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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 .

"He looked through 528 different mosaics until he picked the 18 that are printed in the magazine. Ellen won Best in Show," Pipgras said.

But it took years not only for Blakeley to experience the epiphany that brought her to her singular medium of tempered glass, but to perfect the process. Through trial and error and learning the hard way, she figured out which glues work and which don't, what to use for grout, which objects can work under glass and which won't.

"We're basically building a sandwich," she explains, as two assistants, including her daughter Veronica, now 20, engage in the meticulous, seven-part process of creating a tile. The top layer is broken tempered glass. The grout is a type of cement that is smeared over the glass and then wiped off with a terry cloth as it dries.

"The glass stays clean because it's so nonporous and the grout just fills up the cracks," she says.

The magic comes with what she puts beneath the glass.

"Once I realized all the color was underneath, on the substrate, and that the substrate can be any color in the world, that's when I got all excited. It's an illusion. Like here," she said, picking up a piece. "You think you're looking at purple glass, but you're not."

Virtually anything that is flat can be pressed under the cracked glass, held together with hand-tinted grouts.

"We use sheer fabrics, tons of wrapping paper, metallic powders, photographs. I have a whole leaf library," said the artist, who forages materials like she foraged for glass.

Blakeley's work has evolved over the years. Initially she spent a lot of effort trolling the streets for glass from vandalized bus stops, racing to get to the scene of the crime early in the morning before the city recyclers. She even started offering friends an incentive to spot for her in exchange for a piece, like a coaster.

Her quest for more tempered glass eventually took her to a glass shop in San Francisco. She struck a mother lode of free and inexpensive material and gained a new husband and business partner in the process. She and Brian Smith eventually married and moved to Santa Rosa, where they hand-fill orders from a home studio.

The beauty of the process is that it puts to practical use a material that otherwise would wind up in the landfill or the recycling stream.

Her custom clients include rock musician Carlos Santana, who commissioned her to create a glass mosaic wall fountain for the top of his driveway in San Rafael that, when backlit by fiber optic lighting, creates a striking visual illusion of falling shards of glass.

Therese Brown, showroom manager for Ceramic Tile Design in San Rafael, which features Blakeley work and has a whole counter in its San Francisco shop made of her fall leaf design, said while it is expensive to do a whole project, the tiles can be surprisingly affordable if just used as an accent. The smallest 2-by-2-inch tiles are $18 and go up to $100 for a 6-by-12-inch tile. The palette has expanded to 48 colors.

Blakeley considers her greatest work a pair of murals she created with children at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a small alternative elementary school in San Francisco's Castro district, where children came up with the objects and ideas. She plans a similar civic project for Santa Rosa's Kids Street School.

"She does everything with a lot of soul," said Pipgrass. "She knows everything she does has an impact on the face of the earth and she acts accordingly."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat

.com.

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