Karen Rycheck’s amazing artistic journey.
Honoring watershed animals.
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.
“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.
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.
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).
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
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The ceramic tiles were attached to fiberglass mesh, which was attached to the foam board base with Thinset cement.
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.
The levels of Water is Life were assembled on site with the help of Parks Department staff. Karen is very grateful for their help!
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!
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Anon. City Museum website.
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.