s family or in her schools as she grew up. Her B.A. college degree was in foreign language and education. Years later when she lived in Portland, she worked a variety of jobs, including restaurant work. It was here that she first took pottery-throwing classes about 1971 and began to experiment with making pottery at home. She learned to love clay. Her passion grew into a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Oregon and a small business that through the years became a larger business.
From 1979 to 1992, her home and studio were in the tiny town of Illahe, Oregon. Illahe is located within the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest about 43 miles up the Rogue River from Gold Beach. The name Illahe “derives from the Chinook Jargon word ilahekh or iliʼi, meaning “land”, “earth” or “country.” [McArthur 2003]
“Illahe” may sound familiar to you, even if haven’t heard of the town. Sue owned Illahe Tileworks in Ashland for about 25 years. For years she owned a tile factory and warehouse on Mistletoe Road. She also opened a showroom and gallery at 4th and B Streets, which my wife and I visited many times to see the beautiful tiles displayed there. In addition to selling custom made tile to high end tile shops nationwide, Illahe Tileworks had public and private art installations throughout the Rogue Valley and Oregon.
In 2015, Sue closed the Illahe Gallery in Ashland so that she could move to Seattle and be closer to her daughters and a grand-daughter who live there. She was also ready to retire from the grueling work of owning and managing a store and factory, while trying to make art a profitable business. Sue described the life of an artist as a constant balancing act, creating the art that you want to create, while also creating art that people want to pay for, so you have money for food, housing, clothing for your children, employee salaries, business rent, workers comp and unemployment insurance, electric bills and so much more.
She has now retired from running a factory, but she has not retired from being creative. Her new work, as of 2020, features whimsical hand built ceramic sculptures that speak to the challenges of our time. If you’d like to see what she is creating now, this page on her website shows many of her new pieces.
Value of public art
“A lot of people think art is not important, it’s just for beautification. I think it says a whole lot more. So my goal is to always listen to my client, which in the case of Rio Amistad was the City of Ashland.”Sue Springer
Created in 2002, Ashland’s Public Arts Commission is relatively young. Rio Amistad was the first installation of the new commission. Sue Springer wrote: “The Rio Amistad project was just the beginning of an important transition toward recognizing the importance of public art in our community. Public art, by its very nature, is artwork created for everyone – from the very young to the very old and everyone in between. It is accessible. And it’s something that everyone in the community can feel ownership in.”
When I talked with Sue, she took the idea of public art way back in time. “Public art reflects the community in a number of different ways. It goes all the way back to cave paintings. People felt the importance of telling stories very early in human civilization.” In late Middle Ages Europe, you could think of gothic churches as public art telling stories of those communities.
Art is most often thought of these days as something people have in their homes, or something that lives in museums. Sue wants us to expand our conception of art to include community. “I think there’s a real value in drawing people together and saying, ‘this is what we are about, this is what we think is important.’ As our culture gets more homogenous, it’s harder to express our specific community stories. Because of this, I always had a practice of going to whatever group commissioned the artwork, whether it be a hospital, a municipality or an organization. I would try to understand what they were about.”
Involving the community in the creation of a piece of public art can help the artwork have more meaning to the community. When Sue led the creation of the “Peace Fence” artwork in front of the public library, it was almost all done by community volunteers, including many elementary school students and their teachers. “I think that if a kid comes in when they’re seven and they see this project being made in their home town, when they grow up and they have kids of their own, that artwork means a lot more to them than if it just appeared out of thin air.”
Good public art connects people with their own memories and with each other. Mosaic art is also about connections, Sue explained. “All these bits of tile are put together to make a whole. My goal is to have someone be able to access the public art, and to have something in that piece mean something to them, beyond ‘it’s a pretty picture.’”
Some comments on designing and building public art
Designing a public artwork involves a lot more than just the art itself. The artist takes the location into account, and so much more. Sue appreciated the help she needed and got from the City of Ashland Public Works staff as she designed and built Rio Amistad. Here are a few of the planning factors Sue described to me.
Freeze-thaw: As described in Sue’s proposal: “The ceramic elements used to create this celebratory art would be designed and fabricated in the Ashland production studio of Illahe Tileworks, and would be made from high fired stoneware clay. This clay has been developed to withstand wide variations in temperature and humidity in exterior locations. It has been specifically tested to withstand the freeze/thaw cycles particular to Ashland.”
Water run-off: Since this mosaic is on the ground, it had to be designed and built so that water would run off of it.
Level ground: You will notice that the mosaic is level with the surrounding sidewalk. The concrete sidewalk construction crew worked with Sue to make that happen. Plywood in the shape of the mosaic was laid over the overlook site’s graded dirt. The concrete sidewalk was poured up to the edge of the plywood, leaving room for the mosaic tiles to be laid flush with the sidewalk.
Earthquake or earth movement:
Concrete naturally expands and contracts over time, especially in an outdoor setting where it gets wet. If ceramic tile were laid directly on top of concrete sidewalk, the cracking of the concrete would cause the attached tile and grout to crack within a few years. An underlayment product called an “uncoupling membrane” stops that from happening. Sue used Ditra brand underlayment for the large Rio Amistad mosaic. She told me, “This photo shows bright orange tile-setting fabric underneath, which keeps everything from shifting in case of earthquake or earth movement.” The design also included an expansion joint, where the mosaic can flex or move when expansion and contraction of the base occurs.
Other artworks by Sue Springer
Sue has a number of artworks in Ashland, including several other mosaics in the city’s public art collection.
One much-loved artwork is the Peace Fence mosaic, a collaborative mosaic installed in front of Ashland Public Library, in which Sue “facilitated other people’s art.”
North Mountain Park is filled with nature, history, and art. Two mosaics at the park show Sue’s commitment to involving the community in creating public art.
“Compass Rose” at North Mountain Park
Compass Rose mosaic is in Ashland’s public art collection, so I will give a brief introduction now, and write a full article about it later. Installed in 2011, Sue designed this colorful story telling mosaic for North Mountain Park. She described it on her website: “The mosaic includes mountains, landmarks and rivers of the surrounding landscape and helps visitors and students alike orient themselves in the natural world.
“A workshop was held at the Nature Center in August of 2011 which allowed community members to make pieces representing plants and animals which were then included in the mosaic.”
Recology Mosaic at North Mountain Park
Recology Ashland hired Sue to create a mosaic that honors recycling efforts in our community. As a result, it is made primarily with recycled materials. This mosaic is a lot of fun to study closely. The round colorful “tiles” are wine bottle bottoms, while other round “tiles” are tin can lids and ends.
The city provided bags of old keys no longer in use. Recology offered old electronics and other recyclables. Sue described old bicycle chains as the “coolest thing ever” when she found a way to incorporate them into the mosaic.
Head on over to North Mountain Park and see what else you can find in the mosaic.
An “art walk” on the Calle Guanajuato stairway
Now take an art walk to the Guanajuato stairway, where you will find Rio Amistad and two other public artworks, Inorganic Compound and Fall Splendor (links to articles below). Read the three articles and then enjoy viewing the three artworks.
Link to the Ashland Public Art Collection web page
Link to Water is Life, public art by Karen Rycheck
Anon. Ashland Amigo Club website. (accessed November 30, 2020)
Anon. “Ashland, SOU mark 50 years of Guanajuato ‘sister’ relationships,” March 26, 2019 Press Release, SOU website. [accessed 11/30/2020]
Anon. “Guanajuato Tunnels.” (website accessed November 12, 2020)
Kitchen, Valerie and Springer, Sue. “Mosaic Public Art Flows through Ashland,” Ashland Magazine, Winter 2006.
McArthur, Lewis A., and McArthur, Lewis L. (2003) Oregon Geographic Names, seventh edition. Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press. (accessed on Wikipedia November 19, 2020)
Schluter Systems website, information about Ditra brand. (accessed November 19, 2020)
Springer, Sue. Interview and personal communications, November 2020.
Springer, Sue. Website SueSpringerArt.com. (accessed November 23, 2020)
Springer, Sue. Website SueSpringerSculpture.com. (accessed November 23, 2020)