Detroit Clay Co.: Southwest Detroit Artists Find, Create Beauty in the City

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.

With the 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.

The 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 provocative.

"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 with it."

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

An 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 made.

"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.

"The 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 community.

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 get out."

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 tiles.

"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

Diana Alva

Terracotta clay pot

Jazzy Tiles

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
Contact Marvin here

Signup for Email Alerts