Tucson’s Master Tile Maker
We may not think of our bathroom or kitchen as a place for art, but Carly Quinn can create one-of-a-kind tile murals for countertops or backsplashes. Quinn has established herself as the “First Lady of Tile” in Tucson, creating intricate, hand-glazed tile. Her work can be found in numerous galleries and businesses throughout the Southwest, Colorado and California.
Born in Burbank, California, Quinn moved from Prescott, Arizona to Tucson in 2005. She graduated from the Art Center Design College in 2007 with a bachelor’s degree in Illustration and Fine Arts, and a minor in Graphic Design. She began working in tile under a local Tucson artist while in college. After graduation, Quinn held a number of positions in the print and digital media industry. In 2008, she was recruited by a tile company in Tucson specializing in the mass production of hand-glazed tiles. While she enjoyed honing her skills making specialty tile, she yearned to have her own business.
Building a business can be a painstaking process, but Quinn manifested her own reality. “It was very fortuitous. A college friend had a kiln worth $4,000 that was sitting in her garage for 10 years, and she sold it to me when we graduated for $100,” she relates. Quinn put the kiln in storage until she decided to open her own studio. In 2011, with only $800 in savings, she quit her job and started making her own hand-glazed tile murals full-time. “I knew this is what I wanted to do. A light went off. Eight years later, I’m never bored. I still love it. I’m so happy with where I’m at right now. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem real,” Quinn emotes.
Quinn’s first customer was a friend who needed a bar countertop, which earned her a $1,700 commission. However, after paying rent, electricity and buying supplies, she netted only $400 to put toward the studio. Initially, her tight budget necessitated that she rent a studio in an alley for $150 a month. “I hit it hard. I worked 60 hours a week at first,” she says. Her passion for having her own business making tile paid off quickly. Within a year, the business was successful enough that she was able to hire her first employee.
In 2017, Quinn purchased her own building downtown. The studio and proprietor both emanate charm, character and grace. The front of the building is adorned with her lovely custom tile murals. The contractor built the back half of the studio utilizing RASTRA, an insulating concrete form. Quinn notes, “They look just like regular bricks, only they are much lighter.” RASTRA construction has important environmental considerations in that it contains up to 80 percent postconsumer plastic and it has superior thermal performance, which lowers energy consumption.
Tiles made by Quinn are inspired by old world art. Specifically, Quinn’s inspiration is Moorish tile, which is found in Spain and Morocco. “I have tons of books of the mosques there and they are just incredibly gorgeous,” she observes. While she was in art school, she studied art history and learned about Alphonse Mucha, an artist from the 1800s. He’s the father of Art Nouveau, and he was an inspiration for her tile with Art Nouveau designs.
“I use an old world technique called ‘Cuerda Seca’. With this technique, the outline is drawn with wax and allowed to cure onto the tile base. Once the wax outlines are cured, the glazes are pooled in between the lines of wax onto the surface of the blank tile. The tiles are put into a kiln that is fired at more than 1,850 degrees, and during this process the silica in the glazes fuse to the tile, creating an impermeable surface. This process takes 24 hours. The glaze rises up and the tiles get a three-dimensional texture while the wax melts off,” she explains.
Quinn’s creative process reflects her eclectic personality. “My palette expresses how I’m feeling at the moment—the colors and the quality of the lines may change versus the subject matter. I sit down and I know what I want to do, but the end result may be different,” Quinn remarks.
Tiles are sold individually and come in a variety of motifs, including intricate floral designs, cactus and geometric patterns. Or, tiles can be fitted together to form a larger mural. The tiles are available at her studio and online as well as at shops in the Desert Museum, Hacienda del Sol, Old Town Artisans and Etsy. They ship all over the U.S.
With Quinn’s reputation growing, her next leap forward in the evolution of her business is to embark on a new phase of her work. “It’s a challenge to stay on top of the business side while finding time to exercise the creative side,” laments Quinn. “I want to do more fine art mural work. It’s a glaze blending technique that I’ve never seen anyone else do—kind of like a watercolor. It really gets me excited. I’m amped up about that.”
Even though running her business is stressful, Quinn finds time for her personal life. “I do CrossFit five times a week, and long trail hikes in the desert,” she says. It’s important for Quinn to adhere to her exercise regimen, since she considers herself a “little bit of a foodie”, and she loves beer and wine. She’s excited to take her husband to dinner at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry, for his upcoming birthday. Quinn also likes to order unusual cuts of meat from a local butcher, Ben Forbes. “I especially like his Japanese Wagyu beef. It’s a real treat. He imports it,” she reveals. Her music tastes lean toward the world music genre, including African, South American and Cumbia music.
As the word spreads about her exquisite tile work, Quinn’s star is continuing to rise. While some would attribute her success to her passion, talent and determination, Quinn doesn’t necessarily agree with this assessment. She sums up her success with a quote she read on a coffee cup: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine. She focuses on writing about the arts, inspirational people and the human connection. Connect at Suzie@ComedyForCharity.org.