- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

Alfredo Ratinoff teaches his students to create beauty from a hunk of clay. Although a slab of white or red clay may not look like much at first, good technique and a little inspiration can bring forth stunning ceramic tiles.

Hand-painted tiles have been used for centuries to enhance the walls and floors of structures throughout many cultures.

“The tile world is very simple,” says Mr. Ratinoff, a ceramic tile artist. “Any kind of clay can be cut and attached to the wall. Making a tile is easy. What you do with the tile is when the mystery starts.”

Mr. Ratinoff is teaching the Smithsonian Associates class “Ceramic Tile Making” from Jan. 22 through March 19. The course is in eight sessions, 2 hours per session. The cost is $235 for resident members and $280 for the general public.

“It’s delightful to work with people who have doubts, and they are questioning themselves,” Mr. Ratinoff says. “Some of them end up being very promising students.”

In addition to teaching, Mr. Ratinoff’s own work is in many private collections. Originally from Buenos Aires, he is best known for his pottery pieces, sculpture and large-scale tile murals. (Click on www.alfredoratinoff.com to see some of his pieces.)

His work was featured in the winter 2006 edition of “At Home, An Oprah Magazine” in an article about talk-show host Cristina Saralegui. An exhibit of his work, “Treasures from the Palace — the Objects” is featured at the Watergate Gallery in Northwest until Jan. 28.

Learning to work with clay takes a great deal of patience, says Dr. Clara Aisenstein, 67, of Northwest. Last year, she took the Smithsonian Associates class with Mr. Ratinoff.

“It forms part of your character,” Dr. Aisenstein says. “You have to wait and learn about yourself a lot.”

After the sessions finished, she continued to study with Mr. Ratinoff as an apprentice student at his teaching studio in Hyattsville. Because she is retiring from psychiatry, she decided to invest time in making artwork.

So far, Dr. Aisenstein has created sculptures with ceramic tiles and hopes to expand her portfolio of pieces through further instruction.

Teaching art is not like teaching math or science, Mr. Ratinoff says. It must be taught on an individual basis.

When working with beginning students, he shows them how to use a wire cutter to slice clay. Even though the clay tiles are handmade, they should be kept at a consistent thickness. Therefore, slabs of clay are placed in a roller after they are cut.

“It’s almost like a giant pasta machine,” says Mr. Ratinoff, while turning the handle of the clay roller.

After the clay is a consistent thickness, he uses a cookie-cutterlike device to cut the slab into tiles.

“Now is when the story really starts,” Mr. Ratinoff says. “The sky is the limit. As long as you respond with love, clay will always respond.”

Carving, paint and finishes make each work unique, he says. Sketching a design on paper is advised before creating it on a tile. Mr. Ratinoff specializes in icons and especially enjoys making angels.

One large tile can be used for a piece, or a sequence of tiles can be used — popular sizes are 4 inch by 4 inch, 6 inch by 6 inch and 12 inch by 12 inch. Separate pieces should be numbered on the back, so they can be put together easily.

When a design has been added through carving or paint, the pieces dry until they are ready for firing. Mr. Ratinoff has one gas and two electric kilns next to the teaching studio behind his house.

During the firing process, the tiles are heated to between 1,800 and 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit to harden the tile bodies. After firing, a glaze is applied. Depending on the project, pieces can be refired multiple times.

“Students explore what it means to be an artist and create something with their hands,” Mr. Ratinoff says. “You discover what you have in your soul. You don’t teach art to create 32 Picassos. You teach art to open the windows of imagination.”

After firing, large tiles can be cracked and made into a mosaic. The clay pieces can be glued to a plywood board or other pieces of clay. Color grout can be used for decoration.

“Once it comes out of the kiln, I decide if I will keep it in one piece or not,” Mr. Ratinoff says. “If I grab a hammer, I go straight forward and smash it. I smash one piece at a time with a plan to put it back together.”

Creating tiles is a great form of expression, says Judita D’Oliveira, 38, of Northeast. She is one of Mr. Ratinoff’s apprentice students.

She recently fired a sequence of tiles with a picture of a cat named Matilda. The pink paint on her piece turns red after being in the kiln. Before choosing colors, students fire test tiles to see the exact shade the paint becomes.

“It’s fascinating to do tiles,” Ms. D’Oliveria says. “Being creative is something you have to work at every day. I look forward to coming to the studio.”

Almost anything can be portrayed through tiles, says Lesley Bender, 57, of Edgewater, Md., another apprentice student of Mr. Ratinoff’s.

Ms. Bender has painted tropical designs, landscapes, people and fish, often mixing clay with mixed glass for her projects. She says she enjoys the three-dimensional quality of ceramic tile.

“It’s a process to manipulate the clay, to put it together in a finished piece,” Ms. Bender says. “It’s like putting puzzle pieces together. I like the mathematical quality of it.”

Making ceramic tiles takes dedication, says Mary Ann Skinner, 61, of Vienna, one of Mr. Ratinoff’s apprentice students. She works at least three hours a week at his teaching studio.

She recently created a commemorative piece that honors George Washington. Her next project is to create an icon.

“I’ve always loved ceramic tiles,” Ms. Skinner says. “Every time I would see them on a building, I would ‘ooh’ and ‘aah.’ I promised myself that when I retired, I would go to art school and learn how to do this, and that’s what I did.”

Ceramics in general is a very popular course, says Marybeth Kelley, program manager for the studio arts department of the Smithsonian Associates in Southwest.

The magic of the kiln intrigues many students, she says.

“People enjoy working with their hands,” Ms. Kelley says. “It’s a little less threatening for people that may have not taken any art classes. Rather than picking up a pencil, people like to make things they can display in their homes.”

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