Mosaic community comes together to restore legacy of visionary tile artist Laurel Skye

MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WORK Talented tilers toil on Laurel Skye's iconic mosaics. Photo by Bob Doran | Union

Gillen Tener Martin
Special to the Union

ARCATA – Arcata residents who visited the Plaza this past weekend likely noticed six integral parts absent.  

Laurel Skye’s iconic tiled trash cans were temporarily removed for restoration by a 16-artist crew. Largely comprised of Skye’s students, the team assembled from near and far last week to give these cultural landmarks the tender love and care that they deserve after years on the Plaza. The cans’ journey to the Arcata Parks Shop was the first time that all six have been removed.

Laurel Skye.

Skye passed on July 22, 2018, and her artistry continues to permeate life in Arcata. Through pieces on public surfaces such as planter boxes, tip jars at morning coffee stops, and traffic circles, she left her beautifying mark on the City and on residents’ day-to-day lives. As restoration effort organizer (and longtime friend/student of Skye’s) Robin Friedman shared, “She just had this thing about wanting to spiff up public utilities. She always had her eye on that fountain on the Plaza [the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Fountain].” 

The proposal for the first can was received by the City of Arcata in January of 2003. The city agreed to pay for the cost of materials and provide transportation assistance, and Skye volunteered her labor. According to Parks/Facilities/Natural Resources Supervisor Stan Shaffer, who supported the effort originally and this weekend, the project “Just came from the kindness of her heart.” The city brought the six heavy stone cans to her house one by one over the course of four years – hoisting them up to working height, leaving Skye to her process, and returning weeks later to find themselves inevitably awestruck. Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer remembers, “We used to drive them in this little green tractor.”

The cans were gathered up the Wednesday before the refurbishment fest. Bob Doran | Union

Skye’s designs depict the nature that envelops and inspires our community’s artists: still-standing egrets, cattails, dragonflies, redwood trees backed by a pale moon, etc. Shaffer described the excitement that city staff felt on their way to pick each can up: “Every one had its own motif. We couldn’t wait to see what the next would be.” 

Arcata’s community was not only brought together by the public pieces she created, but also in her many-roomed, beautifully titled 11th Street residence for classes. The Mosaic House, or “SkyeHouse,” was open to all for workshops, supplies, tours, or just friendly visits. This

is where many of the crew who gathered in the Parks Shop this past weekend met her. The majority of these restoration artists considered Skye a mentor, and had taken countless classes on 11th Street. Some had even joined her in travels – both national and international – to learn from other tilers.

Doran sets it off 

The restoration project originated in part from a 2018 Facebook post by another devotee, Skye’s unofficial photographer Bob Doran. Doran took roughly one thousand pictures of Skye’ art, which, as he put it “became her life.” While documenting Pastels on the Plaza last year, Doran was struck by the damage to these community landmarks. Upwards of 10 years of life in downtown Arcata had left swaths of tile missing. He snapped a photo of Skye’s egret, the panel in the roughest shape, and posted to his Facebook (which is capped at 5,000 friends – he has to kick someone out in order to add someone new). The picture spurred a reaction with more than 50 comments. As Doran explained, “This art is a part of people’s day-to-day lives, and it was broken.” 

The possibility of a restoration project was discussed again two months later, at Skye’s November memorial. The event was inevitably full of mosaic artists from near and far with skill, love for Laurel, and dedication to preserving these six beloved parts of her legacy. Dave Hanson, a student and friend of Skye’s, was the emcee for her service. 

He described the conversation that transpired: “It was like, ‘well, who is going to lead this?’ Then, everyone just slowly turned to Robin. It was unanimous. She was a kindergarten teacher, and if you can organize kindergartners, you have a better-than-average chance of being able to organize artists.” 

Hanson met Skye roughly a decade ago when he made the pilgrimage (as so many did) to Arcata to take her class. Over the last ten years, he has come to town “probably 15 times” from homes first in L.A. and now Phoenix – becoming one of Skye’s “regulars,” along with many of those who were spreading adhesive to cans around us as Dave and I spoke. 

Hanson was already a tiler, but Skye’s approach to her art “changed the world of mosaicking” for him: he characterized it as “All bets off, pedal to the metal – colors, textures... she unleashed and exploded my creative approach. She gave me the freedom to take the breaks off.” The cans stand out to Hanson as an important part of Skye’s legacy – one he is clearly plane-ticket-buying passionate about preserving. He was surprised when he learned that the last of the cans had only gone in three years before his first visit to Arcata: “They seemed like they had been here for 30, they were so embedded in the culture.” He went on to share that being a part of this restoration was like “working on Mount Rushmore” for him.  

RESTORATION ARMY Tile artists assembled to restore the late Laurel Skye’s mosaic-encrusted trash cans. Above, Gina Hey Ma Ma, Renata Maculans, Liz Babich, Sylviane Schwartz, Margie Wood, Robin Friedman, Dave Han-son, Shannon Frischknecht, John Porter, Robbie Basist, Cindy Forsyth and Mariel McLoney. Bob Doran | Union

Robin takes the reins

Following the unanimous head turn in her direction, Robin Friedman – another of Laurel’s protéges – took up the project reins. As current Mosaic Artist in Residence at Old Town’s Parasol Arts, Friedman now teaches classes of her own. She told me that she was nervous when she first started, because “Laurel was the Queen of teaching mosaics,” but that when she expressed this feeling to her mentor, “She told me that she always knew I would teach, and that she was proud of me.” Many of the other tilers shared similar stories of Skye as they scraped and chipped. 

Arcata resident Cindy Forsythe spoke of the “incredible generosity of knowledge and spirit” that kept bringing her back to classes: “It was more than just doing the art, it was how she shared in it that was so impressive to me as a student. A lot of times, artists can be a little competitive. But she was so free spirited with her knowledge.” Robbie Basist, a former student working on the can next to Forsythe, agreed: “She was the quintessential free spirit. She just enveloped us in her wings.” 

Skye’s collaborative philosophy, and belief in accessible arts, was clearly another of her lasting gifts to Arcata, because it trained a following that inherited her community-mindedness. “She didn’t like to sell her work,” Friedman remembered, “she’d always say, ‘I’ll teach you how to do it.’” Thanks to their mentor’s philosophy, the mosaic artists that gathered to caretake her monuments are in turn caretaking Arcata’s community. 

‘What Arcata is all about’

Bob Doran mused on this connection while standing with a camera ’round his neck in the restoration room, “She inspired so many people who want to pay back what she gave them. For me, this is what Arcata is all about – neighbors helping neighbors.” Hanson’s take on the project reflects Skye’s connection to her Arcata community as well: “You are doing something for your mentor’s legacy while giving people new to Arcata a chance to see them fresh.”

On Wednesday, Oct. 16, city staff removed and cleaned the cans while artists organized (and traveled in multiple cases). The mosaicking process began on Friday morning by taking off the old adhesive to put on the new, donated by the family-owned Laticret along with the grout to be used Sunday. 

MOSAIC MASTER, Laurel Skye, right, with her daughter Marley Goldman. Submitted photo

As they catalogued damage and planned, groups of artists made trips to the 11th Street house, now owned by Skye’s daughter, Marley Goldman. 

While in the process of being renovated, it still remains full of the supplies needed. There, Goldman helped artists to tile shop and they would return to the Parks Shop afterward beaming with the excitement of finding the tiles needed – exact matches to the ones that Skye herself had used. 

On a table in the middle of the restoration room were some of Skye’s original concept art sketches. The egret, recognizable to Arcata residents in tile, stands with the same stillness in thick black marker on grid paper. These drawings helped artists to adhere exactly to Laurel’s original vision. 

The last can Skye completed in 2007 stands out from the rest as the only one featuring both rocks and tile. The rocks presented an unexpected opportunity – on Friday morning, Forsythe replaced a section on the base of the sixth can with small pieces of the recently removed McKinley statue. In February of this year, her husband was leaving early morning yoga on the Plaza and caught the tail end of the statue’s removal and snatched a few broken bits from the base to keep as mementos. As Forsythe broke and glued the pieces into place, others watching agreed that Skye would have appreciated the act: she loved repurposing materials. 

While Humboldt it known as a region of artists, craftspeople, and makers, Friedman remembered that “there really wasn’t a lot [of mosaicking] going on in the community” before Skye’s tiling obsession, 11th Street wonder, and “pedal to the metal” personality marked Arcata as a tiling destination. 

Ten out of the 13 artists who began the restoration on Friday morning had taken classes directly from Skye. Those that hadn’t met her directly had often received her knowledge second-hand; for example, Arcata resident Liz Babich – never an 11th Street student – learned from fellow restorer and Skye devotee Sylviane Schwarz. As they worked, the artists continued to remember their mentor: “She didn’t only teach classes in mosaic, but in how to be a human,” Schwarz said.

Basist chimed in: “There was no one like her.”

“Life according to Laurel,” Friedman finished. 

Skye’s work holds a special place in my Arcata childhood. Growing up in a town privileged with with the likes of Duane Flatmo, these cans were the first time I remember community excitement surrounding public art. I was six, but I recall people talking about them. I recall my mother’s excitement around the first installation. I recall the community coming together in celebration of the special people here and the work those people put in to mark “here” as a special place. In this instance, through beautifying public waste receptacles. 

Watching the artists, I could feel a celebratory energy in the Parks Shop as well. Hanson commented on the spirit of the space, “I have overheard multiple conversations of people saying, ‘she’s here with us today.’” The room was full with the knowledge that caring for public arts is entirely in line with Skye’s philosophy. 

As Friedman stated, “Laurel did not appreciate stagnant.” Described by friends as a coffee addict,  she was known to change entire tiled swaths of her home over the course of a couple of days, and “would have wanted her work kept alive.” 

The restoration was completed on Sunday, or “grout day.”

A final note

I will end by sharing Skye’s P.S. (written in her elegant cursive) from the proposal to the city for the first can – received in January of 2003. Thank you Stan Shaffer for saving this essential moment of Arcata history. It still rings true almost 17 years later: 

“P.S. I have lots of students and community members who want to volunteer their help...” 

If you are interested in joining the mosaic community, the registration number for Robin Friedman’s Mosaic 101 Class is (707) 268-8888. 

Gillen Martin is working on arts & culture planning for the City of Arcata. She can be reached at [email protected] with comments or questions. 



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