This Indiana artist’s canvases are ceramic tiles small enough to fit in your hand. But pieced together to cover a wall or floor, their impact is massive.

A lecture hall seems an unlikely place for an artist to find her mojo, but that's exactly what happened to Kristen Falkirk. After years of printmaking, she attended a talk on ceramic tiles, and "it exploded my brain," she recalls. She converted her southern Indiana garage into a studio, bought a used kiln and experimented until firing a perfect tile—and nailing a glaze treatment—was second nature. Now Falkirk Tileworks is a designer go-to for personality-filled walls and floors.

You're a self-taught ceramicist. What was the trickiest part to master?

KF: There's an art to keeping the tile flat while it dries. If it dries too quickly, it warps, because clay has a memory. If you pick it up and bend it in any minute way, it will remember that when it comes out of the kiln.

What made you stick with it? You have experience with leather, metal, paper and now this.

KF: You never quite know what you're going to make. The tiles are like little canvases. I set up seven to eight glazes and 10 blank tiles and start mixing and matching and layering. If you put one on top of one you get one result, but if you switch them, you get another result. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's amazing magic. It's surprising. I love to learn, and ceramic is a humbling medium. I feel like I'm never going to stop learning with this, and that makes me very happy. 

falkirk tile collage

Where do your ideas come from?

KF: I spend a lot of time looking and noticing. I always have my sketchbook with me. I've lost my arm if I don't have it in my bag at all times. I get inspiration everywhere: travel, the hardware store or a crack in the sidewalk that looks interesting. I fill my sketchbook and call it my "visual vocabulary."

Your work is entirely custom. What is that collaboration with interior designers like?

KF: Everything is small-batch; I don't have an inventory. [Designers] typically come to me with a game plan: I need this amount of tile in this color. But sometimes they'll give me the square footage and shots of furniture in the space and say, "You do what you do," and I love that. I basically let all their inspiration marinate for a couple of days and then start painting tiles. When I pull each of these little surprises out of the kiln, I realize I get to make magic for a living. 

Does it ever get monotonous, cutting and painting all those tiles?

KF: It's meditative. I love house music from Britain, and I'll put that on, cut 200 to 300 tiles, and it's just my time. Then I'll glaze. If the music has a good beat, I'm more apt to be efficient. It keeps me moving and motivated, and I don't get distracted as much. It's up loud so I can't hear myself think. I'm just focused on what I'm doing. 

Are you always creating specifically for a job or do you get to experiment? 

KF: In between jobs, I get to play, and that's when the best stuff comes. I've block printed tiles, or I'll take impressions of things. I have these rocks on a mat thatI press on the clay to make my tide-pool tile, where the glaze pools in the impression. One Sunday, I broke out a screen I made of little wave lines based on Lake Michigan. I created a little setup so I could screen print on a tile. And it worked! I know I have 10 or 12 screens from my previous life that I can put on tiles. They're still my drawing and voice, just a whole new way to do it.

That's so cool.

KF: It's problem-solving. As an artist you tend to create problems so you can solve them—like how do I get this glaze color? This tile shape? In working through those problems, I form different perspectives. And all of life is helped by that.

This sounds like therapy. 

KF: It is! Making art gives us more patience and fulfillment. And if we're feeling more fulfilled, then we don't need other people to fulfill us. The world would be safer, quieter. From my eyes, it would be better. I just feel so lucky that I found my thing that does that for me, and I wish that for everyone.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.