Hands On - Theresa Mustafa

During an internship at an architect's office during college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Theresa Mustafa met a co-worker whose wife made tile.  The woman was looking for an assistant, so Theresa was hired to help.  A year later, when she was leaving Tennessee because her husband got a job in the northeast, the tile maker suggested she visit the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown, PA.  Moravian is a working museum and is on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is a special "factory" founded over a hundred years ago where staff are creating historical reproductions of tiles designed by the founder, Henry Mercer.  Staff are still using his tile making techniques and glaze recipes, all by hand and using minimal equipment.

Theresa with a hand crafted mold and the resulting raw clay tiles

Theresa with a hand crafted mold and the resulting raw clay tiles

Theresa later attended a three-day workshop at Moravian in 2009, and this past fall was accepted into one of only three positions in a ten week apprenticeship program.  In addition to learning each step in the process used by Henry Mercer and assisting the full-time staff members in making tile, she was allowed to use studio space to work on her own projects during her free time.  She was able to recreate some of her previous work using the clay from Moravian, which is different than commercial clay and is sourced near the Moravian site.  Pictures of her work clearly show the differences between the Moravian and commercial clays and how they react to the glazes applied.  The differences were amazing!

Theresa using a wheel mold she created

Theresa using a wheel mold she created

The results of the wheel mold

The results of the wheel mold

Upon moving to the northeast in 2001, Theresa went to work in New York City in a "day job," but began taking classes part-time in 2006, working toward an MS of Arts at Montclair State, concentrating in ceramics.  She completed her degree in 2012, and upon getting laid off from a job in late 2014, tile making became a full time endeavor.  Theresa got her first commission in 2008, and has received a few commissions each year since.  She mainly creates kitchen backsplashes and tile fireplace surrounds. 

I caught up with Theresa in early January at Icehouse Pottery in Riverdale, NJ, an artists' cooperative for potters.  The facility was fit out with the typical equipment: wheels, kilns, etc.  Theresa walked me through her process - wedging the clay to remove air bubbles, slicing the tiles out of the lump of clay, using a mold to create the impression on the tile, and cutting the tiles into perfect square or rectangular shapes.  She also demonstrated a wheel mold that she custom made, which allows her to roll the pattern onto a slab of clay.

It is quite labor intensive and for a process oriented person like me, it was great to see how Theresa had streamlined her work.  As an example, Theresa commonly makes molds for her tiles.  This eliminates custom carving each tile, which ensures consistency in the pattern.  It also allows for experimentation with colors, because you can always create a new tile form the mold and apply different glazes if you don't like the initial result.  Theresa said she likes carving her designs the most, and has also started hand paining certain elements of her tiles as opposed to just having single color tiles.  She has also experimented with many different materials to create patterns on her tiles, including twigs and leaves.  The results are beautiful.

A Tennessee native, Theresa now lives in northern New Jersey.  You can see more of her work and follower her blog at http://www.theresamustafa.com/.  If you are considering a remodeling project, I would suggest you look at Theresa's work on her website and consider it as an alternative to commercial tile.  It will add a one of a kind element to your home!

A series of bird tiles Theresa created

A series of bird tiles Theresa created

Many thanks to Theresa for spending the morning with me, and for the recommendation of other artisans for me to approach to be a part of Hands On!