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Classic Rock

"Classic Rock"
The Virginian-Pilot, August 22, 1995, by Ann Wright

New Ravenna creates intricate mosaics that bring recognition – and jobs – to Exmore

An all-but-forgotten art form is flourishing in a sleepy little town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Splendid mosaics, inspired by those of Classical Greece and Rome, are fashioned by hand at New Ravenna, a factory in the heart of Exmore.

New Ravenna has attracted the respectful attention of some of the nation’s most influential style-makers.  Photographs of New Ravenna mosaics have appeared in every high-end shelter magazine.  Pilgrimages to Exmore by high-end stone and tile retailers, as well as top architects and interior designers, are now routine. 

Mosaics are intricate designs made of tiny pieces of stone, ceramics or glass set in mortar.  Properly laid and grouted, they are practically indestructible.  Mosaic-making reached its apogee in the gravy days of the Roman empire.  Even then, mosaics were expensive because of the high level of artistry and the painstaking labor required. 

Beautiful mosaic floors unearthed in Pompeii and Roman cities in North Africa are considered among the masterworks of the period, their beauty unfaded after nearly 2,000 years. 

New Ravenna may be thousands of miles and centuries removed from mosaic-making’s Mediterranean origins, but the 8-year-old business is producing work that the ancients would covet.  And if an Italian mosaic artist from 100 A.D. were miraculously transported to the New Ravenna workroom, he would be comfortable with the work of selecting, clipping and fitting the tesserae (tiny pieces of marble tile) into geometric or pictorial designs.

What he wouldn’t comprehend is how modern packaging materials and shipping methods allow a mosaic to be assembled in a factory setting and delivered to an installation site thousands of miles distant.  In his day, mosaic makers traveled to the site and assembled the work there.

Sara McCaleb Baldwin, the founder and guiding spirit of New Ravenna, taught herself mosaic-making as a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s fine arts program.  “Even while I was getting my master’s degree in painting, I realized that I was attracted to art that is functional,” she explains.  “I looked at pictures of mosaics in art history books and studied examples at the Metropolitan Museum.  I kept wondering ‘Why don’t people make these anymore? They are so beautiful and so practical.’”

Armed with a dream and a plan, the Eastern Shore native returned home to Northampton County in 1991.  With a $5,000 loan from her parents, she started New Ravenna.  “I took the name of Ravenna, an Italian town famed for its exquisite mosaics, thinking that I could combine the Italian tradition of classicism and craftsmanship with a distinctly American style.”

From the beginning, Baldwin knew she didn’t want to be involved in retailing her mosaics.  She sought out high-end kitchen and bath showrooms and flooring companies to represent New Ravenna.  It was an easy sell.  With the help of her sister Ellen and one paid employee, Baldwin was in business, fashioning exquisite mosaics in the living room of a rented home.

Today, New Ravenna has several million in annual sales and 69 employees, making it one of the biggest employers in job-poor Northampton County.  The business occupies Exmore’s two largest buildings, an abandoned shirt factory and an old movie theater.  Baldwin’s husband, Eyre Baldwin, oversaw the rehabilitation, transforming the interiors into bright, comfortable work spaces while restoring the historic exteriors to a burnished glory.

The work environment at New Ravenna is one of first names and friendly informality.  Workers—teenagers to septuagenarians—enjoy an easy interaction with other employees while remaining intent on the work in front of them.  Most of the employees are women, with backgrounds that range from seasonal agricultural work to teaching school.  Salaries start at minimum wage and go up to $12 an hour from the more experienced and speedier workers.

Jackie Taylor, who laughingly details her dual distinction as Sara’s first and oldest employee, finds the work satisfying.  “Not everyone likes to work with their hands and not everyone is good at it.  The ones who like it stay.  If you have an artistic personality, you enjoy expressing yourself.”

New Ravenna’s work is fairly evenly divided between custom work and their catalog of borders and field designs.  “There are a handful of other mosaic companies in the U.S., but we probably do more custom work than any of the others,” Baldwin says.  Even the catalog items can be customized by selecting from the three dozen colors of marble.

Custom orders, like the catalog work, come through one of New Ravenna’s showroom affiliates such as La Galleria Interior Design in Virginia Beach or International Tile & Marble in Chesapeake.

Dede Delaney, who studied textile design at the Rhode Island School of Design and has worked at New Ravenna for five years, emphasizes the collaborative nature of the process of creating a custom mosaic.  “Don’t give the impression that the people assembling the mosaics are doing paint-by-number type of work,” she cautions.  “I do the color drawing but the mosaicist has to work out the details of the design.”

Because each mosaicist develops a distinctive style, it’s important for the same one to see a custom project all the way through.  It may mean weeks of work, but the same handmakes every cut and place every tessera.  While the mosaicists work independently, they enjoy having Baldwin close at hand because they all relay on her artist’s eye.

“Mosaics seem so much simpler than they are,” says Davi Abramson, who deals with New Ravenna frequently in her position of director of projects at Waterworks, a high-end chain selling bath fixtures, stone and tile nationwide.  “It’s like looking at a great ballet dancer.  You see the grace and beauty but not the many tiny decisions that make it happen.”

Waterworks has its own exclusive line of New Ravenna borders, which are sold by the linear foot, and field designs, which are sold by the square foot.  These were featured in a recent ad campaign that ran in all the top home magazines.  New Ravenna has also done a number of large custom jobs for Waterworks and several have been featured in Architectural Digest and similar publications.

Locally, New Ravenna mosaics have been used as medallions in stone or tile floors, in place of a powder room rug and as bordered backsplashes above granite countertops, according to Nancy Weldon, owner of La Galleria Interior Design in Virginia Beach.

Weldon praises the medium’s durability. “We used a geometric border on a stone walkway.  Not only is it very handsome, but it ought to last forever.”

New Ravenna has carved its own niche, according to Randy Ruppel, co-owner of Renaissance Tile & Bath, headquartered in Atlanta with showrooms in Charlotte and Nashville.   “Custom work is the attraction of mosaic work for those who can afford it.  Our clients have traveled and seen mosaics.  They understand the art form, love it, and are willing to pay for it.  It’s the opposite of trendy.  It’s an appreciation of quality, craftsmanship and time-tested materials.”

New York designer Michael Golden, of Michael R. Golden Design Inc., attributes New Ravenna’s success to Sara Baldwin.  “Sara has been a tremendous guiding force.  She taught herself how to make mosaics and then was able to teach others.  She took an untapped labor pool in the middle of nowhere and made New Ravenna into a top-flight company with a national clientele.” End of Article
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