Karla Christensen’s Mosaic at Revelations: Colorful Art Recycles Local History

Karla Christensen’s mosaic, located on the south wall of Revelations in the alleyway, uses bits of broken pottery, leftover tile, crystals, shells, and other wonderful recycled items. (Photos by Lin Mullenneaux)

I prefer walking the back alleys of Fairfield over city sidewalks each summer because they provide the best view of the annual flower display in my neighbors’ backyards. I love being stopped in my tracks by a bright red heirloom tomato poking through a fence or an enormous cornflower blue hydrangea.

Over the summer, artist Karla Christensen added a unique mosaic garden to the downtown alley that runs east and west between Main and 2nd Streets. You’ll find it on the south exterior wall of Revelations. Revelations was thrilled when Karla approached the family-run cafe after walking around town eyeing each building as a potential canvas for a large public mural.

Karla first fell in love with murals as a child living in Mexico and then more recently while living in Spain and visiting Portugal. Her tile murals and mosaic work have been shown at Revelations and recently sold out at Flying Leap Artspace.

fairfield iowa mosaic, karla christensen, martha sperry, fairfield iowa arts

Karla Christensen (left) had lots of help putting the mosaic together, including from Martha Sperry (right).

The design was inspired by the beautiful gardens Karla enjoyed this summer as she biked and walked around town, “I chose flowers that I see every day in Fairfield: coneflowers, those orange lilies that bloom in every ditch, clematis, the showy red hibiscus that has arrived in recent years, hostas, grass, delphiniums. We’ve been calling it The Winter Garden not because it’s a picture of a winter garden but because in the winter, when our eyes are tired of the black and white world, this mural will provide a splash of botanical color.”

The Winter Garden is completely a volunteer project, made with donated and recycled materials. Karla put an ad in the paper to collect broken china, pottery, and leftover tile and she started visiting people and hearing the stories about their donations. “A couple had their whole china cupboard fall over so they called and I collected the pieces, several potters gave me their less than perfect pieces, the New Sweden Methodist church burned down in June and the only thing that survived was a set of white dishes partially protected by the stairwell. The dishes are just beautiful because the fire provided a crackle glaze in grey and burgundy. I used them throughout the mural and the church members who delivered them said they hadn’t been willing to throw them away, so they thought if they gave them to the mural then they could always visit them. I put in some of my grandmother’s 100-year-old bone china, there are stone pieces from Creative Edge, crystals, shells, geodes, glass gems, glass tiles, ceramic tiles, all kinds of goodies, and all of it donated and recycled.”

Karla and her posse of volunteers spent the summer picking up tile and washing, sorting, breaking, and cutting tessarae (the mosaic pieces). Karla researched methods, worked on the design, and applied for an Iowa Arts Council Mini Grant, used to purchase tools, cement, grout, and a few colors of tile needed for the picture. The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which sponsors the grant, especially liked the community participation aspect of the mural. “I am so fortunate to have the excellent artistic talents of Martha Sperry, Jan Carrey, and Stacey Hurlin during all of the installation, and of Debby Pogel during the research and planning.”

“While three or four of us work on the wall, passersby stop to ask questions, and to participate by cementing pieces on the wall. We let the children and adults pick out a favorite piece from the china pile and cement them to the wall. Some stay and keep working. When we finish many people will be bringing their friends and family to pick out the piece they installed or to point out the location of that special yellow plate with the fish motif that they donated. In that way it is a memory wall.”

The Winter Garden was unveiled to the community by Mayor Ed Malloy on October 1, at the 1st Fridays Artwalk.

Mo Ellis is an artist and freelance writer in Fairfield.