Profile: Julie Richey

I live in a part of the world in which everyone drones (endlessly) about balance (in everything but politics). This is all good, of course. In theory.

Come on. Aren’t the best times in life come when you’re at least a little obsessed, a little consumed by something? Things matter: there’s an edge, an extra boost of adrenalin, a hunger for something outside of ourselves. (And I’m not talking about those Louboutins at Barney’s.) Humans were built to obsess.

And let’s be honest, people who are obsessed are so much more interesting, aren’t they?

That thought definitely popped into mind when I saw this image.

Photography credit: Stacy Bratton

Breathtaking in its beauty–and its audacious obsessiveness. Who on earth could do this kind of work, which adds painstaking (all those little tiles) to painstaking (turning them into a dress…and all those spikes!)?

This was someone obsessed, definitely. Odd, possibly. Oh well, I thought, as I set up the interview, occupational hazard.

Julie Richey, award-winning mosaicist, certainly blew my idea of what that person would be like. She is obsessed, but in the (good) way that people are when they have a firm grasp of who they are, embrace their eccentricities, and live life full-tilt. She’s rock and roll. She’s a wife and mother. She’s warm, effervescent, frank, and very, very funny.

And she’s based in Texas.

Yessirree. Not even Austin: the suburbs of Big D (Dallas).

Photography Credit: Claire Richey

Now Julie is not FROM Texas: she originally hails from Minneapolis, and she happens to have studied art history as a Rotary Foundation Graduate Scholar at the Universita’ degli Studi di Perugia, Italy.  (The picture becomes clearer.)

Why Texas? I came to Dallas to go to college (University of Dallas) It had a great study abroad program in Dallas. (Ah I get it.) Worked at an art gallery, then arts administration after that.

So why mosaics? It wasn’t my original art form of choice. But if you’re the type of person, then you get hooked. And I got hooked.

Photography Credit: Julie Richey

But what specifically makes someone fall in love with mosaics? Most of us like to work with our hands, create things. You need a certain type of dexterity with mosaics, which is good to use if you have it. And there’s the magpie aspect to the work, looking for all those different tiles, stone to use. (Julie works with variety of media including natural stone, ceramic, porcelain, and glass (Italian smalto, stained glass and vitreous glass. Talk about magpie.)

And for me, I love to cover surface. Give me a blank shape and I’m inspired! I just can’t wait to start covering it with color. (She delivers this line with a certain childlike zest that reminds me of a kid at a restaurant who’s been given a box of crayons and told that it’s OK to draw on the table.) When I’m working I just get into a zone, a rhythm, and I just keep going till late…sometimes that’s not what I should be doing. I’ll end up filling a space with a certain color even though I meant to stop with that color…Then what do you do? Oh I make it work!

Was there a love at first sight moment? The thing that made me think I had to do a mosaic was going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing the polychrome floors. And I got the wild hair to do mosaics. It wasn’t actually there (at the museum) but on the way home from the airport I realized it.

Were you in another career at the time? I had a full-time PR job at a nonprofit in Dallas. On the weekends with my best friend from college, I was making art cakes. Art cakes?  Yes: Klimt’s “The Kiss” for weddings, Munch’s “The Scream” for a 50th birthday. (Ah.) But it was too labor intensive for the money we were making!

When I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to do mosaics, she mentioned an article in AD about Randy Yost who did mosaics and flooring. I just cold called him! Miraculously, he told me I could come down (to Houston) to work with him.  And there I was, a little while later, working with guys who looked like they were in Mötley Crüe with tattoos of naked ladies on their arms.

Photography Credit: Lynne Chinn

Fabulous. It was! Once I learned, things just started happening: a friend had me do a floor, then that led to something else…and then…it just took off via word of mouth.

And I was hooked. Even when the kids came along but I refused to give it up. Now I do some pieces independently but also do larger public and private commissions, sometimes fabricating an artist’s design, but primarily doing my own.

What are you working on now? I’m working on the fifth of five panels for a client. They use sacred geometry concepts, Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Mean. There’s a commission for a floor at the University of Texas, and for the University of Dallas, there’s piece for the Rome campus. I’m working with an art history professor on that one.

How’s that work? I fabricate in my studio, and then will fly to Rome to install. It’ll be embedded in the wall.

Do you sketch everything out before you start? No. I hated drawing in college! I prefer the abstract. I really do love the fabrication aspect of the process and can’t wait to get to that. That’s the fun part: the color selection, the hand-cutting and manipulating the hard materials – bending them to my will.

Photography Credit: Ana Foncerrada

Do you find yourself jumping into something without enough planning? A lot of people have the same bug I had when I was young: they’re in such a hurry to glue the materials down (it’s the fun part) that they don’t spend the time cutting the pieces small enough and designing. But I’ve learned.

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

Tell me about this shirt: it’s so not what you expect mosaics to be a part of, and yet it’s so utterly perfect. (She won the prestigious Orsoni Prize for that one.) It’s called the Night Shirt and it was inspired by trip to San Francisco. I had been doing vertical landscapes for a while…this is a nighttime version of the same concept. But I don’t remember how this became a shirt! It’s just one of those things. I’d had the image in my head for so long, but it kind of leapt into a shirt form unexpectedly.

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

What I do know is that it was so hard to make! I used tweezers on it! It was a teeny tiny veneer of mosaic over an undulating concrete form. The only way to get that to work over the undulating form is to use incredibly small tiles. There’s nothing on that shirt that’s more than a 1/4 inch square.

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

And tell me about this piece, which is what I fell for so hard to begin with. It’s La Corrente (the current) and it was commissioned by a friend. I had this idea for doing a really lovely ball dress. A friend found a dressmakers form and we were off and running.  While I was constructing La Corrente, I got the idea to use sealife and plant life. At the same time, I discovered that Giant Asian Sea Kelp is invading the Gulf of Mexico and causing great harm to the ecosystem.  In addition to that, the Gulf oil spill and explosion had just happened, so that was saturating the news in my studio as I worked.  The client for whom the dress was made is a fan of the Texas gulf coast and goes often on fishing weekends.  It seemed a perfect fit.  I tried to contrast the ugly reality of the death and destruction with the serene figure of the clean, white gown and its fragile sea spine underskirt.

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

Photography Credit: Julie Richey

You’ve done these great pieces of clothing…what was that about and do you want to do more? I definitely want to do more clothing sculpture, more fashion meets mosaics. It’s just a matter of working them into the schedule. I also want my work to have some cultural and social relevance…I have some ideas I’m thinking about..!

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

Photography Credit: Stacy Bratton

What’s a moment of transcendence for you? Oh there are so many. Let’s see. Being in Rome on a summer night, walking home from drinks, watching a couple kiss against a car, and as they do, an old man walks by and starts serenading them….(lovely!)

And I love starting to cook with a bunch of friends of coming over…for me, food is love.

Who would play you in the movie of your life? All my friends say I look like Diane Lane. (In Under the Tuscan Sun, of course.)

And what genre of film? Tragicomedy…maybe a black comedy….sadness but joy.

What about the five things that define you? Well, trying not to be trite:

1. My girls, Claire (15) and Kate (12).  I imagined parenting was going to be a lot harder than it is with these two delightful humans.  They are happy, artistic, healthy, thoughtful, compassionate and creative.  And I enjoy virtually every moment being their mother, though I do admit to getting a bit cranky at the end of their summer vacation when it seems I will never be able to get back to work in my own studio.  I try to remind myself that these opportunities for togetherness won’t last forever.  Spending time with them is a delight.

2. Mosaics, of course.  But my love of art and the creative process in general, whether it be sewing Halloween costumes, baking cakes that look like Impressionist paintings, or making ironic protest signs when the Westboro haters come to Texas. (Love.)

3. Gingerbread.  I’m compulsive about my annual cookie production.  I’ve used the same recipe since 1990, and even won a holiday cookie contest with my bite-sized, gilded snowflakes.  It’s a pretty serious obsession.  I don’t even like to share the frosting duties with the kids.

Photography Credit: Julie Richey

How twisted is that?  I also make gingerbread houses and give them as table centerpieces.  When my grandma passed away, I found the one I have given her several years earlier, carefully wrapped in the original cellophane, its Royal Icing yellowed, sitting on a shelf in her laundry closet.  Every year, the neighbors ask about when they’ll receive their recycled Illy Espresso cans filled with tasty gingerbread cookies.  Which leads to #4…

4. A double latte in the morning.  Yes, I travel with my Italian Moka stovetop coffee maker and a can of Illy Espresso Grind coffee.

5. Our parties.  We love to entertain, and will come up with any excuse to celebrate.  Election night, end of the school year, PaellaFest, LobsterFest, kids’ birthdays and friends’ milestones – like when a good friend was made Dean of the university.  The best party to date was “Come out, come out, Whomever you are!”  Everyone was invited to come as their alter-ego.  I was Rolodexia, Mistress of Referrals.  People frequently call me for the name of a good roofer, Roman tour guide, piano teacher, etc.  I love helping people make quality connections. A Swiss Guard?  The Duke of Parma?  A textile conservator?  Rolodexia’s got you covered.

Obsessive. But in such a good, good way.






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