By Barbara Sherf
Germantown resident and businesswoman Karen Singer is fired up about celebrating the 20th anniversary of Karen Singer Tileworks, Inc. “I’ve just finished a commemorative tile to give to all our customers, past and present. We want to honor their support of our artistry,” said the diminutive Singer, who at age 56 is an accomplished artist and business owner.
The ceramic artist and her two long-time employees work with hospitals, synagogues and a host of non-profit institutions to create donor recognition walls out of tiles, incorporating names and colorful murals into the walls that will remain in place for years.
“I love that the installations will be up long after I’m gone. I feel honored to make these walls that will have meaning for people into perpetuity. It’s a real privilege,” said Singer from her five-room studio with three kilns, a workroom, display area and two offices.
Her two full-time employees have been with her for more than 15 years. Lisa Longo serves as business manager, overseeing contracts and marketing. She also works in the studio and functions as the company’s “institutional memory.” Longo is the daughter of the late Jim Longo, a longtime Chestnut Hill resident. Ben Myerov, a graduate of Tyler School of Art, is the production manager, technical coordinator and trouble-shooter.
Singer, who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, majored in art as an undergraduate at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA and went on to study sculpture as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.
While she enjoyed doing sculpture, she was also fascinated with tile as a medium, and enrolled in a community college tile-making class. She repeated the class five times to refine her techniques.
“Tile, like sculpture, is three-dimensional, but with tile you can play with amazing colors and textures and patterns. It’s magical,” said Singer, who asks a client a host of questions to get the right feel for a wall or individual plaques. One unique piece she put together was a portrait tile for TV talk show host, Dr. Phil.
“I was exhibiting at a Salvation Army Leadership Conference and met someone there who wanted to thank Dr. Phil for donating his $100,000 speaking fee to the organization. I was a bit embarrassed that I didn’t know who Dr. Phil was and had to do my homework. It was probably the single most expensive small scale piece I’ve ever done.”
Singer relies on her 15-year-old son, Isaac Adlowitz, to keep her up to speed with popular culture. Married to a fine furniture maker, Peter Handler, who also makes his living as an artist on commission (www.handlerstudio.com), the couple tied the knot six years ago after being “friends in a distant way” for years. The couple is working on some collaborative pieces.
“Peter is doing a series of pieces about climate change, and we have collaborated on two of them — The Coral Table and the Golden Toad Reliquary. The Coral Table is a glass-topped table depicting a coral reef in clay; part of the reef is shown as healthy with bright colors and living fish.”
Singer, whose father is a philosophy professor and mother is a medical librarian, grew up around thousands of books. “If I wanted to do something as a child, I had to argue my case and learned early on to reason to get what I wanted.” The whole notion of “just do it because I said so” was not one Singer and her younger sister ever had to confront in their household.
Doylestown Hospital, the Academy of Notre Dame, Friends Hospital, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice and Arden Theater Company have been repeat customers for Singer, three and four times over. Other installations can be viewed at the Red Cross lobby in Center City, Mount St. Joseph Academy in Flourtown and Abington Friends School.
According to Karen Loder, spokesperson for Abington Friends School, “Karen was thoughtful, collaborative and produced a work that will have lasting meaning and value 100 years from now. It’s a challenge to strike all the right notes, but working with someone with Karen’s sensitivity, talent and knowledge contributes invaluably to gratifying results.”
Another of Singer’s major projects currently underway is the restoration of the terra cotta façade at the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia. “This project is huge and represents quite a stretch for us,” she said. “We are building huge ceramic blocks and matching glaze colors from the ‘20s. I’m excited because we are doing outdoor ceramics that can be seen by anyone walking by.”
There is an opportunity coming up to hear Singer speak and/or work with her on a project in Chestnut Hill: a collaborative “Neighborhood Patchwork Quilt” tile project at Center on The Hill. Participants will create a tile to be incorporated into a permanent installation. Singer will give a free introductory presentation on May 11 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. To register, contact Jackie Yorko, 215-247-4654, or firstname.lastname@example.org. More information at www.karensinger.com.