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The Guild: The Cargiles at Terra Firma Art Tile

by Mary Ellen Polson on March 6, 2014

in The Guild

She carves the decorative relief; he’s in charge of their stunning glazes: two sculptors in South Carolina.

This concept board features two facing ‘Briar Rabbit’ tiles and an assortment of floral decos and field tile.

This concept board features two facing ‘Briar Rabbit’ tiles and an assortment of floral decos and field tile.

Call it serendipity. Already well established as artists in clay, Gary Cargile and Elizabeth Whitfield-Cargile met in a ceramics class both had joined solely because it offered access to a kiln. “Neither of us owned one,” says Elizabeth. “We needed the kiln to fire what we had been making.”

For Elizabeth, a Tulane graduate who had won a National Fellowship for the Arts regional fellowship, that meant sculpture, and her art shines through in many Terra Firma pieces. Gary holds a BFA in sculpture and ceramics from the University of South Carolina. Given their respective backgrounds, it isn’t surprising that the couple soon realized there was a market for architectural tile, especially in the Arts & Crafts tradition. By 1997, Terra Firma was on its way.

 Gary Cargile and Elizabeth Whitfield-Cargile with their three dogs.

Gary Cargile and Elizabeth Whitfield-Cargile with their three dogs.

Elizabeth and Gary now live “rather isolated in the middle of a wood” near Aiken, South Carolina. Many of their designs are inspired by nature, but others are informed by the pre-Raphaelites, Flemish painting (especially altar pieces), Celtic and Gothic architecture, Indian temples, and African art.

Their wide-ranging interests come through not only in the tiles, but also in how they name them: ‘Bull Wrestler,’ based on a classical Greco–Roman motif; ‘Ammonoid,’ a fossilized shell done in three variations that suggest slices through the shell. As for their custom glaze colors, the shiny dark brown Teche, for instance, comes from the French word for snake. “It has a wet look, that glaze,” says Elizabeth, like the winding, shiny black rivers of her home state.

A kitchen backsplash incorporates whimsical pairs of sculpted tiles and Terra Firma’s theme tile, ‘Tree of Life’.

A kitchen backsplash incorporates whimsical pairs of sculpted tiles and Terra Firma’s theme tile, ‘Tree of Life’.

While Elizabeth is usually the one responsible for designing and carving decorative relief tile, or decos (there are well over 100), Gary is the genius behind Terra Firma’s four dozen glazes. Producing them was a process of trial and error involving thousands of formulations. “Most have a complex mottling or iridescence that suggests semi-precious stones,” Gary says. “The thickness of the glaze application makes a difference in the color of a relief tile once it’s fired.”

So does firing temperature, which can affect both the thickness or thinness of the glaze and the chemical interactions that produce variations in color. The Cargiles carefully monitor kiln temperatures by computer.

Hand Pressed, Hand Painted
Hand-pressed art tiles are expensive because of the labor needed to make them. As Elizabeth perfects new designs for decos (decorative tiles with relief), she sculpts an original, which is then used to create a plaster mold. Tiles are made by pressing clay into the mold.

After the tiles are pressed, Gary says, stray bits of unwanted material are cleaned up, and the tiles are fired in a bisque kiln. Once they’re cool, Elizabeth and Gary apply their own proprietary glazes by hand. Then the tiles are fired again. “Some are over-glazed,” says Elizabeth, “and some are hand-painted with different colors.”

Gary explains: “A lot of people would just spray their glazes, but we find we get better control with brush-applied glazes.” He says that hand-coloring the tiles is “really fun.”
“And magical,” adds Elizabeth. “No matter how much you think you’re in charge, the kiln gods make magic you didn’t anticipate.”

 Designed as an intricate puzzle by Elizabeth, the ‘Floating Lotus’ concept board could stand alone as a work of art.

Designed as an intricate puzzle by Elizabeth, the ‘Floating Lotus’ concept board could stand alone as a work of art.

Their stoneware tiles are laboriously handmade, and the Cargiles employ four others, producing up to 250 square feet of tile per week. Lead times are unusually short for an art tile operation—as little as two to four weeks. Since everything is high-fired, tiles are suitable for use indoors and out. (The stable glazes are not affected by pool chemicals.) Prices begin at $50 per square foot for field tile. Decos sell for about $21 to $52 per piece. Terra Firma’s work is distributed nationally through tile showrooms.

They also sell gift tiles and framed tiles online (a new website is scheduled to launch this year). Frames are made by master craftsman Bert Zimmerman, who uses quarter-sawn oak in mitered-and-splined and mortise-and-tenon designs.

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