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Music. Rhythm. Tile?

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By Jenna McKenna

When you sit down to a meal, chances are, you look down at your plate and see a shiny pattern of leaves and flowers, grapevines in relief, a repeating motif in French blue. Before there's anything on the plate, there's something on the plate.

For more than a decade, that "something" on the plate has so enchanted Cedar Key artist Valerie Bretl that she built all her art from it. A mosaicist since the long-ago day that something compelled her to compose a still life of fruit from colored tiles, Bretl has for years, by necessity and by inclination, used the plates off the table for inspiration, color, line and pattern.

She scoured yard sales and thrift stores for old ceramic and porcelain dishes, looking for a variety of natural and vibrant colors, as well as for the fine and complex textures of that brittle medium. To Bretl, the difference between ceramic and porcelain is what they do, much more than what they are made of.

"Porcelain is very difficult to work with," she explains. "It tends to shatter, splinter, cut backwards. Ceramic is a lot simpler."

That said, she never shied away from using a porcelain piece when it was the right one.

"You have to love your materials, because if you fight with them, they will win."

This loving contention has led Bretl into a dance with her materials, one of long duration, and a proper channel for her artistic energy.

"I was the choreographer and art director of a traveling dance company before I married and had children," Bretl explains. "It wasn't an option for me to go back to that, but I was very happy to find another way to enjoy my artistic education and artistic inclinations. You have to be what you are."

As one accustomed to working with music and calling out to dancers on a stage, Bretl is adamant, unlike many artists, that her works all have names - working titles and show titles.

"I feel that a title is the way a viewer enters a work," she says. "A lot of us are more verbal than visual, so if you give people a way to enter a piece, I think that's very helpful. Art is another language, and if you don't already speak it, you need some kind of stepping stone."

Bretl does speak the language, and with such intimacy that her working titles are also very intimate: often forgotten once the piece is finished and shown, and tending to speak to off-center aspects of the work, like a nickname.

One piece, "Expectations," shows a mother bird tending eggs in her nest. The sheer size and scale of the piece - some four to five feet on one side - led Bretl to affectionately dub it "Big Bird," calling to mind the adorable, overgrown, yellow-feathered baby adult from Sesame Street. Although there is no literal connection, the nickname seems a reminder that in all moments of new experience and discovery, everyone is momentarily put off balance and returned, for a moment, to the wonder and uncertainty of childhood.

Such is the nature of making and discovering art. A mature, polished artist in many ways, Bretl also emphasizes her exploration process in each piece she undertakes. One large piece, show titled "Hands of time," was an exercise in working in three dimensions. Although mosaic is already a tactile, textural medium, Bretl wanted this piece to intervene into the space it occupied, assuming its own share of the room. The piece is set in a circle, "like a clock face," but its face is round and pensive, thoughtful and expressive. The piece hangs above the kitchen table in the home she shares with partner Tony Silveira, looking like a dinner guest with something on her mind.

Another piece, show titled "Dreadlocks," was Bretl's self-tutorial in color. "I hate to say 'self-taught,' but my works are my teachers," she says. "This piece was my challenge to learn to place colors correctly, because color is very tricky - how you place them together affects how they look."

Bretl and her partners, the plates and saucers of England and Japan, Finland and France, have danced together, pushing, pulling, leading and following for right on a decade. Now, Bretl says, it's time to heed a change in the music.

"I think at this point I've exhausted dishes, and they've exhausted me."

Accordingly, she is working on a final piece to transition from her old, beloved partner to a new one. "My Last Dance," which will be shown as "Moondance," shows a couple swaying together on a moonlit dance floor. The woman is Bretl. The man is the dishes, her partner for so many years. The parting is fond, and not necessarily final.

Although she's making the switch to custom-colored and patterned ceramic tiles, made here for her by Cedar Key pottery, Bretl doesn't rule out an eventual return to her old love.

"I plan to be doing this for at least 30 more years," she says.

"I have an affinity for dishes - I think of the liveliness in an object that people kept in their cabinets and ate off of. I may return to them some day."

Valerie Bretl has been featured at the Cedar Key Arts Center, and her works can often be seen in the Members' Gallery. She will also be a featured artist this spring in an installation at the Island Hotel.