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An Appreciation of McKusick Tiles

(This article is based on a recent visit with the McKusicks at their home.)
      At Boyce Thompson Arboretum, when a visitor walks to Ayer Lake, he or she will notice displays of decorative tiles inside the two gazebos. On closer inspection, one recognizes that the tiles illustrate an array of animal life, mostly birds, which can be seen in the park. What isn’t apparent is the special history and combined talent that created these unique tiles.

Bob and Charmion McKusick live in a small home up a side canyon near Globe, Arizona. They have lived and worked out of this home since 1954. The house is filled with sixty years of research and production. Ceramic art, stained-glass, mosaics, quilted tapestries, and paintings decorate every room, along with books, photographs, and other evidence of the creative life. Now octogenarians, the McKusicks have slowed down, but they haven’t stopped. They continue to be curious with and engaged in the world around them.

Bob McKusick was born in California but raised around the Miami/Globe area. In 1945, when he was fifteen, he lost his left hand in an accident. This disability could have harmed his future prospects for a career, but a year later an uncle introduced him to a life in ceramics.  He ended up at the University of Arizona in Tucson studying chemical engineering and fine arts.

Charmion was raised in Illinois, spending much of her time with an Austrian farm family who served as caregivers during her school days. As a young adult she wanted to study anthropology which was, like many occupations at the time, not usually taught to women. But one school would teach her and that was the University of Arizona. She eventually became an ethno-zoologist specializing in avian studies and has written many papers on, primarily, bird bones found at southwest archeological digs. As for meeting Bob she says that in 1949, “I got off the train from Illinois at 7 in the morning and met Bob at 7 in the evening on the same day at a freshman mixer. He walked right up to me and asked me to dance.” That was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted 64 years.004 (1001x1024)

From 1952-54, while living in Tucson, Bob and Charmion started a business called Gila Pottery where they made various ceramic products such as ashtrays and tiles. The McKusicks sold their work at the Desert House of Crafts on N. Campbell Avenue.  They became friends with Ted DeGrazia and helped him build his studio in north Tucson.  In fact, they lived at the DeGrazia studio for over a year. “DeGrazia was a partner in crime,” Charmion said with a smile.

It was at this time that Tucson’s housing market boomed. The desert was put under the bulldozer’s blade and burnt-adobe houses were quickly being built. With population growth came a demand for regional decorative art. Even though their ceramics business grew, the McKusicks were gravely concerned with what was happening to the desert and its wildlife.  Charmion: “We thought that the environment was disappearing before our eyes.” That was the impetus for the animal tiles that the McKusicks are best known for. “We wanted to make a permanent record of what they (the vanishing wildlife) looked like,” said Bob.

In 1954, Bob and Charm moved to Globe and started the McKusick Mosaic and Tile Company.  Not only did they make small tiles with animal designs, but with the help of Native American artists, made tile designs of Indian dancers and symbols. They also made 12” floor tiles. As Desert Magazine wrote in its April 1967 edition, “Many homes in the exclusive Paradise Valley area are paved with McKusick floor tile.” And it is here where I want to point out a most salient aspect of what the McKusicks were doing. The ceramic products they produced were made entirely from the raw clay that they dug out of the Pinal Mountain foothills. The grog they used as an additive to make the clay less prone to warpage in the kiln firing, was made from the milled schist found around their home. In other words, these artists manufactured all of their ceramics from scratch. This is an amazingly rare and laborious way to make ceramics and was done solely for economic reasons. “It was cheaper for me to make the clay than it was for me to have it shipped to Globe,” was how Bob rationalized it. Because he knew no one else making their own clay, he had no guidelines. “We sort of ad-libbed,” he said.

In general, Charmion’s job was to draw out the designs, etch the molds for the tiles, and apply the glazes. Bob would make the clay, press the tiles, develop and mix the glazes, and fire the kiln.

006 (1022x1024)    The McKusick studio attracted plenty of visitors. Even “futuristic” architect Paolo Soleri showed up in the mid-50s inquiring about the clay. Since that visit, the ceramic bell production of both Cosanti and Arcosanti still depends exclusively on the same clay deposits that the McKusicks used.

The life of art and craft, for most of those who practice it, is not nearly as romantic and carefree as one might imagine. It is hard work, seasonally unreliable, and, at times, horribly frustrating. Even with a steadily growing business, the McKusicks took on temporary jobs, such as teaching, to augment their incomes. As Bob pointed out, “Well, you don’t get rich making tiles.”  Besides maintaining their business and home, the McKusicks also had children to raise. And goats. Ah, the goats. At one time they owned twenty goats for milk and meat.

“The goats are what kept us alive!” Charmion exclaimed. “I grew our vegetables and (the goats) provided our milk and cheese. Bob would bring a bag of flour and baking powder and bacon. And that was about it. This business of subsistence farming is a lot of work and you have to be young to do it.”

Even as they struggled at times to get by with tile manufacturing, they also managed to complete many public art projects. They were commissioned by the Navajo Nation to make two 12’ square wall panels representing sand paintings.  They made a mural and mosaic tables for the Paradise Valley Country Club in Scottsdale. There is work they did at the Globe courthouse. And, over the years, they have done mosaic panels, a mosaic ceiling, and sculpture for the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Globe.  “St. John’s is our crowning glory,” Charmion told me as she showed me the church’s colorful interior and exterior decorations. And off Highway 60, west of Miami, at the Mountain Breeze Memorial Gardens, one can go to the back of the cemetery and find an 8’ tall concrete and mosaic panel (erected in 1964) of “Our Lady of Guadalupe” slowly weathering away. It is an astounding piece of folk art.

But it is the wildlife tiles that I think are the lasting legacy of the McKusicks’ creative output. Over a forty year period (1954-1996) Bob and Charmion (and later with help from their daughter Kathy) produced around 300 different designs replicated on tens of thousands of individual tiles. (“Eighty thousand?” I asked Charmion. “That would be a conservative number,” she responded.) Wrens, swallows, frogs, deer, orioles, crayfish, dragonflies, black bears, and dozens upon dozens of other animals found clear illustration on these durable handmade tiles.  Visitors to Arizona purchased these pieces as reminders of the desert that they had vacationed in. It was a little bit of the wilderness that they could feel comfortable bringing home with them.

But now the tiles are no longer made. They haven’t been made for almost twenty years and there aren’t many places besides Boyce Thompson Arboretum where you can still see them. If you go to the Sabino Canyon Visitor’s Center in Tucson, the tiles are featured in nature displays there. If you are driving through Miami, Arizona, you can stop by the Bullion Plaza Cultural Center to see the largest display of work from the McKusick Studio, containing around a hundred tiles. And you might see a few pieces for sale on eBay. That’s about it.009 (853x1024)

“What were the popular tiles?” I asked. Almost in unison the McKusicks responded “Roadrunners and quails. They were the first ones we did.” As an aside, Bob said “We called them our streetwalker birds.”

“I don’t know how many different quails and roadrunners we made over the years,” Charmion commented. “Ravens don’t sell. People don’t want bugs, they don’t want frogs, they don’t want lizards.”

Bob added “People don’t buy rattlesnakes.”

Charmion raised an eyebrow, saying “Anything I liked, didn’t sell.”

“But what are your favorite tiles?” I asked.

“The tortoise, the burrowing owl, and the raven,” said Charmion.

“The cardinal and the raven,” said Bob.

“I would’ve gone for the rattlesnake and the raven,” said I, “but not the quail.”

We nodded together knowingly; certain animals, like regional art, aren’t always fully appreciated.

 

 

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    Studying the arts at Eastern Arizona College I wanted to take ceramics from Bob but the class interfered with my work schedule. Bob offered to let me take the class at his home with my schedule in mind. We mined the clay and I learned how the pug mil worked and completed the most fascinating course – one of many memories.. Bob and Char were wonderful hosts and I will never forget another student was there at the same time and unfortunately parked within their fence and one of the goats decided to climb up on her vehicle, it was sad and funny at the same time. My hat is off to this wonderful couple.

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