Tim O’Grady is creating a journey in art along the famous roadway from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California

By:  Chuck Gibson

 LOVELAND, OH (June 16, 2020) – U.S. Route 66 was a bustling roadway creating a memorable experience for travelers making the trip through many important cities from Chicago to Los Angeles during the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s.  Interstate highways came along and bypassed some of those cities leaving one town to post a sign with its name followed by – Population -0-.

Tim O’Grady displays one of his first in the series of Route 66 ceramic artworks (Chuck Gibson) 

Tim O’Grady is a ceramic artist here in Loveland, Ohio. He and his wife Kay Bolin-O’Grady are founders and owners of Whistle Stop Clay Works ceramic art studio which just celebrated its 10 year anniversary in early June. Tim lived in Arizona for a while and recalls seeing the “Population zero” sign on a trip.

“I remember travelling it Arizona to New York in a V.W. Bus in the late 70’s,” said O’Grady. “I travelled through all the towns. Some had attractions, but the kids were too small. We just went through. It was an experience.”

O’Grady has not visited that part of the country since. Most of the cities along U.S. Route 66 are not “commercial” cities.

Tim’s career in sales took him to bigger commercial cities, not the small hamlet stops he’d find winding his way west on the famous Route 66. Freeways intermingle with the route now, so he’s not sure if he’d make the whole journey today.

 “I would like to travel it again,” O’Grady said. “We’d do a one-time shot. We’d do it all the way and maybe end up in ‘Truth or Consequences’ (Actual city in New Mexico) and suffer the consequences.”

People will recognize the theme for Winslow, Arizona (Chuck Gibson)

It is not happening now. The coronavirus pandemic has Tim and Kay playing it safe. No, they’re not worried about the drive over 2,000 miles, but they are concerned about safe hotel stays with the danger of COVID-19. What is happening now is this: Tim has already created more than 14 historic U.S. Route 66 shields in artistic ceramic art formed to look like manhole covers. He’s hoping to create a series of “maybe” 30 of those when he’s finished.

 “People still know about the major stops from back when it was,” he said. He is focused on reproducing historic Route 66 shields from cities which had an important bearing on Route 66 during its heyday. “I’ll fill in with some smaller towns which were important at one point in time.”

Tim referred to Flagstaff, Arizona as one of the important cities on Route 66 (Chuck Gibson)

O’Grady admits a partiality toward Arizona because of the time he lived there. He mentions Flagstaff and Kingman, Arizona as two of many spots with some notoriety along the roadway. His wife Kay was quick to note a lot of people are connected to Arizona through travels today. There is an obvious local connection now with the Cincinnati Reds making Goodyear, Arizona their spring training home. The important point for O’Grady is the ability to research those notable spots on the route to locate an image of the historical U.S. Route 66 shield.

 “They’re not made up,” O’Grady said. “Yes, I research and find the shields. If I can’t find anything specific to a city, I implant the shield. I’d like to find a unique configuration for each shield. It’s just not possible unless I pick em out of my imagination. There’s not that many variations.”

Ceramic art display of Tim O’Grady shows the start, midpoint, and end of route made famous in song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” (Chuck Gibson)

In some cases, he doesn’t really want to find anything specific. What Tim is looking for is the formatting of the sixes, the space between the letters in U.S., or whether it says U.S. 66 or Route 66. The original designation was U.S. 66.

 “Then Route 66 became more recognizable during the 50’s and 60’s when the song was written,” O’Grady explained referring to the popular Route 66 theme song ‘Get Your Kicks on Route 66’.

 The song was actually written by jazz musician Bobby Troup while he travelled Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1946. It was first recorded by Nat King Cole and his trio in 1946, but a recording by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters later that same year rose to #14 on the Billboard Charts. 

Route 66 was so popular, the song has been recorded by many other artists including Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Glenn Frey, the Brian Seltzer Orchestra and others. It doesn’t end with a song. There was also a TV series called Route 66 which starred Martin Milner and a 1962 Corvette Stingray. The series first aired on CBS in 1960 and filmed 116 episodes during its four year run through 1964 on the network.

A hit song recorded and re-recorded multiple times and a hit television series named for a U.S. highway kind of gives you some idea why Tim O’Grady would like to share the history of Route 66 in art. It is a way for him to combine his passion and talent for creating unique ceramic art and recreate his own memorable experience of travelling the famous roadway. O’Grady’s hope is to display his art during the 2021 conference for the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) originally scheduled to be held in Cincinnati next March. The 2020 NCECA conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. What will, or will not happen in Cincinnati next year is part of planning discussions going on right now.

“I thought I’d like to build a wall, to actually have the ‘covers’ , Chicago in Central U.S., down through Springfield, Illinois, through  St. Louis, then curve westward,” said O’Grady. “I’d have the covers as a historical memorial to what Route 66 was all about. I have a big diagram and will fill in the blanks.”

The process starts with a blown-up image of historic Route 66 shield (Chuck Gibson) 

It is a process, a long process to make each one. O’Grady says it takes about three months from start of the process to a finished ceramic manhole cover. He starts his research on the internet looking for the historic Route 66 shield from each city. Sometimes the image is the size of a postage stamp. He has it blown up, by his new buddy Steve at the UPS store, to 670% to reach eight inches top to bottom. Each one is reproduced on high grade photocopy paper to give it body so it can be cut into stencils – three for each one – upper section, lower section and then the outline. 

“I lay it on a clay slab 21 inches in diameter so each one has a manhole cover appearance,” said O’Grady. “Center the shield on clay. Then I let my imagination go wild. I want to do the shield as I’ve seen them in the historical sense of it.”

The 21 inch slab of clay after stenciling (Chuck Gibson)

The cut out stencils: upper, lower, and shield outlinhe (Chuck Gibson)

Most of the shields are black and white, but the rest of the cover details is where the artistry takes over. Sometimes O’Grady is simply testing different glazes which add color. The end process takes 2-1/2 – 3 weeks with him spending about five hours a day in the studio. He still has all the stencils from the completed covers. He says he would only consider selling the originals as a complete set. How much?

Tim O’Grady displays a finished original ceramic artwork of Route 66 from Santa Fe, New Mexico (Chuck Gibson) 

“I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine. I would make another individual reproduction for someone.”

O’Grady thought about having an installation in downtown Cincinnati with the NCECA conference. He has the connections to get that done. Unlike other potters and ceramic artists who live on what they sell, he is just the opposite and lives to make the art. What the Cincinnati 2021 NCECA conference may look like is uncertain. Tim says one thing is for sure though.

“I’m from Loveland,” O’Grady said. “I want to install it in Loveland. I’ll spend the money to put a wall up (on Whistle Stop Clay Works property) If people don’t come from downtown Cincinnati, hopefully people from Loveland will come and enjoy it.

 Click here to visit Whistle Stop Clay Works

Click here to learn more about NCECA – National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts