Even famed Germantown tile wall maker a victim of pandemic

by Len Lear
Posted 12/31/69

Karen Singer, who has had a tilemaking studio in Germantown for 37 years, is arguably one of the most talented tilemakers in the country.

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Even famed Germantown tile wall maker a victim of pandemic

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Karen Singer, who has had a tilemaking studio in Germantown for 37 years, is arguably one of the most talented tilemakers in the country. At least many non-profit organizations seem to think so since more than 90 have hired her over the years to create tile walls as a way of honoring their donors. 

Her studio on Church Lane is covered in a rainbow of color samples, jars of ceramic glazes and art books. This is where Singer, 66, turns clay into donor wall murals for non-profit institutions, including Germantown Friends School, Morris Arboretum, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, Curtis Institute and dozens of area synagogues and churches as well as those in other parts of the country. Several clients have commissioned multiple projects.

“If you are looking for a way to thank and recognize your supporters that goes beyond the ordinary, you should definitely call Karen Singer,” said Samuel D. Caldwell, former director of advancement at the Wilmington Friends School.

“Every time I bring a visitor through our building, they are transfixed by (Singer's) mural … The mural represents our institution's mission in a way I could never express in words,” insisted Midy Rosengarten, director of development for Kulanu Kids, a facility for special needs individuals in Cedarhurst, New York.

However, the pandemic has even taken a devastating toll on Singer. “I just laid off Lisa Longo, my associate for more than 25 years,” said Singer last week. “I am facing the real possibility of needing to close my business down. Life is a gamble at the best of times for artists like myself. My primary clients are non-profits who are also hurting … I am struggling to keep my doors open. I am adapting by making smaller-scale products, but these don’t bring in enough to cover my baseline costs. And I am not alone.

“Our culture likes to think of the arts as a luxury, a frill that is nonessential in tough times. This is not true. We need the arts even more in difficult times to help us connect with each other and express the complicated and difficult feelings that overwhelm us. Think of the rainbow drawings in windows and on lawns, the impromptu concerts across balconies and in the streets and how they sustain a sense of hope.

“If we force our vibrant arts community to close down, we kill off a critical component of life in this wonderful city. Artists are incredibly resilient as a group, developing new ideas and products that do so much to enrich our lives. The city needs to make it a priority to keep the arts alive before it’s too late.”

According to Singer, she had three good commissions for donor walls just before the pandemic as well as commissions for custom awards and plans to teach and speak at conferences. The commissions have been completed, but it has been hard to find new ones, and the awards and conference speaking engagements were canceled.

Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Singer moved to Philadelphia in 1978. Her route to becoming a creator of tile donor walls started when she was earning her Master's of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania in 1981. “While I was at Penn, I was commissioned to create a 600-pound sculpture for a corporate headquarters in the Midwest. That got me thinking about how to create monumental installations that would be easier to handle. I took a tile course at Philadelphia Community College, and it was love at first sight.”

Singer is married to furniture designer, Peter Handler. In addition to donor walls for capital and endowment campaigns, Singer has created custom pieces for anniversary gifts and special occasions. This includes a small ceramic plaque of William Penn atop City Hall for a local realtor who gives them as housewarming gifts to clients. Her creations start out as rough sketches, then get refined and turned into scale color drawings, all before any tile is made.

In recent years Singer has also done more residential projects such as custom kitchen backsplashes, bath tile and flooring, custom house numbers, classic car tiles in high relief, individual gift tiles, small wall panels featuring Philadelphia skyline views and plant imagery sculpted in Plein Air.

For more information, visit Karensinger.com. Stacia Friedman contributed to this article. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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