The Tire Project

Cat Merrick’s Road Passion

During one of Cat Merrick’s design projects, which was based out of Lurin, Peru, she found herself surprised by her source of inspiration: tire tracks. It was throughout her time spent in this small village outside of Lima, where she would walk along the open muddy streets and came to love the zigzag and crisscrossed designs made from many tires. Cat explains, “There was something beautiful about the snake-like overlapping patterns of bikes and mopeds, and it struck me that they looked remarkably like Pre-Columbian patterning, which I'd seen in the museums throughout Lima.”

Cat later came to find resemblances between the tread marks and one of the signature elements found in traditional, Paracas-style textiles. This became influential within her 'Peruvian inspired' line of ceramics that she designed for SERRV International, a nonprofit organization which provides support to artisans and farmers worldwide. She adds, “I made the connection that mud is essentially clay, and that tires are essentially rubber stamps. Even better, tires are readily available despite being a limited resource. Nearly every artisan I worked with lived on a dirt road, and once I noticed the tire prints, I started to see them everywhere.”

She worked and experimented for hours on end with ceramic artist, Raul Casahuaman, who is a producer of gorgeous hand-thrown clay bowls. Her idea was to stamp the bowls using her makeshift bike tire molds that she carefully nailed to a set of wooden boards. At first, Raul looked skeptical, but he was open to experimentation. The beginning stages were discouraging, as the stamping method distorted the shape of the soft clay; however, within weeks, they found a process that worked and the design came out beautifully. “I don't think I have ever had more pride in another person's accomplishment than when I saw him grinning over his work. It was the truest collaboration that I have experienced in my career, and certainly the most satisfying. Any questions about how he made it work were met with a coy smile, and I still have no idea.”

When questioned about the challenges, Cat explained, “In Lima, there is no consistent schooling among ceramicists, so artisans typically have areas of strength, sometimes exceptional skill, and areas where their experience is patchy. NGOs will occasionally provide training in their craft, but it is never comprehensive. Artisans primarily work with low fire porous clay. Many cannot glaze or even make molds. The opportunity is there to make an exceptional and unique product, but it can require a direct, personal collaboration with the individual to find what they do best.

"In this case, Raul Casahuaman was incredibly talented on the wheel, but I knew that we had to stay away from glazing or complicated mold making. SERRV needed products that looked 'Peruvian,’ which could typically translate to 'patterned', in order to satisfy a fair-trade customer that wanted a culturally relevant product. At the time, the needs of the producer and the client seemed mutually exclusive. I had to find a way to both please SERRV and enable Raul to excel, which is when I remembered the tire tracks. Pressing a pattern into a hand turned bowl was much simpler than carving and molding one. The aesthetic connection to Pre-Columbian patterning was clear, and yet the prints were an artifact of contemporary life. I also liked that the reference to the dirt roads in Lima spoke to a very different way of life than that of my American customer.”

It was central for Cat to create a collection that holds a close connection to Peru despite the fact that she is an 'outsider.' She adds, “My goal was not to come in and tell anyone how to make a Peruvian product, or even worse, to do the kind of work I might do with clients in the United States. I hoped to create a third category, one that acknowledged both cultural influences and honored the time and place in which it was made. It turned out to be a great hand-crafted product made in contemporary Lima by a Peruvian artisan and an American designer, and it was necessary that the designer not pretend otherwise.”

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