Northern Michigan Decorative Ceramic Tile Artist Says Work Is In His Genes & Comes From The Heart

Jul 29, 2021

Michigan tile art by Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

Leif Spörck says he felt compelled and pulled by the heart to keep the family pottery business going. He played basketball in college and thought about becoming a lawyer but decided to return to northern Michigan and create decorative, ceramic art tiles with the root of his work in nature.

He shares his story with WEMU's Lisa Barry about his tiles, which he sells up north and at art fairs around the state.


TRANSCRIPTION:

Lisa Barry: A lot of people heading up north this time of the year for a change of pace and scenery. This is Lisa Barry, and there's a northern Michigan tile artist whose work you will likely see in many areas of northern Michigan, and he's based in Suttons Bay. He makes decorative tiles with everything from the University of Michigan Block M to fish and rocks and cherries. So we're very grateful to welcome Leif Sporck to WEMU. Thanks for talking to us.

Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

Leif Sporck: Thanks for having me.

Lisa Barry: Do you consider yourself an artist, a creator, and how would you describe what you do?

Leif Sporck: I create a decorative ceramic art tiles. And, you know, the business started as me having grown up in Leelanau County, which has such a great tourist economy. And having also grown up at a pottery, I just had a, I don't know, an understanding of not only nature and, you know, everywhere that people really kind of flocked to and really, you know, the iconic locations of northern Michigan, and I started creating tiles, carving designs, starting with nature and then, kind of, as my collection of designs grew and as I went to more art fairs, I create tiles that also include, you know, these iconic places and locations and all over the state of Michigan. And these are decorative art tiles, ceramic high fire ceramic tiles, very much like some people may know, aquatic pottery or Motawi tile. I'm a version of those two businesses, those companies, but I've, kind of, I've decided after doing this for 19, almost 20 years now, I've decided that I want to stick more towards the art, the artistry of it, the art of it, not think so much as in streamlining the tiles to make everything kind of work with bathroom back splashes, but, instead, I want to make as many designs as possible and that part of my artistry, my carving, my creativity, that, I don't know, I think that kind of my creativity when I carve a design, I feel is nothing is more intricate, more detailed, more personal than had I decided to, like, become a big company. Not that it's something big could come out of my work someday in my collection, but, you know, I'm not worried about making tiles of people that are just plain one color that go on your backsplash and then maybe every once in a while you'd put in one of mine. So that's what I do, basically.

Mulitples Tile Art by Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

  

Lisa Barry: They're kind of like markers of Michigan, sort of commemorative. And I don't want to diminish it by saying souvenirs, but you'll have Petoskey stones and you'll have sailboats. And I've seen Leeland and sunrises and sunsets. Are you focusing along those lines?

Leif Sporck: Yeah. As I was explaining, like, you know, when I grew up in a pottery. So, you know, I mean, instead of doing chores when I was a kid before I could go out and hang out with my friends, before I could drive a car, this was this is where this is before I went to a public school This was Suttons Bay High School, a public school. I mean, I grew up in my dad's workshop playing in his wood stove while he was throwing pots. And he was a ceramics instructor at the college in Traverse City. So, I couldn't go out and play with my friends until I had 50 pinch pots made or twenty five little pigs. I learned everything, all the ceramic. I mean, I did it when I was so young. I guess it was just like ingrained in my knowledge. I didn't need to go to art school to learn how to form clay. I just knew all these things. So I went to college, I went to Hope College in Holland, Michigan. And I was recruited to play basketball there. So I kind of threw me out of the whole art family, I guess you call it that I was in, you know, the notoriety and the excitement behind my basketball playing. So I went to Hope College, you know, and I was studying law, and I played basketball there for two years and did really well. I was the only one of two freshmen on the varsity. And we were runners up in the nation in 1997, 1998. But, you know, I realized basketball wasn't going to be how I made--you know, it took time for me to understand this. And then I wanted to be a lawyer and I did really well and graduated from home. But then I decided that this was being a lawyer wasn't going to be what I wanted to do. So I found myself back up to northern Michigan when that decision was made. And I started carving tiles unexpectedly. But part of me always, kind of in the back of my mind, knew that there was no way I could let my dad's business, my parents, my parents' pottery, mainly my dad's drive. You know, there was something special in that I knew that tradition that he started. When you live in northern Michigan and your dad has a successful business as an artist, I guess there's some there's something about that you would be denying if you didn't somehow become, you know, take on that rare possibility. I mean, it's not everyone that finds something that can be, you know, their livelihood in northern Michigan. And I guess part of me probably knew that as almost like a morel thing, that I shouldn't turn my back to this. But it was also in my heart was also something that, you know, that I loved from my childhood. So when I first started carving tile, I mean, I grew up working on farms mainland, working on farms and farm markets. And then I had a pottery at my house. So the first 50 designs that I made, probably in the first two years that I started my business, there are all the things that I grew up knowing that people got excited about. Morel mushrooms, trilliums. I did all the towns in Leelanau County, Leland, Suttons Bay, Northport, Glen Arbor, Lake Leelanau. You know, I kept checking them off the list, and then I started doing fish because I love the fish.And I did, you know, specific types of fish designs. And then I almost I had all these Audubon books and I was growing up, field guides, learning how to identify things, you know. And then when I created a website, I started categorizing the different categories of designs. I had wildflowers. I had mammals. I had fish. I had insects. So, it started like that. And, you know, it wasn't very long after two or three or four years, I had a hundred designs, and I started going to art fairs. And then when I, you know, I was selling the tiles at my dad's gallery in a little shop that he had built for my sister and I when we were growing up. So he had an old farmhouse and it was a greenery that he was selling his gallery where he was selling his pots. And then suddenly there was a little building that he built next to it for my sister and I to sell things. And so, I started selling the tiles in there. And then I started going to art fairs. And when I went to art fairs after, you know, it took about two years to build up my inventory, and then, after I went to a couple of them and they were successful, you know, I really started to learn directly through the customers what people, other things that people wanted, and ideas really started to flow from there. Getting orders. You know, and after 15 years, 16 years of doing art fairs, I mean, every art fair I go to I get ideas, but I maybe I'll go to twenty five thirty art fairs this year. And every time I go to an art fair, I try to create something special for that community that I'm going to that represents where, you know, where I'll be. Maybe it's a plaque that says Holland on it or Royal Oak or East Lansing or maybe it's the Orthodox up in Marquette. So, I'm going to Traverse City at the art fair this weekend. And right now, I'm making my old mission peninsula a batch of my old and translate tiles and, you know, I'm doing a Raku firing just to have some something fun and interesting. So, I mean, it wasn't long, but now I have about a thousand designs, and then, you know, the feedback that I get from our players and, you know, once I have that base collection of 50 to 100, the designs that started my business, I mean, those are tried and true. Those to this day are still some of my best sellers. And everything else almost becomes like, you know, extra even. It's amazing, you know. Plastic pottery and Motawi, you know, some of their first designs are for them who are also their best sellers. It's just I know how it's interesting how it looks that way.

Lisa Barry: I'm hearing you say it's genetic. It's in your genes, and then you are representing the beautiful parts of Michigan, the nature, and the outdoors. And that's where you get your inspiration from.

Leif Sporck: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. That's the base. The roots of my business was nature. Yeah.

Old Mission Penisula Art by Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

Lisa Barry: You used to be located in Fishtown. I know a lot of people head to Fishtown this time of the year and no longer there. So people if they're heading up north this weekend or throughout the summer or even in the fall, and I know you mentioned you'll be in Traverse City this weekend, but where else can we find your tiles?

Leif Sporck: Oh, we have a gallery in downtown Suttons Bay, right on the main street, right on the sidewalk. And I'm 22 there in downtown Suttons Bay. We have a big sign up there. We have tiles on the awning outside. It's easy to find. And then, we have a relatively new gallery that's been there for about a year and a half now in Traverse City at the Grand Traverse Common in the Mercado. That's our newest gallery. And then, like I said, I'm going to probably 20 to 25 art fairs this year. And, you know, a lot of people find me there, too.

Lisa Barry: I know people are going to hear this and go, "I know those tiles. I see those all the time when I go up north." So now, we get to meet the artist behind them. And can you order them online as well?

Old Mission Peninsula Art by Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

Leif Sporck: We have a website. We've had it for almost since the beginning of my business. It's Sporck Tile Art dot com. S-P-O-R-C-K-T-I-L-E-A-R-T dot com. And when you when you go to the website, my goal with my business is to have as many designs as possible. So, that's kind of what I want to be known for. So we have a huge collection of designs, and obviously, those tiles just aren't sitting there in some storage room. The picture you see isn't waiting to be, you know, we don't run out to the storage and grab the tile that you see in the website. Many times, we'll communicate with the customers, send them images of what we do have and stock of those designs that they like because we glaze them in so many different colors. Each design will glaze in several colors. So, and then other times, we'll just we'll make the tile per order. So, it takes time to do that. But we provide that website definitely.

Lisa Barry: And we will put a link to that website with this interview on our website, WEMU dot org. Leif Sporck, thank you so much for telling us your story here on eighty nine one WEMU.

Leif Sporck: You're welcome. Thanks for having me. 

Fishtown tile art by Leif Sporck
Credit Leif Sporck / sporcktileart.com

  

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu