Feats of Clay
At Syzygy Tile, next month's Silver City Clay Festival is only the latest hands-on creation.
by Harry Williamson
Lee Gruber is on the loose again.
Watch out, Silver City.
Another beautiful dream is about to be realized.
"I don't seem to be able to think in small bits and pieces, about little enterprises," Gruber says, talking about the first Silver City Clay Festival, set for August 3-5, which she is organizing into what will be an annual event. (See accompanying story for details.) The festival's website is at www.clayfestival.com.
"If you examine the clay festival and what we're trying to do, it's really an attempt to create a collaborative effort that is linked through clay, and extends statewide — well beyond Silver City," she says.
Gruber envisions that one day people from Europe, New York City and everywhere else will spend two weeks in New Mexico traveling a "clay corridor" that might start, say, in Taos, then go to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Silver City and on to sites in northern Mexico. In each area, the pueblos, museums, archeological sites, adobe building, potters, and tile and clay businesses will be featured and celebrated.
"I'm really passionate about cultural entrepreneurism, and the ability to make your living in a small community by bringing in a lot of outside dollars," she says.
All a wild fantasy, you say.
You obviously don't know Lee Gruber.
In 1993, Gruber and husband David Del Junco started Syzygy Tileworks, devoting three years to learning the ins and outs of making handmade tiles before their first customer. Now, Syzygy has 24 employees who produce approximately 25,000 square feet of distinctively artistic tile each year at a 10,000-square-foot art-factory in downtown Silver City. Through custom orders, Syzygy tile is sold at 130 high-end showrooms in North America.
"Syzygy" is a Greek word meaning an alignment of three celestial objects. Applied to their business, the word signifies the coming together of color, design and hand-craftsmanship.
The key word is handmade. Every single tile made at Syzygy over the past 19 years has been formed and finished entirely by hand.
Del Junco and Gruber concede that techniques and tools are readily available that could make the manufacturing process faster, easier and possibly more lucrative. "The arts and crafts movement was a revolt against everything being made by machines," she says. "We wanted to get back to the artisan and craftsmanship and using people's hands."
Over the years Del Junco has also developed more than 100 glazes that give the tiles a distinctively artistic look — and give their business a huge advantage in an increasingly competitive industry. Syzygy was the first to produce three-eighth-inch-square tiles, with each tiny tile — amazingly — fashioned completely by hand.
Production Manager Josh White recalls being hired 10 years ago when all of the 12 or so Syzygy employees were in a 1,000-square-foot space a block away from their current location at 106 N. Bullard St. "The thing that drew me to the company was walking in there and seeing this glorious product that was being produced, and knowing what it would take to do something that fabulous in such a small space," White says. "I knew then what they were up to was really special."
Building special and successful businesses is nothing new for Gruber. At age six, she organized a summer camp for children in her neighborhood in Mountaindale, NY, in the Catskill Mountains.
"I asked myself: What were the parents going to do with their kids in the summer?" she recalls. "I charged a nickel a kid."
After attending the State University of New York in Albany, she married, and served in the Peace Corps for two years before moving to Florida, where her first husband started law school. For her part, Gruber made a list of the things she wanted to do with her life, first ticking off "horseback riding" and then "learning to sail."
"I thought: Wouldn't it be fun to work in an industry that you just love? So I became a sail maker and eventually ran big sail lofts for some very big companies," Gruber says. She adds that this is how her business life has always worked — develop a passion for something, learn the skills, and then run the business. She worked in the sailing industry for about 15 years, traveling to big sailing regattas around the world.
"It was all pretty exciting, but then I had two daughters and they finally said, 'Mom, enough is enough,'" Gruber recalls. "I quit and used my contacts in the sailing industry to start a business that made decor packages for luxury boats. It became quite sizable."
She named both her company and her first boat, "Intuition."
She explains, "I chose that because while I'm not schooled in business, I have a definite intuition, an instinct about how to do it, how to make a business grow."
Gruber's long involvement with the boating industry ended, however, when she met and married her second husband, Del Junco, who lived in Silver City — about as far as you can get from a big body of water.
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