Larry Mobley is an artisan who started installing ceramic tile 40 years ago. At that time in Michigan, tile was almost exclusively functional and was installed in a basic manner in bathrooms and the occasional kitchen without much diversity. Seeking a greater challenge, I began cutting the tiles to make designs with the four by four tiles. I later found a new challenge in working with stone materials which were becoming popular. I found that as with tile, I could also cut the stone in order to create interesting designs. This work parlayed into the mosaic art that I now create with stone and tile as the base material. In 1995, bored with installing tile, I started to look for a new challenge. What I found was a new outlet while attending The Tile Heritage Foundation’s tile symposium in Detroit, Michigan.
The Tile Heritage Foundation is an organization made up of tile artist, collectors, and people that appreciate tile as an art form. The THF gave me a renewed interest in tile. In 1998, I volunteered to help Riley Doty, a tile reclamation specialist from California, to remove twelve drinking fountain backsplashes from East High School in Erie, Pennsylvania. This was the start of something new, saving old tile from the wrecking ball. We did a lot of experimenting with equipment to save these historically important tiles. Although Doty was an expert at reclaiming tiles, he was not interested in traveling countrywide. I was in a position to be able to do so, and a new career was born. With the help of. Joe Taylor at THF, who highly recommends me to anyone who calls about saving tile, I am becoming the nation’s foremost expert in preserving this important art form.
Saving these tiles and mosaics is quite a challenge. Because they are installed in mortar, breakage is highly possible; although in most cases, broken and chipped tile can be repaired. I have two quality standards of tile preservation for installation. The first is museum quality repairs. The tiles need to be repaired with water soluble materials so that the broken areas can be examined or taken apart. Most museums have their own way to prepare tiles. However, if the tiles are to be reinstalled in a building or home, a more secure method using epoxy is utilized. Some tiles are just in need of cleaning because they were waxed or painted. Tiles that have cement and grout on the backs can be ground down with diamond grinders. I use diamond grinders, rotary hammers, hand chisels and pry bars to remove tiles from the mortar base. The work is very slow and requires a lot of patience. Every job has its own removal requirement because of the way it was originally installed years ago.
I have removed tile in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, West Virginia, Georgia, and Missouri. These jobs required removing tile from fireplaces, drinking fountains, bathrooms, and murals. They have been both inside and outside of homes, schools, and commercial buildings. The tiles or mosaics were removed for galleries, museums, commercial intuitions, and individuals. Some of the more notable jobs I have completed have been to preserve American Encaustic Tile at East High School in Erie, Pennsylvania, an F.H. Rhead fireplace in St. Louis, Missouri, a Grueby bathroom tile in Cleveland, Ohio, a Grueby fireplace in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a Flint Faience Tile fireplace and drinking fountain in Royal Oak, Michigan, and Flint Faience tile signage from a Delphi plant in Flint, Michigan. I have also been asked to consult on many jobs in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.
As a tile reclamation specialist, I am building a bridge, piece by piece, between the old and new. My mission blends a passion for historical preservation and art. I believe we must try to save this part of the past because although tile may be reproduced, the history can never be duplicated. It is an art medium that should be preserved for future generations.
Larry working with San Jose Mission tiles in Vernon, TX.