“And that’s A Long, Long Time”
I don’t know that there is anything quite so mesmerizing as gold. It’s a thought that’s come unbidden several times in the last week. The first was when my wife and I visited a traveling museum exhibit devoted to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb. It depicts the story of Howard Carter’s astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. To do so they meticulously copied something like one thousand items, and then arranged them in rooms the same size and configuration of the tomb itself. What we saw was replicas of the original artifacts, but one could easily picture the whole in solid gold, which so much of it was. But the thought of that! There’s the historical significance of the find itself, of course, but overlying and permeating all, was the sheer incredible fact of such a prodigious amount of gold. And not just a heap of nuggets. All of it had been shaped into incredible works of art that some three thousand years later continue to excite.
I don’t know if it’s serendipity or propinquity or random coincidence, but a few days after we saw this marvelous exhibit I received a press release from one of my favorite public relations professionals (we’re tile-mates). Personally, I think the people who do the best work are those who are passionate about it. They see something that inspires them, and they devote their life to it. I understand that Anthony Newman’s career as an organist was inspired by Johan Sebastian Bach. He first heard that music as a five-year-old, and the moment he heard it he wanted to play it. Because so much of it was written for organ, that became his instrument of choice.
I won’t presume to speak for Sara Baldwin’s interests, but it’s clear that she has an absolute passion for tile. The first thing I noticed when I met her at KBIS a few years ago was her hands: they were a bit rough, and she has a strong grip, telltale signs of one who has spent most of her life working with tile: breaking them into small pieces for her mosaics, working with the grout, and a myriad other details. And all the while she heads a company that continues to grow because of her obvious passion for her work. And for design. And for something new, something different, something that… well, I’ve already said too much perhaps. What she clearly has, though, is a wonderfully clear vision, not just of where tile designs have been, but where they are going, the latter most of all because she is one of those who is so influential in causing tile to make stylistic advances so astounding as to be considered nothing less than innovative. Her use of gold in her latest work is very much a case in point.
But it’s not enough to just use gold. The question is, what will you do with it? And how well? Gold as a decorative touch can go in all kinds of directions, and quite frankly, I find that I am not especially enamored of the bulk of them. Gold quickly becomes gaudy. Contrast that, if you will, with what Christine and I saw at the Tut exhibit. Almost everything there was either gilded with gold or made of solid gold, but all of those pieces—and this is the crux of the matter—were wonderful works of art. Though it may seem quite a leap to some, I really do think Sara’s latest has a lot in common with those ancient treasures, not in the execution so much as in the fervor that wrought them.
Not all of the designs in New Ravenna’s new Aurora Collection employ gold, although I find myself preferring those that do. But all of them have a wonderful elegance about them. Gilding the lily is what happens when we try to do too much with gold. It looks terrible. But these designs, even those in which she depicts a leaf or a honey bee in gold, have about them a rightness that is both beautiful and profound.
We live in an age where the cheap and shoddy and second rate is something of a reflex with manufacturers. The guiding philosophy with so many of them is, “How many ways can we cut corners?” Selling the sizzle, not the steak is an advertising axiom, but more and more these days, the sizzle is pretty much all the poor consumer gets. Whatever you buy today will die within a year or two.
I know I’m exposing my ignorance when I say what follows, but truly, that’s part of the fun of writing these blogs, the learning experience. When I saw these tiles with all that gold, my first thought was how long is this going to last? Reading through the material a bit I learned that all of the gold accents are made of Gold Glass, but again, this meant little to me. Truthfully, I was thinking in terms of some sort of paint sprayed on glass, and how long is that going to last, really? As it turns out Gold Glass has a permanence one would never associate with such an innocuously named product.
I got my first inkling of its longevity when I learned that Gold Glass was used in many of the mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, absolutely stunning creations that have been in place some 2000 years now. All of the colored glass used in them continues to shine with its original brightness, as does the Gold Glass used in these magnificent works of art. It’s because of how Gold Glass is made.
It’s a process with incredibly deep roots, used since Byzantium, perhaps even earlier, its exact beginnings lost in the shrouds of time. To make it they simply cover a sheet of glass with golf leaf, put another sheet of glass on top and fuse the two sheets of glass together in the kiln. Note that even though it is gold leaf, it is pure gold leaf, 24 karat. If you know anything about the properties of gold, you know that it never fades, never changes color, and if left undisturbed, is absolutely permanent. Sheath that magnificent metal with glass front and back, and what you’re created is something for the ages. Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will marvel at it.
Altogether, there are some twenty-four mosaic designs in the Aurora Collection, all of them hand crafted in Natural Stone, Gold Glass, Jewel Glass, and Shell. Included in that list are various types of marble from Italy, Greece, and Spain, and those also became something of an education for me—and a delight. The black used in the third design I’ve featured here is Nero Marquina, which is black marble, a stone I didn’t even know exists. The marble I’m familiar with is white or grayish and has dark lines going through it. Black marble is like a negative image: black field, white lines! Because these are mosaics, all of the materials, whatever their source, are cut into about a bazillion small, individual pieces and then assembled by hand by artisans on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
I’m not sure which I envy more, Sara Baldwin’s artistry or her traveling, but her European travels have enabled her to combine art with travel, because so many of the magnificent edifices on any tourist’s itinerary employed quite a bit of gold in their creation. In time they became the impetus for her latest creations. “My travels to Paris, Istanbul and St. Petersburg became the origins of my thoughts about material cultures that celebrate luxury with texture and contrasting surfaces,” says Baldwin. “I dreamt about these historic patinas that grew only more beautiful with the passage of time.”
And that, in turn, brings us round full circle, to treasures in Egyptian sands that triumphed over three millennium. So how long will these tile masterpieces from New Ravenna last, how long will they keep their color, their brightness and the magic of that gold? I’ll tell you true. Properly installed, and with just an occasional modicum of tender loving care, they should last until the Twelfth of Never.
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