“I do a lot of research to get inspired, and that is time-consuming,” says tile artist Karen Deans from her Bethesda studio. “But when I get the paintbrush in my hand, well, that is just pure joy for me. It’s very therapeutic.”
Matisse-inspired figures dance across tiles in Karen Deans’ kitchen. The whimsical shapes divide the sink’s backsplash in a single line of hand-painted color. Though small, they’re among the most important works she has created.
“Those are the first tiles I ever painted,” says Deans during a tour of her home. “We were renovating the kitchen and I thought, ‘I should just make the art myself.’”
And so the muralist and illustrator stumbled upon the turning point in her career: the birth of her wooden-tile business. Deans enjoyed painting on a small surface and began experimenting with wood after purchasing square wooden panels at an art store.
“It was really a matter of going back to something I had always been pleased by visually,” Deans explains. “Canvas was fine, but it doesn’t do it for me. I love the way the oil looks, feels on the wood.” From there, “Little pieces just began falling into place.”
Her first wooden tiles were displayed at Studio Gallery in Washington, DC, in 2004, and commissions soon started rolling in. After years as a painter and struggling writer, the mother of three felt she’d finally found her niche.
“I knew this was going to be something big. I didn’t know why or how, but I had to go with it,” she says.
Today, Deans sells thousands of wooden tiles a year through boutiques and stores across the country. From her home studio, she designs and assembles her six- and eight-square-inch tiles, producing up to 25 limited-edition pieces each season. The tiles come in four or five color palettes, each reflecting Deans’ love of textiles and nature patterns.
Flowers are a common theme of her work, though each pattern is unique. Some floral tiles have an ethereal quality, while others call to mind the prints of vintage dresses. Deans’ contemporary pieces tap into her love of Asian pottery and explore the intricate weave of fabrics such as tatami and tweed.
The designs are mounted onto thick wooden frames that “make the image look as if it is floating on the wall,” Deans says. This three-dimensional quality makes her tiles a focal point of a room, so customers often purchase five or six at a time, arranging them “like patches in a quilt.”
Deans’ work is inspired by Post-Impressionist painters such as Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, by the years she spent studying art history in Paris, and even by her family.
“We were staring at the way the sunlight was hitting the wall one day, and [my daughter] Maisy said, ‘Mom, that’s a wooden tile,’” she muses.
Deans’ creative process comes together in her studio, a sunlit room attached to her kitchen. Here, a tile begins as a mere sketch or doodle before the design is replicated freehand on a piece of fiberboard. The wood has been primed and sanded twice and painted with an earth-tone under-color that adds warmth to the finished piece.
Deans then follows the lines of her sketch with an “earth red” shade. Once dry, she paints between the lines with colors that impart “vibrancy and fluidity” to create a visual punch. When finished, she develops digital copies of each image and sends them to an outside printer who uses a machine to replicate them. Designs are then sent back to Deans in large sheets of uncut watercolor paper.
The assembly process takes place in her basement, where an intern varnishes the images, cuts out individual tiles, and mounts them onto frames which have been sanded and painted in a six-step process.
“It is a lot of work,” Deans says, “but it is very satisfying to look at.”
Her business has branched out into a stationery line and a collection of tile-themed tables. And recently, she has revisited her other passion—writing.
Her first children’s book was released last year, and she’s under contract to write two more. Like her artwork, this piece of her creative life seems to have fallen into place.
Still, Deans acknowledges it’s not that simple. “I’ve worked really hard for a really long time,” she says.
“When you continue to put yourself out there long enough, eventually someone will throw something back to you.”