By Randi Jo Gause
After 22 years of experience in the tile industry, Nancy Hausle-Johnson still radiates an intoxicating passion for tile artistry. "It's like Christmas opening up the kiln to see how the tile comes out. It doesn't always turn out right and I have to try again but I'm not into mass production — I'm always coming up with new designs."
Hausle-Johnson was first exposed to tile artistry during a trip to New Mexico, during which she happened to come across a tile that portrayed a polar bear in warm, bright hues. "I thought, 'that's not right — it's cold up north and it should have been made in cool colors," she recalls. A brief tour of the silk-screening process was the only validation she needed to begin creating her own ceramic tile artwork. "I had all the tools and some knowledge so we came home and I started experimenting until I developed the style I have today."
Although she is primarily self-taught, Hausle-Johnson's mother, a skilled painter and ceramic artist, provided the genetic foundation and mentor figure for her daughter's artistic skills. In fact, Hausle-Johnson contends that her first tile project resulted from a conversation with her mother. "I was explaining to her how I could put 10 tiles together and make a design. A week later I finished my first mural, which is still hanging in my entryway."
A Fairbanks resident for 27 years, Hausle-Johnson garners her inspiration from the scenic Alaska landscape, which has manifested itself in her four primary tile themes: animals, birds, flowers and people. Although harnessing Alaska imagery into an eight-inch–square ceramic tile may seem hardly feasible, one look at Hausle-Johnson's tiles and you may reconsider. Ranging from cool, deep shades to vibrant, rich hues, Hausle-Johnson goes to great lengths to ensure that her artwork reflects the landscape she admires.
While creating tiles for the Alaska Bird Observatory donor wall, Hausle-Johnson teamed up with biologist and wildlife photographer Ken Whitten in order to accurately depict the intricacies of each individual bird. "I learned that accurate bird designs are important," she explains, "because a lot of bird followers know their birds and are quite particular about how the birds are represented." It is this keen eye for detail that elevates each unique piece into a work of art.
A majority of Hausle-Johnson's custom pieces materialize in the form of kitchen stove backsplashes, bathroom tiles, fireplace backings, house signs and tabletops — yet she has also created murals for schools and other buildings on behalf of Alaska's State Percent for Art grant, which allots one percent of new building project budgets for commissioned art. Her artwork can take from a week up to a year, depending on the complexity and size of the project.
In addition to her work's obvious allure to Alaskans, several of Hausle-Johnson's murals are on display in Japan, England, Australia, Germany and across the United States. But whether a mural will be admired across the country or by an Alaska family of four, she strives to dedicate equal attention to detail and put unique touches into each piece. "I love that someone can walk in and say 'Oh, you have Nancy tiles!' but the design will always be different."