On Display: Artist Tells Sterling’s Story Through Ceramics

If you’ve been in any local library lately, chances are you’ve come across the enchanting tilework of Loudoun artist Joan Gardiner.

Gardiner’s eye-catching creations grace the walls of five Loudoun libraries. And her latest project, a vibrant tile work for the new Sterling Library is slated to be installed in June. The project focuses on transportation and immigration as both a homage to Sterling’s thriving immigrant community and an effort to engage young patrons.

“It’s ‘Like Cars and Trucks and Things That Go,’” Gardiner said, referring to Richard Scarry’s iconic children’s book. “You can just think of how many children come in and these vehicles would be so happy and colorful and busy—and then interesting things going on in the background.”

The 10-foot by 10-foot “Journeys To Sterling” piece features bright free-form clay vehicles, that pop out of the tiles, designed to be appealing to children, including a vintage airplane, an old-school step-van-style delivery truck and a Mayflower moving truck, inspired by the 1960s and ’70s when Sterling Park, one of Loudoun’s first planned communities, came into existence.

But behind the colorful airplanes and automobiles, Gardiner has designed more subtle background tiles depicting scenes from the countries of origin of many of Loudoun’s immigrants—from a Mexican market to a Vietnamese shopping center. Gardiner is also on the hunt for photographs of immigrants who settled in Sterling, which she’ll reproduce on clay.

Ceramicist Joan Gardner at work in her studio in the village of Unison.
[Douglas Graham/Loudoun Now]
       While most of Gardiner’s past library projects have been funded through private foundations or developer contributions, those options aren’t available in Sterling. So the Loudoun Arts Council has stepped in with a crowdfunding campaign to augment a Virginia Commission For The Arts grant to finance the project.

Gardiner initially wanted to be a painter when she enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore but was soon drawn to the school’s ceramics program. After art school, Gardiner spent time in Washington, DC, and apprenticed with noted Georgetown ceramicist Jill Hinckley. But it was another passion that brought her to Loudoun more than four decades ago.

“I was always in love with horses. I wanted to be somewhere where I could build a kiln and be with my horse,” she said.

She bought her home in the tiny village of Unison, inspired in part by an old blacksmith’s shop on the property that still operates as her studio, in 1973. She met her husband, the writer John Rolfe Gardiner, who had also gravitated from DC to western Loudoun, through mutual friends, and the Gardiners are still fixtures in the Loudoun’s arts and literary scene.

And while Gardiner initially made a living shoeing horses when she settled in Loudoun’s rural west, over the past 40 years, she has built a reputation as an accomplished ceramicist with a devoted private clientele. But the library projects hold a special place in her heart. Her first library commission at Purcellville Library in 1994 features a charming tile abecedary in the children’s room with rhymes by her husband. A large-scale installation in the lobby of Rust Library in Leesburg features traditional textiles from around the world, with freeform images of beloved hand games like rock, paper scissors, along with a tribute to the Rust family, who donated the land on which the library is built.

The work of Joan Gardiner can be seen at five of Loudoun County’s libraries, including this display at Rust Library in Leesburg.
[Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]
       When Ashburn Library was built in 2003, it was one of the most contemporary public buildings in the county, with its glass entryway and unique design. Gardiner decided to contrast the modern building with an installation based on fossils, an artistic choice that has been a hit with Ashburn’s young families.

“It really worked, Gardiner said.

When Loudoun’s latest library branch, Gum Spring, opened four years ago, Gardiner took inspiration from the building’s large window overlooking a wetland and went for a riparian theme featuring animals that thrive in that habitat. This large-scale project was followed by one of her smaller public works—a small mural at the tiny Middleburg Library.

The project in Sterling, a suburb that boasts one of Loudoun’s most diverse communities, has been especially joyful in its conception and fits in well with the library’s contemporary design, Gardiner said. Nestled in a Sterling shopping plaza, a location chosen for optimal accessibility, the library is slated to open in mid-April.

“Throughout Loudoun County, Joan Gardiner’s tile art is featured in many library branches. In celebrating the places and people of Loudoun, her work builds a strong sense of community, an important mission of public libraries,” said Loudoun County Public Library director Chang Liu.

And that’s just what “Journeys To Sterling” aims to do.



To contribute to Loudoun Arts Council’s “Journeys To Sterling” fundraiser and to watch a video about Gardiner’s work, go to gofundme.com/sterlinglibrary.


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