The meditative mosaicist abstracting a traditional craft

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Pictured above: (In)visible Cities Crepuscolo (Twilight) & Alba (Dawn) (2019). Photo by Shannon Tofts.

Edinburgh-based Joanna Kessel has been recently awarded the Visual Arts Scotland Inches Carr Creative Development Award 2022, which will support a research project that will enable Joanna to develop new work. Rebecca Ann Hughes caught up with Joanna to find out about the ethos and inspirations underlying her art practice.


Listen to Rebecca narrate her article:

From a large panel of charcoal grey concrete, tiny squares of gold scintillate gently like little winking lights. The vast piece is the work of contemporary visual artist Joanna Kessel, who specialises in mosaics. It is part of her latest series (In)visible Cities, where abstract mosaic panels represent a meditative and seductive memory of half-glimpsed places and fragments of urban spaces. Through these pieces, Kessel takes her mosaic art in a new direction, divorced from decorative or figurative functions and sitting firmly in the contemporary art scene.  

Joanna Kessel in her studio. Photo by David Kessel.

Kessel’s journey to creating the (In)visible Cities series began with a trip to Italy in 2010. She studied at the School of Mosaics in Friuli and travelled around northern Italy visiting the medieval mosaics of Venice and Ravenna. Kessel describes this trip as a “pivotal point” in developing her personal work because it prompted her fascination with the materials of mosaics. From smalti to marble, she began to take note of the materials that held a particular attraction for her. Gold leaf mosaic was especially appealing, as well as a dense black marble she selected for its matte quality, and both materials have featured heavily in her subsequent work. Seeing the work of modern architect Carlo Scarpa was also highly significant for Kessel. “I found his work intensely beautiful,” she says, “the way he distilled imagery and his pared-back use of materials.” 

The immersive experience Kessel undergoes during the making process is also shared by the viewer of these panels. There is something meditative and absorbing about the observation of the mosaics.

Kessel’s fascination with materials has since been at the core of the artworks she produces. “As I experiment with the materials, it informs me about their potential and affects how I respond to them,” she says. As such, the process of creating her mosaics is an integral part of the artwork. “There is an intimate decision making when I place each tessera,” she continues. “And it can take a very long time.” Kessel explains how she might spend hours arranging and rearranging tesserae on a piece of card in her studio before the mosaic crystalises into something harmonious and cohesive. “There’s something very immersive about the process that I hope comes out visually in how it looks,” she adds. 

(In)visible Cities Interface IV. Gold leaf mosaic, smalti, marble, jesmonite, pigment (2017). Photo by Michael Wolchover

As is apparent in the (In)visible Cities panels, Kessel particularly enjoys juxtaposing materials. These mosaics frequently contrast matte concrete with shimmering gold leaf or colourful smalti. Such materials also allow Kessel to play with variations in scale and depth. “The materials enable me to go from the individual unit of the tesserae to vast surfaces and expanses of concrete,” she explains (some of the largest panels measure around 200cm in length). In some panels, the gold leaf smalti are orderly and organised while in others they are scattered randomly throughout the concrete. 

“They are recollections of a place but also a place in my imagination.”

The process of creating her mosaics is also lengthy because Kessel uses a traditional hammer and hardie to break up the marble or mosaics into minute pieces. The hammer and hardie are traditional Italian tools (martellina e tagliola). They are used by holding a length of the chosen material across the hardie (a steel chisel set upright within a block of wood) and bringing the weighty hammer down to fracture the stone. “The process is much more to do with finesse than strength,” Kessel notes, as the tools must be lined up correctly in order for clean cuts to be made with one strike. “I stand when cutting the marble and enjoy the simplicity of the process, the physicality and rhythms involved,” Kessel says, “which in turn inform the rhythms of the structures within the work, how I lay the tesserae.” She says the laborious process helps her gain a greater understanding of the materials she is working with. “Cutting into the stone reveals layer upon layer of matter that was laid down millions of years ago,” she says. 

(In)visible Cities sculptural objects on console table and Crepuscolo (Twilight) on wall (2019) Photo by Shannon Tofts

The immersive experience Kessel undergoes during the making process is also shared by the viewer of these panels. There is something meditative and absorbing about the observation of the mosaics. On walking past or changing position, the viewer suddenly catches glimpses of the gleaming gold leaf, deliberately placed at angles to catch the light. Kessel studied Byzantine mosaics to achieve this effect. “The way the gold leaf mosaic was angled downwards as it was pressed in meant that the viewer below would get the full impact of the light reflecting qualities of the gold,” she explains. As such, Kessel creates highly activated surfaces by angling the tesserae in different ways. “As you walk past, it has an energy and a life,” she says. 

As the title of the series implies — a riff on Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities — the panels capture the experience of catching sight of spaces and details in the urban space. And as Kessel explains, “It’s about hidden glimpses or noticing the unseen parts that comes from allowing yourself to be in a place and absorb qualities there.” Kessel makes annual trips to Venice and wanders the back streets taking note of details like shop fronts, walls or window frames. It is a process of becoming fully aware in a place or having a “clarity of vision” that allows her to notice elements of the urban space that are often overlooked. She describes, for example, seeing a repainted window frame with the old colour peeking through creating a pleasing contrast. She takes sketchbooks on these trips and makes little notes and annotated drawings. 

Back in the studio, she begins the distillation process. The drawings become collages and then tesserae designs, growing ever more abstracted and distorted. “They start to become memories and recollections of place rather than recreating the architecture,” Kessel continues. She lays out the materials and starts to play with colours and light. “I’ve gone on a personal journey from being there to then creating something totally new,” she says. “They are recollections of a place but also a place in my imagination.”  

(In)visible Cities Anamnesis, AURUM Gold exhibition at Le Roi Fou restaurant (2019) Photo by Alix McIntosh.

Through this abstraction, Kessel’s work liberates mosaics from their storytelling or didactic function as well as their decorative connotations. It is a forward-looking approach to mosaics that, while informed by traditional materials and techniques, is startlingly contemporary. 

In Kessel’s words, her work “straddles the intersection between art, craft, design and architecture.” She reinterprets and reimagines materials and processes to form contemporary works, a trend that has its roots in significant shifts in the concept of “craft” in the 60s. At this time, the notions of “craftsperson” and “artist” began to merge. “This shift created a space for a flow and dialogue between the concept and the process, and is one that informs me and many contemporary artists, designers and makers,” Kessel adds. 

Instagram: @joannakessel