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A river of tile honors our sister city

Ashland residents have donated public art to the city since at least 1910, but Ashland did not have a formal public art program until 2002, when the Public Arts Commission was created.

The commission identified an overlook on Granite Street, above the Calle Guanajuato stairway, as a good spot for a piece of art. In 2005, the “Rio Amistad” mosaic by Sue Springer was the first piece installed by the new commission.

As she participated in the dialog for what might go there, Springer knew she wanted to incorporate a water theme and also honor Ashland’s sister city relationship with the Mexican city of Guanajuato. The name “Rio Amistad” means “River of Friendship.” Her idea was to “honor the natural flora and fauna” of Ashland and Guanajuato.

Ashland and Guanajuato share much in common. Both are university towns. Since 1969, more than 1,000 students and residents have participated in exchange programs, resulting in more than 80 marriages between Ashland and Guanajuato residents. Both cities are cultural centers, and both have rivers that have caused periodic downtown floods.

Building the mosaic began with clay. The process of making the ceramic tiles began with 300 pounds of clay mixed with 150 pounds of water in a big industrial mixer. When the clay was the right texture, it was rolled into slabs. Adding detail work and patterns to the tiles was done before the clay dried.

The damp tiles were fired in the kiln for the first time at about 1,800 degrees. When the clay was hard but slightly porous, it was colored or glazed. As a color example, look at the blue “river water” in “Rio Amistad.” The tiles are darker blue through the center of the “river” and lighter blue toward the edges. Cobalt provided the blue color to the tiles. The darker blue tiles have more cobalt, the lighter blue tiles have less.

The glazed tiles were fired a second time at almost 2,200 degrees. The second firing brought the color out as the glaze and the clay merged. It also made the clay extremely hard and tight (no longer porous). For the larger slabs, a hammer was used at this point to break them up.

Look for river animals in the mosaic. Since the flowing lines of the mosaic represent a river, local river animals predominate. The largest animals depicted are steelhead and herons. Smaller river critters include turtle, snake and salamander. But that’s not all. Springer said her goal was to engage people, so “we put all sorts of little surprises in it.” She hopes that each time people walk by “Rio Amistad,” “you will slow down and see something you haven’t seen before.”

Why so many frogs?

“Those frogs that are in the mosaic, those odd-looking frogs, they are pre-Columbian frogs,” Springer explained. “Guanajuato is known as ‘the city of frogs.’ They have frogs everywhere.” The story goes that the name “Guanajuato” comes from an Indigenous language that described the area as “hilly place of frogs.” The frogs in “Rio Amistad” honor the people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived.

Dedicated Nov. 4, 2005, the mosaic covers 320 square feet and required a team of workers. Karen Rycheck, an accomplished mosaic artist in her own right, was Springer’s primary helper with design and construction of “Rio Amistad.” Rycheck also created the Ashland mosaic called “Water is Life,” located on the Bandersnatch Trail.

Finishing “Rio Amistad” went down to the wire. According to Springer, “we literally were still grouting and trying to clean it up the morning of the dedication. We got it all finished, tarps removed, all cleaned up, just in time. With the dedication planned for 1 p.m., at about 12:45 the clouds parted and the sun came out. It was perfect timing.”

Creating a piece of public art involves a lot more than just the art itself. Here are a few of the planning and installation factors Springer described: The clay and ceramic tiles need to withstand the winter freeze/thaw cycles in Ashland. Because the mosaic is on the ground, it had to be designed and built so water would run off of it. If ceramic tiles are laid directly on top of earth or cement, movement and cracking from earthquakes or earth movement would cause the tile and grout to crack within a few years. An underlayment product called an “uncoupling membrane” stops that from happening. The design also includes an expansion joint, allowing the mosaic to flex or move when expansion and contraction of the base occurs.

Art was not encouraged in Springer’s family or in her schools as she grew up. When she first took pottery classes in 1971 as a young adult, she began a lifetime love of clay.

From 1979 to 1992, her home and studio were in the tiny town of Illahe, located in the Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest about 43 miles up the Rogue River from Gold Beach. The book “Oregon Geographic Names” says the name Illahe derives from the Chinook word “ilahekh,” meaning “land,” “earth” or “country.”

Springer had a ceramic tile business called Illahe Tileworks in Ashland for 25 years. You may remember the gallery shop at Fourth and B streets.

In 2015, Springer closed her business in Ashland so she could move to Seattle to be closer to her daughters and a granddaughter. She continues to make whimsical ceramic sculptures, which you can see at her website, SueSpringerSculpture.com.

Springer has a number of artworks in Ashland, including several in the city’s public art collection. One of her much-loved pieces is the Peace Fence mosaic, a collaborative sculpture installed in front of Ashland library.

Peter Finkle writes about Ashland history, neighborhoods, public art and more. See WalkAshland.com for his Ashland stories.

The “Rio Amistad” mosaic on Granite Street at top of the Calle Guanajuato stairway. Photo by Peter Finkle