The Tuilier of Loudoun

For tile artist Joan Gardiner, anything goes.

“I love fun challenges,” says tiler Joan Gardiner, looking up from a set of oversized Van Gogh prints and smiling in anticipation. “And these will be magnificent.” Gardiner is Loudoun County’s most sought after custom tile designer. Here, those who patiently await her orders have one thing in common: an appreciation for “the beauty and irregular imperfections of handcrafted art,” she notes. There is also fun in the collaborative process. “Sometimes they have an image or a theme in mind, but they don’t know how to express it with tiles. I come up with ideas and together we create a design of their own.

For clients Jacqui and Jacob Porter, Gardiner will capture Van Gogh‘s irises in large clay panels for their poolside space in Upperville. Her Tree of Life panel, with birds, already adorns their summer kitchen. Gardiner’s work, which often features foxes, dogs, barn owls and pickup trucks of rural life, “adds warmth and character” to a room, says Jacob.

Unless you’re lucky enough to land an invitation from a landlord, the best place to see Gardiner’s work is in Loudoun’s libraries, schools, and community centers. Her favorite, she says, adorns the teenage room of the Rust Library in Leesburg, where her tiles trace a timeline of historical events with depressed cup tiles highlighting the life of library benefactor AV Symington.

“I was given enormous artistic freedom,” says Gardiner, who considers these works his greatest achievement. “It was a dream experience.”

Chang Liu, director of the Loudoun County Public Library, says she is “a huge fan of Joan’s work”, adding, “I am inspired by her boundless creativity and so proud that we are showcasing her unique tiles, they are truly a focal point of our libraries. .”

Gardiner’s studio, Unison Pottery and Tile, is cluttered with the remnants of his work – a blue and white Delft flower tile here, celadon panels of horses and rabbits there, and hundreds of dusty ceramic molds piled up everywhere.

When designing for herself, Gardiner lets her imagination run wild: a huge clay pterodactyl soars through the ceiling above the fireplace in her home, while a crowd of camera-wielding paparazzi border a shower cubicle.

Gardiner was 22 when she moved to small Unison (population 30) from Washington, D.C. “I wanted a place where I could be around the horses and build an oven.” A dashing neighbor, writer John Rolfe Gardiner, won her heart when he used his carpentry skills to resurrect a dilapidated blacksmith shed on his property. “He gave me a studio for my oven, so I knew I had to marry him,” she laughs.

Before long, Gardiner was making ceramic trays, mugs, soap dishes and teapots. “I’m not enthusiastic about creating art unless it has a practical purpose,” she explains. But when she made her first tile, she was enchanted. The tiles, she realized, were the perfect marriage of art and purpose.

Enter Steuart W. Weller, beloved founder of Weller Tile and Mosaics in Ashburn, now long closed. “If it hadn’t been for Mr. Weller, I wouldn’t be in business.”

When Gardiner called Weller to install a series of alphabet tiles for his kitchen, he saw a market for Gardiner’s designs and introduced her to philanthropist John Dana Archbold of Standard Oil. The somewhat eccentric Archbold was building a “scary tower” at his Foxlease farmhouse in Upperville and commissioned spider tiles for a bathroom.

Gardiner, who loves horses, easily connects with hunting country clients looking to personalize their homes while keeping thoughts of resale value aside. She also makes a popular line of handcrafted cicada vases for local shop Cr me de la Cr me.

“It’s a Virginia treasure worth recognizing,” says Dana Reuter, owner of the Red Fox Inn & Tavern in Middleburg.

After meeting Gardiner through their shared passion for beekeeping, Reuter and her husband Turner commissioned three celadon panels for their kitchen and bar. In one, a girl casts a fly rod while a man shoots a pheasant. Turkey and grouse line a backsplash with a sprinkling of dogs, corks and corkscrews. “Joan’s work is personalized,” says Reuters. “The fly fisherman in the panel is my daughter; the hunter is my husband. Joan designed it based on a photo I showed her.

When she expanded her Upperville kitchen, Laura Campbell, a retired librarian from the Library of Congress, knew exactly who to call. “I wanted something that honored my husband’s love for the vegetable garden,” she says.

Campbell pulled out fresh garlic bulbs from the garden to show Gardiner what she had in mind. The resulting tile backsplash matched the subtle textures of the garlic so closely that it took her breath away. “Right down to the fine tangle of roots, it was absolutely perfect,” says Campbell. “I look at him when I’m cooking and I smile every day.”

Where to See Joan Gardiner’s Artistic Tiles

In his public art, Gardiner celebrates the history, nature and culture of Loudoun and surrounding areas. See it for yourself at these places:

  • Ashburn Library Four fossil panels.
  • Gum Spring Library, stone ridge. Wildlife mural.
  • Middleburg Library Panel depicting wildlife and a man sowing crops.
  • Purcellville Library A tile wall in the lobby tells the story of the city. Alphabet tiles in the children’s section, featuring original nursery rhymes by author John R. Gardiner.
  • rust library, Leesburg. Murals in the hall, teenage and children’s rooms, study rooms, etc.
  • Sterling Library A mural tells the story of the area’s diverse local people and how they got there.
  • Loudoun Valley Community Center, Purcellville. Native animals and beloved members of the community.
  • Franklin Park Center for the Arts, Purcellville. History of the barn and donor wall.
  • Rose Hill Barns, Berville. Community project including works by other artists.
  • St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, Purcellville. Baptismal font tiles.
  • All Souls Episcopal ChurchWashington, DC Stations of the Cross.
  • Tabard Inn, WADC Bar and bath tiles include donkeys, elephants and “Tabard Man”.

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 publish.

About Bernice D. Brewer

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