The Tile Maker of Loudoun

For tile artist Joan Gardiner, anything goes.

Ryan Donnell © 2021 Ryan Donnell

(Photography by Ryan Donnell)

“I love a fun challenge,” says tile maker Joan Gardiner, looking up from a set of oversized Van Gogh prints and smiling in anticipation. “And these will be gorgeous.” Gardiner is the most sought-after designer of custom tile in Loudoun County. Here, those who patiently wait for her commissions have one thing in common: an appreciation for “the beauty and irregular imperfections of handcrafted art,” she notes. There’s fun, too, in the collaborative process. “Sometimes they have an image or theme in mind, but they aren’t sure how to express it with tile. I offer ideas and, together, we create a design that is completely their own.”

For clients Jacqui and Jacob Porter, Gardiner will capture Van Gogh’s irises in large clay panels for their poolside space in Upperville. Her Tree of Life panel, complete with birds, already graces their summer kitchen. Gardiner’s work, which often features the foxes, hounds, barn owls, and pickup trucks of rural life, “adds warmth and character” to a room, Jacob says.

“I was given enormous artistic freedom,” says Gardiner, who considers these works her greatest accomplishment. “It was a dream experience.”

Chang Liu, director, Loudoun County Public Library, says she’s “a huge fan of Joan’s work,” adding, “I am inspired by her boundless creativity and so proud that we feature her unique tiles—they are truly a focal point of our libraries.”

Ryan Donnell

(Photography by Ryan Donnell)

Gardiner’s studio, Unison Pottery and Tile, is cluttered with the remnants of her work—a blue and white delft flower tile here, celadon panels of horses and rabbits there, and hundreds of dusty, ceramic molds stacked everywhere.

When designing for herself, Gardiner unleashes her imagination: an enormous clay pterodactyl soars through the ceiling above the fireplace in her house, while a throng of camera-wielding paparazzi line a shower stall.

Gardiner was 22 when she moved to tiny Unison (population, 30) from Washington, D.C. “I wanted a place where I could be near horses and build a kiln.” A dashing neighbor, writer John Rolfe Gardiner, won her heart when he flexed his carpentry skills to resurrect a dilapidated blacksmith shed on her property. “He gave me a studio for my kiln, so I knew I must marry him,” she laughs.

Before long, Gardiner was making ceramic platters, mugs, soap dishes, and teapots. “I don’t get excited about creating art unless it has a practical purpose,” she explains. But when she made her first tile, she was enchanted. Tiles, she realized, were the perfect marriage of art and purpose.

Enter Steuart W. Weller, beloved founder of Weller Tile and Mosaics in Ashburn, now long closed. “If it wasn’t for Mr. Weller, I would not be in business.”

When Gardiner called Weller to install a series of alphabet tiles for her kitchen, he saw a market for Gardiner’s designs and introduced her to philanthropist John Dana Archbold of Standard Oil. The somewhat eccentric Archbold was building a “spooky tower” at his Foxlease Farm in Upperville and commissioned spider tiles for a bathroom.

Gardiner, who loves horses, connects easily with hunt country clients looking to personalize their homes while waving off thoughts of resale value. She also makes a popular line of handcrafted cicada vases for local boutique Cr me de la Cr me.

“She’s a Virginia treasure who deserves recognition,” says Dana Reuter, owner of the Red Fox Inn & Tavern in Middleburg.

After meeting Gardiner through their shared beekeeping hobby, Reuter and her husband Turner commissioned three celadon panels for their kitchen and bar. In one, a girl casts a fly rod while a man shoots pheasant. Turkey and grouse line a backsplash along with a sprinkling of dogs, corks, and corkscrews. “Joan’s work is personalized,” says Reuter. “The fly fisher in the panel is my daughter; the hunter is my husband. Joan designed it based it on a photo I showed her.”

When she expanded her Upperville kitchen, Laura Campbell, a retired Library of Congress librarian, knew just who to call. “I wanted something that honors my husband’s love of vegetable gardening,” she says.

Campbell pulled fresh garlic bulbs from the garden to show Gardiner what she had in mind. The resulting tile backsplash so closely matched the garlic’s subtle textures that it took her breath away. “Right down to the fine tangle of roots, it was absolutely perfect,” says Campbell. “I look at it when I’m cooking and smile every day.”

Where to See Joan Gardiner’s Artful Tiles
Ryan Donnell © 2021 Ryan Donnell

(Photography by Ryan Donnell)

In her public art, Gardiner celebrates the history, nature, and culture of Loudoun and nearby areas. See it for yourself at these locations:

  • Ashburn Library Four fossil panels.
  • Gum Spring Library, Stone Ridge. Wildlife mural.
  • Middleburg Library Panel featuring wildlife and a man sowing crops.
  • Purcellville Library A tile wall in the lobby tells the town’s history. Alphabet tiles in the children’s section, with original rhymes by author John R. Gardiner.
  • Rust Library, Leesburg. Murals in the lobby, teen and children’s rooms, study rooms, and more.
  • Sterling Library A mural tells the story of the area’s diverse local population and how they traveled there.
  • Loudoun Valley Community Center, Purcellville. Native animals and beloved community members.
  • Franklin Park Arts Center, Purcellville. Barn history and a donor wall.
  • Barns of Rose Hill, Berryville. Community project including works of other artists.
  • St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, Purcellville. Baptismal font tiles.
  • All Souls Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C. Stations of the cross.
  • Tabard Inn, Washington, D.C. Bar and bath tiles include donkeys, elephants, and “Tabard Man.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue.

Jill Devine
I’m a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in human interest stories and business profiles.
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