Take a love of tiki and thrift shopping, Jimi Hendrix and Godzilla, some Big Apple attitude and a talent for art. Mix it all together and you’ve got the duo that calls itself Velvet Glass. By Samantha Cummings.
Velvet Glass Mosaics is the love child of two New Yorkers who met while she was a bartender. She made him one too many Martinis during a two-for-one special, and they realized they shared a love of retro design, thrift shopping and Frank Sinatra, as well as a mutual fascination for tiki and Polynesian culture.
That was 18 years ago (they think). Now a decade old, Velvet Glass Mosaics would have never been born if it were not for the couple’s journey to Tucson ten years ago.
Maggie Rickard, an Arizona native, dropped out of Arizona State University at the age of 19, packed up her belongings and headed for the Big Apple, swearing that she was never coming back. Twelve years later, an eye-opening trip to Tucson with partner Mark Bloom led to that promise being broken.
There were several reasons why the couple was ready to call Arizona home once again: the weather, handicap carts, and a ’60s bar called the Kon Tiki.
While it snowed in New York, Tucson was hitting 90 degrees in the middle of February. And after an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) surgery gone bad, leaving Maggie with nerve damage and a permanent limp, she was tired of making the four-floor climb to her flat every day.
The couple walked into a local Target and discovered something that supermarkets in NYC didn’t have: motorized shopping carts. Before, Maggie could barely walk into the store, let alone around it. But now, she “cruises” up and down the aisles. “They don’t do that in New York, because the stores aren’t that big,” says Mark. “We weren’t used to that. So, all of a sudden, it was February, the weather was great, and Maggie was finally free.”
But there was one place in particular that sold these tiki lovers on Tucson for good. The Kon Tiki, located on Broadway near Swan, looks almost identical to when it first opened its doors in 1963. Inspired by tropical influences, this tiki bar is one of a kind and is truly a survivor of the Polynesian-themed restaurant fad that boomed from the 1950’s to the early 1970’s.
Maggie even says that they may not have relocated to Tucson if it were not for the Kon Tiki’s existence. “When you’re into that and you haven’t been to a place like it, you’re just like, ‘Wow’,” she says.
Mark and Maggie packed up their one-bedroom NYC flat and headed west. Not knowing anybody, they decided to take a mosaics class at the Randolph Center. While everyone around them was making your typical southwest inspired coyotes and saguaros, they made “tiki things.” After a couple months, several more classes, and encouragement from some friends, Velvet Glass was born.
But what in the world is “velvet glass”?
The contradictory name was derived from Mark’s extensive record collection. Together they flipped through the records, looking for a word they could pair with “glass.” Maggie remembers coming across George Shearing’s Velvet Carpet album, and the word ‘velvet’ stuck. “There isn’t anything like velvet glass, and we like that,” says Maggie. “And velvet is just a very nice word, you know? You feel it. It’s the ‘v’. I’ve always loved ‘v’ sounds and there are two. And then the ‘l’ in the middle just ties it all in.”
Their pieces range from artwork to belt buckles to earrings, each design representing their current inspirations and whatever they might find interesting in that moment of time. They prefer to create pieces they enjoy making and hope that someone else likes it too. Better that, says Mark, than “doing anything that we think, ‘Oh, this might sell. I’ll make a Justin Bieber mosaic.’” So you might find a Jimi Hendrix piece, representing Mark’s love for music, or a Godzilla design reflecting his fascination for classic movies and monsters.
Each piece starts out with an idea. Once the image is drawn out, a rough version is created using Photoshop. Using a standard wheeled mosaic glass cutter, each piece of glass is hand cut and glued to acrylic using weld bond glue. The hardest part of the entire process is working with the flow of the color of each individual piece in order to create the design, explains Mark.
Maggie, who has been playing the drums for 20 years, created pendants with the logo of her band, The Jonestown Band, and passes them out at shows.
“I’m not a flashy player, but I’ll groove it all night long,” says Maggie of her bluesy rock band. “If people aren’t dancing, I’m not happy. I just want to make people dance.” Catch her at a Jonestown Band gig and it’s hard to take your eyes off her, her head banging to the beat of the music, long dark hair spilling onto her face.
Mark describes himself as her groupie and roadie rolled into one. So a groapie? A groadie? Either way, he’s her number one fan. Originally from London, he works in advertising and illustration for several New York agencies. Because all his work is done entirely online, moving to the desert didn’t put a damper on his career.
At one time, Velvet Glass became the couple’s main source of income. Their Polynesian-inspired mosaics began to gain recognition from the tiki community and were even featured on the cover of Tiki Magazine.
Yes, a tiki community exists – and it’s large. Every year, the tiki obsessed flock to Tiki Oasis, a four-day convention that houses vendors from all over the country and provides a one of a kind tropical experience in the middle of San Diego. “It’s kind of like a giant frat party for the tiki community, which tends to be older and more retro,” says Maggie. “There’s a lot of bouffant hairstyles and retro 50’s outfits, flowers, and everybody dresses up for it.”
Each year, Maggie pulls out her vintage mumus and tropical dresses for a Hawaiian experience that’s fueled by music, food and booze. Speaking of booze inspires Maggie to whip out a “volcano bowl,” a tiki staple, and immediately starts creating a tropical concoction.
The volcano bowl is essentially a large basin with a miniature bowl in the middle, representing the volcano. A rum-based cocktail fills the basin, while the volcano is filled with a shot of rum 151. The 151 is then lit on fire, creating a flaming and volcano-like effect.
The cocktail is intended for large groups of people who all drink from their own straw placed in the basin. This traditional practice creates a sense of community and is very important to tiki culture, which prides itself on creating an open and welcoming environment.
Maggie and Mark used to vend at events like the Tiki Oasis, but they quickly learned that they were far from sales people.
“It’s too much hard work selling it, being nice and being sober, and talking to people about how fabulous we are,” explains Mark. Maggie says being nice and sober isn’t the difficult part, but it’s exhausting when the business aspect takes away from the passion they both share from creating their masterpieces.
It was this realization that ultimately changed the direction of Velvet Glass. Instead of rushing to produce pieces that had little meaning to them in order to pay the mortgage, the couple decided that it was time to remove the pressure and fall in love with mosaics like they first had years ago.
With Maggie focusing more on her drumming and Mark taking on more advertising work, Velvet Glass once again is an expressive outlet. If their pieces don’t sell, it’s no big deal. They find each piece a home on their own walls (even though it’s becoming difficult to find an empty space), which is the beauty of creating art they personally enjoy.
Mark and Maggie truly are a testament to the theory that a home is a direct reflection on whoever inhabits it. To see their combined collections, made up of years of thrifting, in their mid-century ranch home, you can sense the couple’s free spirit and their support of each others interests through the years. Mark is proud of his vintage records, tiki shot glasses, and robot collection. Maggie displays three drum sets and a wide variety of paintings that she has scattered around the house.
One wall is dedicated solely to portraits they have found in thrift stores. They refused to pay more than $10 for any one piece. It’s hard to look at the collage of awkward family photos without being overcome with confusion and happiness all at once. Maggie and Mark begin to recite the names they have assigned to each character, making up full life stories for every person or animal in the paintings.
While Mark and Maggie are constantly on the move, there is one place that they will never be able to stay away from for long: the Kon Tiki. So, if you ever happen to be in the area or are in need of a temporary tropical getaway, they don’t mind adding an extra straw or two to their volcano bowl.
For more on Velvet Glass Mosaics, and pricing, visit www.velvetglass.com. Visit the Kon Tiki for Mai Tais, Volcanoes and more at 4625 E. Broadway Blvd, Tucson.