by Stacia Friedman
Karen Singer’s Germantown tile studio is covered in a rainbow of color samples, jars of ceramic glazes and art books. This is where Singer, 62, and her staff turn clay into donor wall murals for nonprofit institutions, including Germantown Friends, Morris Arboretum, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Curtis Institute and dozens of area synagogues and churches.
“We do amazing work all around the country, but no one knows we’re here,” said Singer of her studio hidden away on Church Lane. “A lot has changed in a quarter of a century. Initially we saw making murals as a way to create meaningful public art. Now we see ourselves as fundraising partners, creating murals that inspire giving to nonprofit institutions. A really good portrait captures the spirit of a person. That’s what I am trying to do with the murals I create. Capture an organization’s essence.”
For Doylestown Hospital, for example, Singer met with their development staff who explained that their goal was to create a new kind of Emergency Room. One that would convey a sense of calm and allow patients to “flow” through the unit. After listening to their priorities, Singer spent time scouting the area and came back to the hospital with a concept they loved.
“I showed them a design for a wall mural featuring the nearby Delaware River in which donor names would be engraved upon rocks next to flowing water,” said Singer. “Their fundraising goal was $16 million. The tile mural raised $18.5 million, and we had to add more rocks to include all the additional donors.”
Why do murals attract more donors than merely names engraved on a brass plaque? “Because murals are personal. They relate to an institution’s core values and have a sense of permanence. So many things in life today are ephemeral. People want to leave a lasting legacy.”
Singer sees her role as a storyteller. “It’s about honoring what makes an organization special, trying to find the core identity of a school, hospital or other organization. That’s what I am trying to capture.” Which is why she doesn’t incorporate logo designs into her work. “Logos change. Core values don’t.”
Each mural starts as a sketch that develops into a colored rendering and finally a miniature version of the proposed mural in ceramic tile. When the design is confirmed, Singer creates a bas relief in clay, the same process used by ancient Greeks. “Ceramic tiles are 100% recyclable and green, and yet they can last for over 1,000 years,” said Singer, who traveled to Tunisia to study their ancient tilework. Her work also uses printmaking techniques she studied at Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
“Most of our clients are in the tri-state area, but others are in the Midwest, the South and as far away as San Francisco,” said Project Development Director, Lisa Longo of Chestnut Hill, who has worked with Singer for 22 years.
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Singer moved to Philadelphia in 1978. Her route to becoming a creator of tile donor walls started when she was earning her Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. “While I was at Penn, I was commissioned to create a 600-pound sculpture for a corporate headquarters in the Midwest. That got me thinking how to create monumental installations that would be easier to handle. I took a tile course at Philadelphia Community College, and it was love at first sight.”
A resident of Mt Airy and Germantown since 1983, Singer is married to furniture designer, Peter Handler. In addition to donor walls for capital and endowment campaigns, she creates custom pieces for anniversary gifts and special occasions. This includes a small ceramic plaque of William Penn atop City Hall for a local realtor who gives them as housewarming gifts to clients.
Singer will have a 25th Anniversary Open Studio Reception on Friday, Nov. 25, 4 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit KarenSinger.com.