Typically, the three walls that surround a bathtub or shower are not much to look at. In the case of a new tile installation by ceramic artist Randy Fein, the white walls acted as a sort of blank canvas on which she depicted, in high relief, a fanciful view of the undersea world.

Fein, who lives in Lincolnville and has a studio in Belfast, recently completed the 6-by-12-foot commissioned work titled “Above and Below.” In two weeks, she is scheduled to transport it to a private residence in Lincoln, Mass., for installation.

A number of years ago, the woman who commissioned the work had been Fein’s assistant while going to school for alternative medicine. Since then, she had become successful in the field, enough so that she was able to commission Fein to create a unique work of art to function as a tub surround for her child’s bathroom.

“I kind of like that, in that it’s a keep-it-in-the-family, 360 [degree] kind of thing,” Fein said.

In form, the fish appearing in “Above and Below” are stylized versions of pollock, flounder and other species found off the coast of Maine. The colors, however, including the electric blue of the water and the rainbow of seabed flora, are reminiscent of the tropics.

Fein chalks this up in part to her love of snorkeling. Typically, she leaves the austere Maine winter landscape at least once a year to swim in the tropics. This year, she was not able to and, as a consequence, found herself trying to experience some of the same feelings through the imagery of the giant ceramic piece, particularly through the flowing application of layers of colored glazes.

Fein recalled preliminary discussions about the work, at which time she had anticipated making the relief elements low to the surface of the tile for ease of cleaning. This proved not to be a concern.

“They have the type of lifestyle where they have other people cleaning for them,” Fein said. “She said, ‘I love your work. I love how it’s tactile, and I think that’s a fun part about it, and I’d really like it to be three-dimensional.”

For Fein, being able to have things sticking out was liberating. She imagined that some of the bumps and ridges could function as handholds. Other elements, like a sea anemone soap dish, which sticks several inches up from the surface of the tiles, were intentionally utilitarian.

Otherwise, the restrictions were few. There had to be space for the hot and cold water faucets, and the final assemblage had to be square.

“That was really exciting to work for a client who understood my work and allowed me to have that freedom of not restricting me to a certain color palette or saying, ‘No I don’t like those fish; only do these,” she said.

To design the piece, Fein laid out pieces of paper to the scale of the unfolded tub surround — 6 feet high, 3 feet wide on either end and 6 feet along the length of the tub — and drew the scene using images of native fish species as a rough guide for what would prove to be fanciful depictions of fish.

When the drawings were complete, she brought them to the residence in Massachusetts and hung them up inside the tub alcove so she and her patron could get an idea of what the finished piece would look like.

From there, Fein began the long process of sculpting, drying and firing the piece with multiple layers of translucent glazes.

“Above and Below” is not the first such large work Fein has done. By a rough count, she has done 20 since 1987. Unlike the most recent piece, most have been displayed publicly, either through the Percent for Art program, which has placed a number of her works in hospitals and schools around the state, or in the form of a number of somewhat less public corporate commissions.

Fein does not have any grand commissions planned for the near future. At the end of the spring semester at Unity College, where she is a professor, she is scheduled to teach a course in garden sculpture at Waterfall Arts in Belfast.

The installation of “Above and Below” entails transporting the tiles to Lincoln, Mass., and working with a professional tile installer. When the work is done, Fein has a final request.

“I really want to take a shower and experience this piece,” she said.

VillageSoup Art/Republican Journal reporter Ethan Andrews can be reached at 207-338-3333 or by e-mail to eandrews@villagesoup.com.