As a young ceramic artist living in San Francisco in the '90s, Ellen Blakeley often found herself driving past bus shelters that had been blasted out the night before by vandals.
It was a familiar part of the urban landscape — shards of glass gathered at the curb like someone had dumped out the ice machine at a Motel 6. As a city dweller, your mission is to not step on it or drive over it until city maintenance crews can clean it up.
But on one particular morning Blakeley, driving through the Avenues, was compelled to stop. Her daughter, then 4, was asleep in her car seat when the artist and single mom pulled up.
"All I really thought about was that I was looking at this beautiful material that someone was just going to throw away," remembered Blakeley, who has both a bachelor's and a master's degree in fine art from Mills College. "It had been shot out and it was all over the ground."
She scooped up the clear particles with no particular project in mind and brought them home. It wasn't until several nights later, in the quiet hours after her daughter was asleep and she was free to create, that the brainstorm struck.
Unlike ceramic, the glass had no color, no particularly compelling properties. But it could serve as a window to something intriguing and beautiful underneath.
She began gluing pieces of broken glass to a colored surface. The result was a striking and completely unique three-dimensional water effect.
She excitedly ran to her roommate's room, knocked urgently on the door and announced, "I think I've invented something!"
Some 16 years later, Ellen Blakeley's invention, dramatic mosaic tiles made from reclaimed tempered glass placed over jeweled backdrops and a collage of objects from leaves to lace, are sold in high-end showrooms in 10 states and Canada. The bulk of her work serves the sophisticated tastes of Manhattan, and has been applied everywhere from backsplashes and countertops to floors and fireplaces.
In Blakeley's own home in the far reaches of West Santa Rosa, her kitchen is electric with a deep red she dubs "true blood." Her fireplace is a subtle, sage green. Step into her bathroom, however, and it's like opening a pirate's chest of jewels on the bottom of the ocean, an unbroken floor of turquoises and greens.
While it is glass, it is industrial-strength, tempered glass. You could tap-dance on a floor of it without leaving a chip. Before it leaves her Santa Rosa garage studio, where she and a fluid crew of eight fill custom orders, Blakeley makes sure each glass tile is so smooth a baby could safely crawl over the surface.
"What she does incredibly well is to combine reflection and refraction with color and concept. The glass reflects light but there is a refraction with what is underneath," said Nancy Mills Pipgrass of Santa Rosa, co-publisher and editor of the magazine, "Mosaic Art Now" and past president of the American Mosaic Artists association.
"From the elements she uses to the paint, she just has a way with color and composition. You can stare at them forever and find something new every time you do."
The magazine recently staged a competition that drew entries from 301 artists in 26 countries and curated by Scott Shields, chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento .