February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storyFit To Be Tiled
Decorative mosaics in Philly begin with Zagar, but that's not where they end.
I sometimes wonder if my father isn't disappointed in me. Not because I'm incessantly mean. Or that despite being hetero, in my youth I dressed so feminine. "It wouldn't 've bothered me if you were gay," says Alfonso Amorosi of his son. "But some of those fucking outfits." Tell me about it, Moe.
No. I've wondered if, despite his hard labor, he wouldn't have liked me to follow in his footsteps as a tile and marble contractor for tile union Local 6.
He may be retired. But he's still a proudly active union guy who can point out jobs he's done up and down the East Coast.
"You helped a few times," he laughs while remembering that help was translated into me staying as far away from him as possible during mud jobs. As we discuss the minutia of mud"the old way, not that glue shit"where you mix and put up your own mortar and do a wet bed of sand and cement, I glaze over. "That's why you don't do tile. YOU DON'T LISTEN."
That is until, while driving along South Street, we spy the all-over tile/glass/tchotchke mosaics of Isaiah Zagar. Now I'm listening. Great stuff, my father says. "You're drawing with tile is all," he says, admiring the giddiness of Zagar's style. But dad did them everywhere from churches and chapels at St. Peter and Paul, and St. Charles Borromeo to hospitals in the University of Pennsylvania area to tony homes from West Philly to Villanova. "Back thentile was considered a luxury," says Alfonso. So when I ask how much he thought a house's worth was raised by that work, he shrugs and looks at me like a douche for bringing up money.
"It was art. What I do know was that after I finished one for some doctor on the Main Line or professor at the university, their friends would call me and have me do another one for their house or office."
"I don't know how much exactly my mosaics have helped to heighten a house's value," says painter/mosaic-ist Bill Schafer from his South Warnock Street studio, echoing my father's sentiment. "But every time I've done one, my clients'd have a party."
Schafer, 53, is renowned throughout Philly as a painter of the fantastic. He is also equally renowned for his all-tile mosaics of the same style; executing playfully strange imagery and vivid, bold palettes of color for kitchens in Northern Liberties, patios in Malvern and large expanses of wall in Chicago and Motor City. That's where the Detroit native came from before moving to Philly in 1971 to attend UArts predecessor Philadelphia College of Art to paint, particularly landscapes. "I climbed a lot of rocks to get that look and that seasoning," says Schafer in his soft, Waits-like purr.
Soon those landscapes turned fantasticmore funky, figurative and analytical; a hyper-Matisse-y aesthetic filled with big colorfully explosive images of spotted dogs and trippy flowers. Along with shows at galleries around town, he found his work showcased in the mid-'80s by Cyndi Stein (Neil's ex-wife) and Philly-film maven Sharon Pinkenson, and at Marabella's restaurant.
One Marabella's employee, Robin Ware, became one of his biggest patrons. "She still makes the best biscotti," says Schafer of Ware. "When I had my first studio on Seventh Street, she bought seven paintings."
She later commissioned him to do a big tiled mural in her new North Street home.
"I had no idea of the heritage of the mosaic, its sanctity or anything. So I just went at it, cracking the tiles with a hammer, trying to make the image." He did, finding the form so fascinating that he began to make them just the way he made his paintingsfrom scratch, mad and fantastic. As his painting commissions grew, he found himself doing more mosaics for buyers of his paintings.
Schafer's mosaic look is what he calls "semi-traditional" in that he's painting with tile aloneits force and depth; tiles evenly raised above the surface of the wall. "I go for the colors I need rather than a certain tile, its feel or density," says Schafer when asked what materials he uses. He doesn't go for a clunky, chunky tchotchke look. He wasn't cramming beer bottle bottoms or cracked china plates into the work or into the wall along with the tile, like say, Julian Schnabel's broken-dish design or even Isaiah Zagar's bottles, mirrors and such.
"I love Isaiah's work. Who doesn't? So don't get me wrong. But his workthat stylehas become like aluminum siding up and down South Street. It's unavoidable."
While Zagar's famed work is filled with personalized knickknacks, bric-a-brac and other forms of flotsam and ephemera, Schafer's mosaic is more traditional and formative; leaving the fantastic to come from the fusion of painterly design and tile heritage.
So from Schafer's busy brain to the bare canvas of his clients' biggest expanses, the mosaicist does what he does best, big or small, in what is, an unavoidable house perk for those looking to raise their property's value. "It's a pick-me-upper, no doubt about that." Schafer balks as to how much he charges, saying only that "the vast range of prices for tiles in various palettes means that the price can vary greatly. But I'll work with you: You tell me your budget, we'll figure in my labor and materials and then you let me go. Trust me. I'm the toughest critic and tightest budgeter."
But should you decide to tile, what are the considerations? According to Schafer, no job is too small or big, though the bigger the "canvas" the better. And the bigger the job, naturally, the longer the installation time. And there's always the question of maintenance: Stucco may look boring, but is it easier to keep up appearance than with a tiled facade? Well, yeah. But not by so wide a margin as you'd think. Schafer tells the story of a New York art patron who bought a Julian Schnabel painting with mosaic elements which started losing tile after a few months. According to the yarn, Schnabel explained: "That's why God invented gravity." In all honesty, tiles come loose (though it happens less with mud jobs, says Pop). And retouching should be negotiated before any job. But in general, tile is pretty easy to keep upsimply wipe it down with clean wet cloths weekly.
"Yeah, Dad; Julian Schnabel's work started losing bits of tile and busted plates."
"Now, that's a shoemaker," says my father. "He should've used mud. And I've seen his stuff. It's a mess."
"Broken dishesand he makes millions from that," dad snorts. "You knowyou could've been doing that kinda work," says dad, dryly, to his son while the latter files his nails in his father's car. "I don't know what the hell you were doing instead."