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Friday, March 3, 2017

Local artisans Mark and Ann-Marie Derby get national spotlight on Handcrafted America

Posted By on Fri, Mar 3, 2017 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Mark Derby of Derby Pottery & Tile demonstrates how he casts his handmade tiles in front of the Handcrafted America film crew. - COURTESY OF SIMONE MCDOWELL OF INSP
  • Courtesy of Simone McDowell of INSP
  • Mark Derby of Derby Pottery & Tile demonstrates how he casts his handmade tiles in front of the Handcrafted America film crew.

Handcrafted America is a cable TV show dedicated to showcasing artisans around the country that still make things the old-fashioned way, by hand. Each episode features three artisans that are arguably the best in their trade, interviewed by host Jill Wagner in their own workspaces. Wagner takes an immense pride in introducing viewers to the makers of crafts mundane (brooms) and elaborate (chess sets hand carved from Hawaiian Koa wood).
click to enlarge Jill Wagner interviews guitar maker and musician Wayne Henderson. - RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • Jill Wagner interviews guitar maker and musician Wayne Henderson.

“These are the things that are important to me and to this country — to not forget about our culture,” she says. “We started off making things with our hands.”

It was only a matter of time before the series, now airing the second season and filming the third, made its way to New Orleans. The wealth of talent in the Crescent City — musical, visual and so forth — easily could fill its own dedicated show.

One of the artisanal shops featured in season three is Magazine Street’s Derby Pottery & Tile. Mark and Ann-Marie Derby’s shop sells pottery items like mugs and pitchers, but the artisan tile that Mark painstakingly designs and glazes is so popular that it has both a local and national following. Just in the last year, Derby Pottery & Tile has been commissioned to embellish the fireplaces and backsplashes in homes as far away as Wisconsin. The shop was also contracted to create the tile flooring used in Ralph Brennan’s Disneyland restaurant, Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen, to give it an authentic New Orleans look.

click to enlarge The Magazine Street shop front. - COURTESY OF SIMONE MCDOWELL OF INSP
  • Courtesy of Simone McDowell of INSP
  • The Magazine Street shop front.

Mark’s academic background (fine arts degrees and professor of pottery at Tulane’s Newcomb College) uniquely suits him for a career in vessel making. He used to create pottery and other gallery-quality art, but with the takeoff of Derby Pottery & Tile 17 years ago, his focus shifted to everyday art like tiles, vases and clocks (the original Sewerage and Water Board Water Meter clock, to be precise), but the quality remains.

The New Orleans influence in Derby Pottery & Tile's goods is easy to spot: the alligator and crown appliques on mugs and pitchers, the six different fleur-de-lis patterns available for handmade tiles. Some influences are more elusive but no less local. For years, Mark Derby has found inspiration for tile designs in unlikely places, such as an antique Victorian screen (the sister of which is in a French Quarter bar), or piles of rubble left behind after post-Katrina renovations. A notable example is the ceiling tin salvaged from the old Dixie Tavern, the embossed grid and floral arabesque pattern of which can be seen in Derby Pottery’s tray of the same name.

click to enlarge Ann-Marie Derby poses in front of some of the store's wares. The Dixie Tavern tray is on the table to Derby's left, shown in the champagne glaze. - COURTESY OF SIMONE MCDOWELL OF INSP
  • Courtesy of Simone McDowell of INSP
  • Ann-Marie Derby poses in front of some of the store's wares. The Dixie Tavern tray is on the table to Derby's left, shown in the champagne glaze.

Mark has honed his craft over his two-plus decades in the city. The most stunning aspect of his work is the glaze that he uses on the tiles — a proprietary glaze that he developed after tweaking the mineral elements over time. Ann-Marie explains that most of their tiles are made in bas relief, with an image cast in the tile, and that the glazes give the tiles their distinct color profile.

“The types of glazes that Mark’s created really do set off that relief — they have a glassy, jewel-like quality that the image shines through beautifully,” she says. “We have the primary source to a pattern that would have been used in an architectural element (like molding or corbels). We make things that are taken from old ceiling tin (tiles) or old ironwork.”

Mark also finds inspiration in things like old wood and tooled leather, and is no stranger to salvage yards.

Even those who’ve never stepped foot in the Derbys’ Magazine Street store have likely seen their work. Mark just completed the renovation of the fountain on the facade of Schoen Funeral Home on Canal Street, and he’s also recreated the 2” by 2” tiles that cover the Rampart Street side of the Saenger Theatre’s walkway.

The iconic blue and white street tile can be purchased individually or mounted into a ready-to-hang piece of artwork. - DERBY POTTERY & TILE
  • Derby Pottery & Tile
  • The iconic blue and white street tile can be purchased individually or mounted into a ready-to-hang piece of artwork.

Derby’s street tiles are as ubiquitous as they are classically New Orleans. Anyone who has walked down Magazine or Oak Streets or St. Claude Avenue has stepped passed the traditional white tiles with blue lettering made right in Derby’s shop.

“We have thousands of street tiles that are out there,” Ann-Marie says. “We’ve lost track.”

Road construction is booming, with drainage and sewerage line repairs and the addition of curb cuts to make street corners ADA compliant, and Derby Pottery & Tile received several contracts with the city to replace the tiles disturbed or destroyed by the construction. Ann-Marie hopes that their business will also win a contract to put the tiles in places where they are not, like the iconic sidewalks of St. Charles Avenue, where locals and visitors alike can see yet another detail that makes New Orleans so unique.

“I think we’re the only city with our own font,” she says.

Those interested in seeing the Derbys on TV will have to wait a while — season three of Handcrafted America won’t air until next year, and currently is only available on cable, but the real thing awaits right in Uptown. Patrons need not wait until 2018 to support local craftsmen or to realize what Wagner discovered after only two days in the city.

“I admire (these artisans) because they’ve spent all this time perfecting what they’re doing and not giving up,” she says. “A lot of people get frustrated within the first year, but they persevere. [They] really deserve recognition.”

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