Alchemy Tiles: Art from a One Woman Studio

A 13th Century craft perfected in a Cornish studio

Mel ChambersCornwall Chamber of Commerce

I’m doing something I absolutely love and adore, my soul is so alive. I am able to make a living doing a job I love, in Cornwall.

Fish TileCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 1

Each tile evokes an emotional, personal response

A lot of time is spent with commission work choosing the right words as they need to have meaning and resonance. For  example, a kitchen backsplash is something you are looking at every single day, so it's got to bring them joy, it’s got to bring them some sort of contented feeling or it might be a memory of somebody they knew or loved. 
One which was lovely: each member of the family had their own design. It was a family thing that was on the walls and knowing that that's going to be there for hundreds and hundreds of years is quite special. Not only is it bespoke and one off, it's very individual to that person as well.

Framed Cat TileCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 2

Personal art for personal stories

They give me the meanings behind what it is and what resonates, or I find the quotes for them - because I have got thousands and thousands of quotes that I've been collecting for, years and years and years. I ask them to let me know what sort of thing they want to say and then I’ll suggest various quotes. 

You always know when it’s the right one because of the way they react and that it resonates so deeply. For some pieces I’ve created, when they are collected by the client they start to cry because it has so much meaning for them. 

For me so that's just amazing, to be able to create something for somebody that has such meaning...I’m welling up now!

Mels WorkshopCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 3

How it all started...

In my garage – a very small, dark, damp, contained space. All I wanted was a big, square, white space with a big huge table in the middle, that's what I needed. Then this place came up and it was just absolutely perfect so I have all the light, space and storage that I need.

Since having that bigger space, my work has gone to the next level because I had that space to create - I was like: right let’s go!

A Range of PowdersCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 4

I think just being in Cornwall generally is my biggest inspiration. 
You’re right in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the country and because we are so tucked away and so remote it has that lovely feeling of being all on your own, but not – if that makes sense? It’s the light and space of the studio I am in now. And the guys who have the garage next door are so supportive and brilliantly funny, it’s a good working relationship, which is all good fun.

White and Silver Painted TileCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 5

The ancient art of inlay

13th century was really when it started and then later again in the 16th century. 

No self-respecting church would be without its inlaid floor and all the tiles that you usually see in church are usually inlaid. The reason for this is that if they had been hand-painted, over the years, they would have just faded away. Because the color is actually fired clay and is embedded into the tile, it doesn't matter how many times you walk over it, they will never fade and still be just as lovely as the day they laid them.
They are eternal and will last for a long, long time.

Mel Using a ToolCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 6

An ancient craft for modern art

They are actually carved and not painted and this is one of the most magical things about what I do, but also the bane of my life because it's not until they see me carving  that they really appreciate what has gone into each tile. 
They will automatically look at a tile and presume it's painted because that's all they know. So is it not only about showcasing work, it is also about educating people about a technique that's very, very old but still can be used in a very modern day context. 

Carving TilesCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Carving a tile

Close up of Cutting to ShapeCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 7

How to make a tile

I take a lump of clay, and then I roll it out on a slab roller and flatten it out. I have to turn it and roll it 3 times, because clay has memory, and I have to make sure it holds it's shape and wants to stay a flat tile and nothing else.

Once that's done it's stacked for a couple of days and it's then ready to carve. I have to carve it whilst it's wet because the tools I use are very fine hoops, so it has to be the right consistency. Once it's been carved, I inlay it with colored clay, which is essentially clay with oxides and stains, which are my own color recipes. Each tile will have between 3/4 different color clays which give it that marble effect.

Four Tiles Come TogetherCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Once it’s dried, I scrape the top off which exposes the image and the text that I've carved, it’s left to dry again and once it’s totally dry it’s then glazed and fired in the kiln. It's a 20 hour firing, but it takes 3 days from start to finish for the kiln to cool down.
While the tile is still warm I wash ink on the top, and then wipe it straight off which highlights the crackle of the glaze. The tiles are then stamped and labelled with the words of the quote on the back along with the Made in Cornwall stamp of approval. Depending on whether its a back-splash, hanging tile or a trivet it's adapted. Each piece takes a minimum of 2 weeks to make.

Mel in her WorkshopCornwall Chamber of Commerce

Alchemy Tiles Audio 8

I love the people. I love the culture. I love the land!

Cornwall itself is just...I feel at home here. I've lived in lots and lots of different places, but coming back here was like coming home and it's just such an inspiring place. I feel grounded, centered, connected. 
I love the people. I love the culture. I love being part of the economy.   
In terms of my own business, I just feel there's so much more support for businesses in Cornwall. When I'm doing the shows, the camaraderie amongst the traders is so lovely; everybody's there to help and support each other. And that for me is a very, very important thing. 
It's Community for me at the end of the day. 

Credits: Story

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