In September of this year, I went on the Weird Homes Tour to explore some of the residences that make Austin living so unique.
Nestled between 1st and South Congress in 78704 sits FlamingO Ranch, a home owned and curated by Stefanie Distefano where she teaches art classes and exhibits her talents as a ceramic and mosaic artist.
I felt very drawn into this quintessential reflection of living in Austin and I wanted to know more about this artistic bungalow and the person who is mirrored in it. I revisited FlamingO Ranch on a chilly and rainy afternoon for an interview, but I was warmed by the bright abode and company of Stefanie and her cat, Maybelline.
The Story of FlamingO Ranch
While growing up in army houses, Stefanie became accustomed to traditional homes and she never intended to invoke “weird” with her design decisions.
When she first laid eyes on her Austin home in 2003, it was just a 420 square foot beige house with nothing in the yard. But she quickly painted it with bright colors three or four times after moving in and planted various “leftover” plants from a friend’s nursery. Since she moved from a home measuring 1200 square feet in North Carolina, she had plenty of unique items to cover her walls, but the personality of her home really surfaced when she built a large porch five years ago.
FlamingO Ranch’s porch has beautiful mosaic flooring created by Stefanie along with pink furniture, aqua accents, glitter, bones, shells, a painted tumbleweed chandelier and other thrift store curiosities and gifts. The studio sits past the pink furniture and toward the back of the home. This workspace allows Stefanie to live as an artist.
The yard provides ample room for parties and concerts. In fact, Stefanie built a small stage a few years ago for performances, both planned and spontaneous. Even a picture frame hangs from a tree, welcoming visitors to take photos and pause a moment to soak in all the items that make FlamingO Ranch unique (this includes several pink plastic flamingos, of course).
The Story of the Mosaics Across Austin
Stefanie’s mosaic work lines the entryway of FlamingO Ranch. Large roses made of broken mirrors and beautiful tiles serve as small billboards for the creativity that resides past the gate, but a major piece of artwork is located to the right of the front yard on a small bridge next to the property.
Stefanie decided this bridge needed its own mosaic, so she woke up one morning and got started. Unfortunately, a passerby filed an official complaint (he later apologized). The city sent a man to remove the artwork. But though he was armed with a crowbar, he didn’t make a dent. People began putting notes on the bridge and campaigning to save the mosaic. Eventually, with the help of some lawyers and community support, the case was dropped and Stefanie’s beautiful koi fish survived.
Possibly the most amazing part of the story is the result. The City of Austin began commissioning Stefanie to create her intricate mosaics to beautify other areas of Austin. Now her work can also be seen all over the city, commissioned by neighborhood associations, small businesses and homes.
Perhaps her most well known pieces are the lengthy mosaic at the Austin Nature & Science Center, which was created along with 25 volunteers, and the Virgin and Gandhi, both featured (separately) on the East First Grocery at 1811 E Cesar Chavez.
This year, Stephanie was able to meet Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and show him the piece she created. Her eyes lit up as she expressed how incredible it was to see his face reflected in the mirrored piece while talking about his grandfather.
Classes and Commissions
Seven years ago, Stefanie was mentored by award-winning mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, and now she teaches the artform in her home studio. She makes her own tiles and uses recycled floor tiles and mirrors that people drop off at her home.
In addition to instructing students on how to build tiles and mosaics, she also teaches pottery. Typically sessions run for 6-8 weeks, but some people have taken classes for years. Most of Stefanie’s classes are one-on-one and she teaches all ages.
For those who want to commission Stefanie to create a mosaic in their home, she encourages them to come to her studio and make tiles with meaning. Often they contain quotes, lyrics or other personal images. She uses these as an anchor for the mosaic she creates, and works around these special tiles to make a unique space.
There’s Always Room to Grow
Though her home is full of weird and wonderful items, Stefanie also appreciates minimalism. She laughs at how clear her thoughts could possibly be in a minimalistic home, but she knows living in a non-eclectic space would be impossible for her. Sometimes she says she’d love to start over with a clean slate, since FlamingO Ranch has mix-matched styles and is the result of experiment after experiment. But she’s proud of her connection to her abode.
I felt such a warm welcome in Stefanie’s home, which opened up a dialogue with a person whose artwork I had seen many times in passing, without knowing the creator. FlamingO Ranch continues to perpetuate the spirit of Weird Austin even while the city grows around it, and I feel inspired by Stefanie Distefano’s contributions to Austin.
If you would like to take a class, commission a mosaic or see more of Stefanie Distefano’s work, visit her website.
@MadameKLM wants to know:
What would you paint on a unique tile for a mosaic?