Individual Contributor to the Arts, Silver City

Lee Gruber, co-founder of the Silver City tile business Syzygy and director of the Silver City Clay Festival, has been named for a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. During her career, she pursued goals “that promote contemporary visual art, foster an understanding of the history of New Mexico cultural arts, and nurture an environment that will economically support the business of art,” according to award presenter New Mexico Arts. Gruber has also donated an estimated $50,000 in materials to local organizations and projects.

Gruber and her husband, David del Junco, established Syzygy 26 years ago in their house, an adobe that he built in the 1970s. The couple was energized following a trip to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where they visited the Moravian Pottery & Tile Works, which Henry Mercer founded a century ago. “We saw what was done in the early 20th century and we thought, We can do that. We can figure that out,” says Gruber, who won the Governor’s Award in the Individual Contributor to the Arts category.

“Henry Mercer collected tile from all over the world and put people to work making it, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”

Gruber and del Junco had taken ceramics classes in college, but they weren’t clay artists or trained ceramicists. The two set about working with many different clay bodies, but they considered local red clay to be more in keeping with New Mexico pottery traditions — even though Mimbres potters in the southern part of the state had also used a white body.

“There are hundreds of red clay bodies that exist in this world, and they all have different combinations of materials and they fire to different temperatures,” Gruber said in a recent interview with Pasatiempo. “The clay body we used could fire hot enough that we felt comfortable with people walking on it and using it for countertops. You make those decisions.”

Syzygy went on to gain a reputation for its excellent architectural ceramics. Many of their tiles were inspired by architectural details that they found around the world. “One example was when we were in a train station in Paris and there was a beautiful tile on the wall. We took a photo and replicated it when we came back home, making changes that maybe suited us a little bit, artistically. Or we would see a tile in a building in New York City or San Francisco, always something that was carved, that inspired us to replicate it in the form of a tile that could be used in a person’s home.” Or in hotels, for example Disney World’s Port Orleans Resort, which ordered 20,000 tiles from Syzygy in 2014.

Many times, it was a piece of railing or door frame that caught their attention. When they saw a certain wood molding at a Utah bed-and-breakfast, it was time to go shopping. “We got some modeling clay,” Gruber says with a laugh, “and in the middle of the night we got up and pressed it into the molding and took that home and made a tile.”

Their business has also shown tile work by other artists from Silver City and around the country. “Our goal was to be sort of a tile museum, a place where people could come and see — Oh, they still make things like this by hand, human beings still make these products.”

Syzygy grew to 35 employees just before the recession, then leveled out at a couple of dozen. Syzygy tiles were sold all over the United States and into Canada, so the business was also bringing in outside dollars. It certainly evolved into a significant community-focused business.

“It wasn’t just the two of us making tile. It was an employer located in the heart of the historic district in Silver City,” Gruber says. “It served a real community purpose, putting people to work.”

Beyond the tile work, she served as board president of Southwest New Mexico Arts Culture and Tourism and then of the Silver City Arts & Cultural District. And it was through her vision that the Silver City Clay Festival and the Southwest New Mexico Clay Arts Trail were established.

Gruber has retired from Syzygy and is helping to make the trail “something worthwhile and significant,” as she puts it.

Initiated in 2013, the Clay Arts Trail has more than 50 member sites in Luna, Hidalgo, Grant, and Catron counties, and it partners with clay-related historic sites, including the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site and Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. “It’s all about art and archaeology — anything having to do with the world of clay, including galleries that support clay artists.

“I also pay attention to geology and petroglyphs,” Gruber says. “The clay festival really looks at the earth and what comes out of it. We use clay in a pretty broad way.” 

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