Nawal Motawi's strong will and fierce individuality fire her acclaimed art-tiles studio in Ann Arbor


Nawal Motawi smiles in front of a wall that is covered in her tiles.

Nawal Motawi photo courtesy of Motawi Tileworks.

It took about a year and a half before Nawal Motawi dropped out of art school. 

“I was really disgusted with what it looked like,” she says.

Motawi, who founded the renowned Motawi Tileworks in 1992, was enrolled at the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. Abstract expressionism was in vogue and the emphasis in classes was less on how well each piece of art was made, Motawi says, than on how intricately they could be interpreted.

“What I felt like I learned in art school was that, basically, if you could tell a good story, then [your work] was [considered] good,” she says.

The Ann Arbor-based Motawi Tileworks, where Nawal Motawi continues to serve as owner and artistic director, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. To honor the occasion, the retrospective exhibit Motawi Tileworks: A Celebration of 30 Years is on display at the Rogel Cancer Center at the University of Michigan Hospital until December 23.

Motawi’s impatience with some of its more voluble aspects of art school came to a head after a particular sculpture class. 

Students were asked to create a still life.

“They said you had to make a base for your sculpture, and you had to put the sculpture on it, and everything had to mean something,” she says.

“And so people would have an oblong shape and they would have an egg on one end and a whole bunch of other stuff on the other [end],” she continues. “The egg was like the loneliness of man and the dissipation of spirit and all that kind of rhetoric. And I just thought, that's a bunch of horse poo.”

Motawi made a pile of rocks. Her professor, she says, told her to try again.

Then Motawi turned in a realistically sculpted life-sized rat “with a little pittle behind him and … a little football-shaped poop,” all of it propped “on this little square cut out with a little M,” Motawi says, laughing.

Motawi says that while most of the other students seemed offended by her piece—asking, “What do you mean? Everyone who goes to U-M is a piece of shit?”—the professor was amused.

“I got an A,” she says. “And then I dropped out.”

A portrait of Nawal Motawi.

Nawal Motawi photo courtesy of Motawi Tileworks.

Motawi spent the next few years trying to escape the art world.

“I decided, ‘Forget this art stuff—it's too ethereal,’” she says. “I'm much more pragmatic and practical.”

Instead, Motawi pursued outdoor leadership programs like Outward Bound, where she hoped to become a guide. She tried a few programs, she says, but the experience didn’t “really [work] that well”—one program in particular was “weirdly cultish.”

Eventually, it was Motawi’s parents who insisted she return to school. Her younger brothers—the last two of five children—were set to begin college and they argued she had better hurry up and finish her degree before her brothers did.

Motawi counted up her credits and quickly realized it would make more sense to finish art school than to start over from scratch. She went back to Penny Stamps “so at least I would have a degree,” she says.

This time, though, “I found something I really loved,” Motawi says, “which was ceramics and glaze and what glaze does—how it's sort of in control and sort of out of control. Because it's a little bit of science and a little bit of art.”

Motawi Tileworks bulb-glazing process.

Bulb-glazing process photo courtesy of Motawi Tileworks.

After she graduated, Motawi went to work for Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, a celebrated tile-maker where she could refine her craft. 

But “it’s pretty clear now that I wasn’t going to work well for anybody else,” Motawi says wryly. 

“You know, you’re young, and you think you know everything … and I’m a cursed stubborn person.”

Not long after she was passed over for a management position, Motawi decided to leave Pewabic. The idea that she might start her own business—and have only herself to answer to—had “started to really take hold with me,” she says.

Her parents agreed. They bought a house on Packard Street with “a two-stall, cement-block garage,” Motawi says, and installed a heater and a kiln. Soon she was selling tiles at regional art fairs—and at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

“That was stinking hard work,” she says. “But I was young and I had a ton of energy and I was hopeful.”

Motawi Tileworks' tile titled Spring Woodland.

Motawi Tileworks' Spring Woodland, 6" x 8" tile. Photo by EE Berger.

The turning point came when Motawi discovered a book called The Toyota Way by Jeffrey K. Liker, a U-M professor, which explains the 14 management principles that govern operations at Toyota. 

“How you choose to run a business is also extremely creative,” Motawi points out. “You’re synthesizing something new out of disparate elements.”

Adopting Toyota-style methods allowed Motawi to streamline her operations, significantly reduce the number of defects in her ceramics, and increase her profits. 

“Like anything else,” she says, “you can think you know everything or you can keep on learning, right?”

With a glint in her eye, Motawi adds, “I never go to art retreats. I go to business conferences … and I do a ton of reading of business books. I don’t read art books. I just look at pictures for inspiration.”

“I’m not—you could say—an ass-kisser,” Motawi says. “I'm not a diplomatic person. I find it really, really hard to kiss up. So if that was required, I wasn't going to be able to do it. I like it that it's me against the marketplace. The marketplace is neutral. It doesn't care. You know, either people buy it or they don't. If they don't buy it, you better keep on adjusting until you find something that people want to buy—at a price that you can actually earn money at.”

These days, Motawi associates with a community of businesses influenced by another book, this one by Bo Burlingham: Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big. The Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is another well-known acolyte.

“We're not just going for the highest almighty dollar,” Motawi says. “We're talking about purpose … other than just making the most you can. That's just not rewarding, you know. There is such a thing as [having] enough for yourself.”

What she’s discovered in her work, Motawi says, is that “if I think something's beautiful and I'm willing to put my name on it, turns out people will buy it. But I have to be proud of it.”

She had an idea once for a tile: a nutcracker with a bayonet in his hand and, hanging from the sharp end of the bayonet, a peace sign.

“That was my statement. That was my piece of art,” Motawi says.

Motawi Tileworks' Peacenut

Motawi Tileworks' PeaceNut, tile. Photo courtesy of Motawi Tileworks.

When the tile sold well, Motawi’s team decided to try alternatives: a drummer or a bugler, for example, all with their own peace signs.

“I realized they were just completely formulaic, and I couldn't stand them,” Motawi says. “I wasn't in love with them. … The artwork just never really sang.”

That feeling, she adds, was reflected in the sales.

“Every art tile we make, the reason people buy it is that it connects them to something,” Motawi says. 

That something might be a specific person or place, she adds, or it might be something more ineffable—“maybe a time—maybe even it just connects them with beauty and that enriches their life. … People don’t always know why they’re reacting to something and really liking it.”

On the one hand, Motawi says, “Any piece has to have some drama. If there’s no visual drama, why would anybody stop and look?”

But on the other hand, she says, “I try to make sure that I’m not adding too much extraneous [material]. Let that thing about it that’s particularly beautiful, let that sing, and don’t clutter the message.”

“Today, if you ask me if I'm an artist, I'll say I'm a designer, really—because artists do that other thing that I don't do,” Motawi says.

“Like, if you have something to say, be a journalist. Why would you clothe your message in this art thing?” she adds, laughing. “And so that's why I dropped out [of art school], really. It was like—this is crazy. 

"But making things is a compulsion," she says. "It's just an inner compulsion.”

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe MillionsLitHub, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.

"Motawi Tileworks: A Celebration of 30 Years" is on display at the Gifts of Art Gallery in the Rogel Cancer Center Elevator Alcove, Level 2, 1500 E. Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, until December 23. The tiles are free to view Monday through Friday, 8 am to 5 pm.