Artist Diana Alva, founder of the Detroit Clay Co.
, was moved to
create something special for Valentine's Day, and what she produced was
a four-inch square tile boasting a large free-form heart framing a
highly textured field of spirals, hatch-marks and grooves. In the
center of the heart she stamped in typeface "Detroit," and below that:
"Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."
Alva and husband James Puntigam create tiles,
mosaics, pottery and paintings in their small Southwest Detroit studio.
vagueness typical of an artist who creates by intuition more than
intellect, she says there was no specific impetus behind the "Toto" tile. Seen
objectively, it's an atypical love offering to the city where Alva and
Puntigam have spent their entire lives. But upon reflection, it's
incredibly apt: Even though decades of economic and social vicissitudes
must at times make Detroit seem as strange and unfamiliar as the Land
of Oz, it's always been their home -- and there's no place like it.
Detroit Clay Co., which Alva started five years ago after ending a
seven-year stint as administrator of the Foundation Department at
Detroit's College for Creative Studies, is a great source for small and
large gift tiles, kits for kitchen and bathroom backsplashes and
floors, trivets, magnets and pottery. Alva learned the tile craft while
working at Detroit's renowned Pewabic Pottery in the early 1990s, but
her work is set apart from the classic Pewabic designs. Alva and
Puntigam create tiles that are more whimsical, free-form and at times
"She's more than just a potter," Puntigam says of
his wife. "She's a painter, so she creates images you don't see in just
plain Pewabic with its iconic images stamped in them. She's much looser
What also sets Detroit Clay Company apart is that Alva
and Puntigam use terracotta clay, which has iron that, according to
Puntigam, intensifies the colors used on it.
The duo's tiles,
which can be found at the Detroit Artists Market
, the Grosse Pointe Art Center
and at the Ladybug Gallery on Hubbard St. in Detroit, offer a
wide array of themes. One commemorates Detroit's jazz legacy, another
features a dragon inspired by an Aztec cave painting, and another
boasts a mermaid. One of Alva's tiles, portraying the tree of life, has
a sun symbolizing light, a bird evoking flight, a crustacean to
remember the past, and a human hand (a theme in much of Alva's work)
celebrating mankind's ability to build. Another features a female robot
with Aztec characteristics, which Alva made when her work as an
administrator made her feel like an automaton, divorced from the
process of creation.
The duo is in the process of retooling the
collection to include more trims and kits for home interiors, and will
eventually include a Michigan line featuring deer, black bears, and
large mouth bass. They also accept commissions, and can work with
designers or contractors to match the theme and palette of a project.Detroit roots and reflections
only child, Alva was raised by Mexican parents in a home near Tiger
Stadium. Her first words were the names of the teams' players, and she
learned her numbers by studying the backs of their jerseys. Her father
was highly artistic, constantly drawing, sculpting and painting, and he
taught her life lessons -- such as the perils of crossing the street --
using puppets. Anything the family needed, be it a toy or a lamp, he
"I thought everybody lived that way," recalls Alva, who
has studied art at Wayne State University, Henry Ford Community
College, and Wayne County Community College.
As for Puntigam,
his family was not artistic at all. He discovered his talent in 9th
grade, when he attended school at a Catholic seminary and befriended a
boy who carved tiki heads out of wood. Around the same time, Puntigam,
who later studied for a time at Wayne State University but is mostly
self-taught, discovered DaVinci. He remembers poring over books on the
master's works in the school library.
The couple has stayed in
Detroit because of deep roots, a low cost of living that allows them to
work as artists, and the opportunities for collaboration within the
artist community. There's also the opportunity to be inspired.
city in its own way is beautiful," Puntigam observes. "If you look at
burnt wood, it's beautiful. You can look at things in a different way
-- is the glass half-full or half-empty? I have a friend who walks
everywhere, and you can see the gum and the cracks in the sidewalk in
his work. It really influences his art."
While not technically
part of the Detroit Clay Co. inventory, the fine art paintings of
Alva and Puntigam are something of which to be aware, as well.
Puntigam's are highly textual, often painted over a surface prepared
with glue and sand and paper. His older works portray humans and
animals through abstract forms that are disturbing and disarrayed
(think of Picasso's "Guernica"), but he says he's moved past his
angst-filled oeuvre and is working on more serene pieces inspired by
his visits to a Buddhist temple. Lately Puntigam, who is enthralled by
the abstract expressionism of American art from the 1930s and 1940s, is
working on a series of "sangha trees" that touch on the topic of
Alva describes her paintings, largely done in
acrylics, as "toothy." She uses a "push-pull" technique, applying paint
with brushes, cardboard or sticks, to create a "structural thicket"
with textured lines reminiscent of calligraphy. She describes the
process like taking a walk in the woods: "you turn around and question
how you got through, then you turn around again and don't know how to
The painting demonstrates Alva's knack for perceiving
opportunities for optimism throughout the process of creation and the
potential for that optimism to transfer to the beholder. For good
measure, she stamps "Spirit. Gotta Have It!" on the back of each of her
"It just gives it a good vibe," she says.
Lucy Ament is a freelance writer and contributor to Model D. Send feedback here
Diana Alva's kitchen is more like her own personal gallery
Terracotta clay pot
Both artists, Diana Alava & James Puntigam, display work through out their home.
Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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