When she first started making her tongue-in-cheek tiles about five years ago, Ellie didn't know if her designs would garner approval or ridicule. The quiet humor of everyday life in the country is captured on the tiles of Ellie Hudovernik of Cascade, Wisc. Ellie is a contemporary version of the old-time artisan and storyteller, spinning her yarns in clay.
''I was afraid people wouldn't understand them,'' she says. But just the opposite happened. ''People gather around the tiles, look at them closely, then usually stand there laughing.'' The stories Ellie's tiles tell are often inspired by everyday occurrences she imaginatively embellishes.
Ellie became interested in tile making after graduating in ceramics from the University of Wisconsin. By adapting what she learned to her own designs, Ellie developed a personal tilemaking process. The procedure starts with the making of tile molds. For each of her designs, she first perfects the scheme on paper, then uses a felt pen to transfer it to a prototype clay slab. She carves the design in relief on the slab with dental tools, then casts the slab in plaster to make a mold.
Once the mold has dried, Ellie begins by tearing clay into bits, then presses the pliable segments into the mold. She uses a leverlike machine to compress the clay tightly into the mold's recessed designs. ''To get clear definition, I carefully put in one layer of clay, press that, then add a second,'' she says. Once completely pressed, the tile is dried for a short while. To release the tile from the mold, she hits the mold's edges solidly with a rubber mallet. Pressed tiles are air-dried for up to two and a half weeks, after which they are fired for the first time. This step, called bisque firing, vitrifies the clay, turning the sand in the clay into glass.
When the tiles cool, the tedious task of hand-painting the designs begins. Ellie paints the center pictorial design first, allowing each color to dry before adding another. Then she paints the border area. This done, she brushes on a glaze and the tiles are fired again.