By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BOZEMAN – “Tadelakt” is a plaster technique that can be traced back about 2,000 years to the North African country of Morocco, and was originally used to line water cisterns to keep them sanitary. Bozeman-based New Age Artisans now uses the ancient, work-intensive process to plaster showers, backsplashes, countertops and windowsills.
The word Tadelakt comes from the Arabic verb “dlek,” meaning to “rub in,” as the process requires the practitioner to use a polished stone to create a chemical reaction between lime and olive oil soap. The finished product is a distinctive, smooth plaster without the grout lines of a tiled surface.
“You’re taking a shower in a living, breathing system,” said Jeremy Mistretta, New Age Artisans owner and the only installer of Tadelakt in Montana.
Mistretta, a Connecticut native and 2002 graduate of Montana State University, has been using Tadelakt in houses throughout the Gallatin Valley since 2008. The technique must be orally passed down from teacher to student, says Mistretta, who learned the trade from Boulder, Colo.-based Ryan Chivers after the two met at a plaster seminar in Albuquerque, N.M. Chivers learned the process when he traveled to Morroco in 2007.
A Tadelakt project begins when cement board is hung in the space, then a hydraulic lime plaster is spread over the surface with a hawk and trowel. Once it cures for a few days, a finish coat of lime mixed with a fine aggregate powder is applied, then an olive oil soap.
And then it gets interesting.
The chemical reaction created by the lime and olive oil produces a waterproof layer that is rubbed smooth with a polished stone. Mistretta painstakingly burnishes the plaster in a circular motion – being cautious not to rub too hard and burn the material – before the surface dries and the window of opportunity closes.
“It’s a school of hard knocks [and] it takes a lot of practice,” Mistretta said, noting once the reaction begins he’s committed to finishing the job. He compares it to steering the wheel of a speeding car, while the gears are shifting for you.
Getting proficient installing Tadelakt involved some trial and error for Mistretta and it’s not a 9-5 job. He’s woken before dawn on a number of occasions to get to a project before the plaster dries, and eventually cut the roof off of a Chevrolet Astro van and installed a popup camper so he can sleep at the job site if necessary.
Jim Martin, a pilot for Delta Airlines who lives south of Bozeman, had New Age Artisans install a Tadelakt shower when he and his wife Corinne built their house in 2013. He’d seen a demo model of Mistretta’s work in Bozeman’s Refuge Sustainable Building Center and Corinne researched the medium.
“We could have done tile but I just loved the [smooth] texture,” said Jim, noting Mistretta worked with some difficult angles in his shower – a flat ceiling that hits the 45-degree roofline of the house, and then a straight wall down to the floor.
“He filled it in so it was a really nice, curved angle and made a nice bench in the shower,” Jim said. “If you had a barrel in the corner [Mistretta] could turn it into a shower … he forms it to just about any shape you want.”
Every project New Age Artisans completes is unique to the homeowner based on the angles, the finishes and flourishes. The color of the plaster also varies depending on the type and amount of pigment Mistretta adds to the material.
“You are now going to be the ‘Joneses,’” he said in early February, while putting the finishing touches on a shower project on the north side of Bozeman. “Everyone is going to want to keep up with you.”
Tadelakt may be an ancient art, but it’s finding a contemporary niche in the Gallatin Valley.