How making art tile treated my depression

In January of 2016 I called up a family friend and asked if he had any work for me. Maybe a place to stay. I was coming out of a year of suicidal depression and my husband had just told me he wanted a divorce. As a stay-at-home writer I hadn’t worked a real job in years. I didn’t have any idea how to support myself. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to.

Chuck showed me around Totten Tileworks for the first time in years. My mother had worked there since I was a kid, both of my siblings had summer jobs there growing up, and Chuck remained a close family friend, but I hadn’t stepped foot in the place in years. He showed me three open apartments. There are five in the  Tileworks. My sister lived in one at the time and Chuck lived in another. He didn’t ask for anything, just wanted to know when I needed to move my things in. How much work I wanted. 

Business had been winding down at the Tileworks. Marsha, my mom and the mainstay employee, had partially retired a couple years back. Chuck, the founder and owner, was battling his own mental health issues and still reeling from the tragic loss of three key members at the Tileworks. He didn’t have the motivation to keep the thing afloat by himself. Instead he had resigned to the fact that the Tileworks would fall into oblivion. Watching what had been a vibrant and creative business die was heart-wrenching, but I was struggling to keep my own feet under me and it never occurred to me to try to help save it. 

Then my sister, Prairie, and I took a road trip. She was asking me what I was planning to do now that I needed to support myself and build a new life. I always cringed at the question, never having an appropriate answer. People don’t want to hear, “Well, right now I’m focusing on staying alive. Haven’t gotten much further than that.”

When she started her sentence with, “You know what you should do...” I cringed. But she is my sister, so I listened. “You should get Loren to go bring the Tileworks back with you.” Loren is our brother. He was living in Portland working as a software developer for a company he didn’t particularly care for. I laughed, but it resonated. Making tile. Working with my family. Is this something I could do? I hadn’t felt like I was really capable of doing anything up until that point, but that seemed plausible. 

So I sent an email to Loren. Simple. “When my divorce goes through how would you feel about working at Totten Tileworks with me? Imagine all the cool stuff we could do.” It took him a couple days to get back to me, but he responded, “That would be so cool. What a change, though. I’ll ponder it.”

Prairie and I got back from Key West and I took Loren out to lunch twice. Then we arranged a meeting for him to come up and meet with Chuck and my mom about the Tileworks. By the end of the meeting he was onboard and we were plotting how to structure the business. Within a month he’d moved into the Tileworks with us and we were ready to go.

I’d never thought about making tile. I don’t know why. It made perfect sense. It was a family business of sorts. Chuck had always been family to us even if not related by blood. Of course it would be the Pipes kids to swoop in. It felt like we were heroes, coming in to save a dying thing, but I think it was the opposite.

Tile makes sense to me. My perfectionist fire is fanned, while still having to make room for the abnormalities that come with handmade product. There is a right way to do everything, even if how you get there is up for debate. We know exactly what our product is supposed to look like. We know exactly how to do that. Even though it’s near impossible for it to get that way. Clay lends itself to the do-overs necessary when you are creating a high-end product. When your fingernail catches the grog you can smooth it out again. If you cut something wrong you can heal it. And if nothing you are doing is fixing it, you just recycle the clay and try again. There was a safety in that. No matter how badly I felt like I was screwing up in the rest of my life, I knew that there was nothing I couldn’t come back from when it came to tile.

Immediately I had something I could point to. “This, this is what I’m doing. This is what I did today.” Tangible works of art that I made with my own hands. Beautiful creations that would go in houses, in hotels, in places where they would last longer than any of us. It isn’t just pretty, it’s useful. It matters. I started to feel like I matter just by working at Totten Tileworks.

But it’s not as simple as having a fulfilling career in front of me. The community I’m working within is close-knit and passionate. Not just about clay, not just about ceramics, but about each other. We listen, we care. My depressive lows are getting further and further apart, but when I have them my community understands that I can’t get out of bed that day. I don’t have to pretend to be someone I’m not. I don’t have to fake whatever the “standard” definition of “okay” is. Whatever I am, wherever I’m at. That’s fine. There is a strength, a beauty in not feeling like you’re broken anymore. I do not need mending. With that simple realization I started healing. Like the imperfections that make Totten Tileworks products unique and beautiful, the things I thought were wrong with me are not a problem here. I do not have to apologize for who I am. All I have to do is make art. Feeling like I’m finally enough just the way I am, that’s what saved me. That’s what Totten Tileworks gave me.

Me and Loren setting tile in a client's bathroom.
Me and Loren setting tile in a client's bathroom.
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