One-on-one with mosaic tile artist Mercedes Austin
The owner of Mercury Mosaics in Minneapolis, MN, discusses with Contemporary Stone & Tile Design how she got into the mosaic tile art business and what inspires her designs.
Contemporary Stone & Tile Design magazine had the opportunity to talk with Mercury Mosaics owner Mercedes Austin about her 20 years of experience, how she got started and some of the experiences she has had working with customers.
For those out there who don’t know who you are, talk a bit about your background and how you got where you are today.
MA: Mercury Mosaics came about because I was aiming to create a “day job” for myself related to my art. This started to brew about 20 years ago and I was told that you can’t make a living creating art. This really just set the tone for my drive to solve the problem.
I knew a lot of creatives doing their art as an activity, but nothing close to supporting themselves fully, along with their lifestyle. It became my mission to be the artist I wish to see in the world. At my first few shows, however, it became a huge wake-up call that I couldn’t just arrive to shows and venues with $800 to $5,000 a piece ticket items and nothing else; so what was born out of this were “accessible-accessories” made of tile that were in the $10 to $50 price range, and those were the items that consistently sold. The larger pieces took a bit more elbow-grease to sell. I wasn’t interested in the “feeling I got” when discounting my fine art mosaics just because rent was coming due, so I was constantly intending to solve this and I kept putting more energy into the things that my clients were demanding. I told myself, “The fine art end of this, I’ll come back to this. Let me come up with a supply chain to allow me to make mosaics using only handmade tiles created by me.” Seventeen years later, here I am/we are!
How did you first develop an interest in doing mosaic tile art?
MA: You could say it stopped me in my tracks. My college roommate was covering an old coffee table in tile and she had gotten the tile materials from a hardware store — nothing fancy. The concept of it totally took me by surprise and I became so interested in it I starting noticing mosaic and tile in places I had been to multiple times. I just had a new awareness and appreciation for it. I call it “tile radar” or “mosaic lenses,” and I couldn’t turn it off. Still true today, I yield to it now.
What were some of your first design experiences as a professional or as a student?
MA: I found this local “mom & pop” shop making tile and the first thing I did was buy a variety of their remnants and I went home and just assembled and installed a mosaic coffee table of my own and I formed the pattern after an aerial view of a French garden. Who wouldn’t do this for their first mosaic?! Needless to say, I was hooked, and I immediately saw the difference that materials made in the look of a finished mosaic design. I decided that I had to have control over the materials used to make a mosaic. This, then, made the price I had to charge for the mosaic higher, which became a whole new lesson that I’m still learning to this day.
How would you describe your company’s design philosophy?
MA: We like to take very common shapes and compose them in color or pattern arrangements that are personalized to each person’s space. We are very collaborative with our clients, and it’s with this partnership that our best work has been done. Think of our design as a relationship to the end user and the end space and the process as a dialogue. With each conversation, we get closer and closer to the final composition, and along the way, we create excitement, great organization and a level of craftsmanship that’s present throughout each person that touches the project, including the client — they’re a very important part. It’s not just about us. It’s mostly about the client. That’s why we’re here – to bring beauty to the world and share it through tile.
What’s a project that you have done with tile that you’re proud of?
MA: There are so many, but I’m going to pick one that just captivated me about two hours ago! I’m so proud of it — thrilled with the results — and just blown away at how I’m going to be able to experience it. Backstory of the project: it’s in a wedding venue that just opened. The space is called Pinewood and the whole concept of the space is to create a magical experience from the moment the person walks out of their car to the small walk along a trail to the two-story vaulted space you enter, filled with natural light. This is where you’ll exchange vows and create those memories with your loved ones for the rest of your life. Where Mercury Mosaics comes into play is in the entry. Covering 14 feet of height of cascading green tiles and hand-built platers filling a jaw-dropping expanse of space with stunning texture pulling the feeling of nature right in the interior.
Acknowledging that Pinewood is located in Minnesota and winter is a very colorless season, this green tile backdrop will be a very welcome-hue in the dead of the winter months. Now, with this said, the feeling of seeing this project is magical, because it seems like since it was finished about a month ago, we’re graced with seeing the tile through a talented photographer’s eyes every other day. For me, this is like tile-thanksgiving and it fills me with gratitude each time I see it, because I know there we are: in the backdrop of your life, or your friend’s life – adding beauty one tile at a time. In this case, with several Large Hexagons, many Medium Diamonds and dashes of our hand-built ceramic planters.
What adhesives or tile accessories do you use for your Mercury Mosaics tile?
MA: I don’t have a big opinion on adhesives, but for grout we prefer Laticrete’s Perma Color Select and for edge-finishing, when we’re not using our own ceramic trim, we love Schluter’s options.
What advice would you offer to a young potential tile artist?
MA: I will keep it simple, because this quote has truly resonated for me, and it’s from the incredibly wise Julia Child, “Find something you’re passionate about and stay tremendously interested in it.” I like this advice, because it’s so widely applicable and having a passion for the profession you go after is key. With this, everything else follows. So, be daring and give yourself the gift of learning and listening to what makes you happy and go fight to have more of it.
What are some trends you are seeing out there right now with tile?
MA: With tile, I really don’t love mixing the term trend with it, since it’s a permanent building material. With this being said, however, the trend that I’m seeing and the future we’re moving into is all about curating a space filled with meaningful materials, palettes that make the space happy and less emphasis on budget. We’re being flocked by clients around the country and at times, the world, to help them solve design-challenges in their space and come up with something they want to live with, joyfully, for many years to come. Many times, they’re inspired by a life-changing trip, something incredibly vibrant they’ve seen or they’re just ready to do something in tile that’s meaningful – they want an artist’s touch.
Anything else you want to mention?
MA: Yes. This market that I speak of above, it didn’t exist when I started 20 years ago. So one more piece of advice for people is to never underestimate the power of one person’s dreams and ambitions to shape an entire industry. Artists and their ideas and vision are such important drivers to shaping cultures and inspiring change. Be brave, prepare to work hard, stay humble and you’ll find you’re so busy looking ahead, creating the future than dwelling on the past and wasting energy on regret.