Complex simplicity

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Pictured above: Burning Bush (detail) (2023)

Anabella Wewer talks to her long-term colleague and friend Kelley Knickerbocker, writing about the essence of Kelley’s mosaic making, which she describes as complex simplicity that tells stories and challenges preconceptions.

By Anabella Wewer

There is an intricate and delicate balance between complexity and simplicity in Kelley Knickerbocker’s work. Her pieces are grounded on basic principles — of design, construction, andamento, etc – and a determined curiosity that demands she questions everything. This is especially true about the materials she uses. The resulting artwork can be described as complex simplicity that tells stories and challenges preconceptions, and perhaps definitions.

Kelley is a wordsmith, and conversations with her are filled with invented, funny, relatable terms. Her body of work speaks with the same eloquence and, as we delved into the intricacies of what makes her work stand out, I found myself thinking that the language of mosaic I often speak about is equally peppered with invented “words” and pizzazz at her hands. The details that bring the viewer in are as unexpected in the realm of mosaic as the words she makes up on the fly to describe her take on mosaic principles and ideas. 

Freshly Unforgotten (2023) 15 x 13 inches

Having spent significant amounts of time working alongside Kelley in various settings and circumstances, and maintaining an ongoing conversation with her that spans years — about mosaic, teaching, business, materials, life and more — there is a need for me to pare down her approach to making art to its most basic elements for these pages. Not accidentally, this is how Kelley approaches her practice. 

What we see in her work is the culmination of intense play and a lot of consideration and study, but above all the result of curiosity and a willingness to spend the time to really study a material, to follow the accidents to where they take her, to acknowledge and observe, to iterate and find the shapes that work with her chosen materials to tell the story she wants to tell.

Freshly Unforgotten (detail ) (2023)
More than Enough (detail) (2022)

“What if…?”, and “Why not?” are the directives as Kelley approaches her work. In her art practice, that vase that has been passed up by most, and landed in the 75% discount rack, is an opportunity for exploration, another word in her vocabulary, an arsenal with which to create without worrying about the cost of the material — and most importantly and interestingly, a springboard to creativity. In those discard bins, she sees potential; she sees textures and possibilities in materials that, when manipulated and developed, are richer than the common mosaic materials and unrecognizable as to their origin. She’s looking for value, texture, interest and the material’s ability to do more.

Faced with an attention-getting, bumpy gold vase, Kelley saw gaudy and thought message, story — and a material to be understood. “Oh, I gotta be careful with that gold! It’s such crappy quality, that vase; it scratches so easily!” she thought of a particular bargain bin find. She used some pieces of it in a mosaic that was shipped to a gallery, and when it returned, there was some burnishing on that cheap glaze. “OK, so how do we make that a feature? How do I roll with it? How can I capitalize on these things that it does?” she wondered. Turning those qualities around in her mind, Kelley thought that the propensity to scratch might be a way to give the material texture. And then… “Oh! Scratching it makes divots, and divots can have something in them…” and so she added a patina compound to it, all at once bringing down the screaming gaudiness of the cheap glaze, and making it so unique, it wouldn’t even look like the same material she used before. These thought patterns and processes sometimes take months or years, and a lot of experimentation and iteration.

More than Enough (2022)

“I want to find the elemental nature of the material, and get it as far away as I can from its original function or intent.” Fond of the interesting shapes of crockery, Kelley works with dishes, bowls and cups frequently. Beyond those shapes is the very nature of pottery: an often-shiny, glassy covering over a matte clay body of varying color and porosity. One day she chipped the glaze off a piece of crockery and, instead of discarding it, she considered what had been revealed. That led to a series of works centered around revealing the clay body of ceramic materials, and eventually chipping off the polished surface of marble and granite, revealing more or less of either the clay body or the raw material. Kelley gave meaning to that revealing action in works like Beyond the Pale, pieces that talk about societal challenges and human nature and condition.

Beyond the Pale (2018), 29 x 20 inches

A lot of Kelley’s current practice features drawing over her mosaics. Once all that clay body had been revealed, it occurred to her that it was then a porous surface, ready to receive inks and pigments. First, she colored the exposed clay body, taking away brightness, or intentionally changing colors to serve a different purpose. Where some of us would simply find a material of a particular color, Kelley is at ease using her favorite crockery, the one she knows so well and relies on to cut just so, and manipulate it to fit her needs.

“I am thinking about all that stuff (as I work). I am observing. What will be changed here, and why, and how does it serve what I want to do,” she explains. Sometimes those observations are saved for later works. The iteration as she creates works in series serves to refine the technique, explore, and push it and the materials further. “It wasn’t until later that I realized, ‘oh… I could also draw on that.’ It’s a receptive surface, still. I’ve saturated it with something but it still could receive, you know… drawing.” The fact that most people don’t draw on mosaic was not a thought she had and, if she did, it wouldn’t stop her.

Burning Bush (2023), 22 x 19 inches

“Right now, I love the idea that andamento is the structure, it’s the underlying organization, it’s the grace, it’s the invitation for all this stuff to come together. I love how, with the drawing, the surface over all that underlying structure, connects. When the lines of andamento are straight-ish, there is this rolling, organic curvature that can go over and around, which can create a whole different softness or definition.”

Is the mosaic a canvas? I ask. “It’s an underpainting of sorts. To me it’s integral. It matters to me that it’s mosaic under there, not drawing, not just a flat or many colored painted surface, or whatever. It matters to me that it’s mosaic. That is my medium. This other stuff that’s going above it… the mosaic has to be good; it has to be valid and meaningful in and of itself. What I am doing over is in concert, but it has to be mosaic.

Deep Calls To Deep (2019) 11 x 9 inches

“The materials do what they do, and then I have to work with that when I come back and do the drawing, cause I do it at the end, when the thing is already built. So I am going around with a writing instrument in and around these curved-up pieces of crockery, but yeah… I am embellishing or further ‘eloquenting’ on an actual mosaic, not something else. To me it’s crucial it is mosaic. It’s the topography of the mosaic that makes the drawing do what it does. It’d be boring to me if it wasn’t mosaic.”

I Fail to See the Connection (2021), 24 x 20 inches

Technical Tips

Kelley Knickerbocker shares some top technical tips from her experience. 

  1. For the love of all that’s holy, I beg you on bended knee to learn to use cement mortar as your adhesive. It’s the only one that accommodates unlimited height differentials in tesserae, serves the visual function of grout (can be tinted any color you like), holds anything with a death grip, allows infinite variations of tesserae positioning for sculptural and spirited topographies, and can itself be made into countless iterations of tesserae.
  2. Get intimate with your materials. Cut them with several different tools, note their every characteristic (matte surface, glossy interior, mottled back, opaque, porous, striated, tends to curve/crumble/crack/flake/splinter when cut, no grain, glints from an angle, porous, impervious, curves interestingly, resembles _____, is a different value/color when wet/dry/cut, scratches easily, and on and on), then capitalize on those characteristics to express ideas. The more you see, the broader your choices of uses/combinations to create an expression that’s uniquely you.
  3. Study the accidents and interruptions that happen as you work. As Sherri Warner Hunter says, “Once is a mistake, twice is a motif, three times is a concept.” As much as I dislike surprises when I’m intent on something else, they’re vital to better understanding and expansion of possibility. When you’re done swearing at them, double down on those bad boys: test ‘em, repeat ‘em, make ‘em springboards to new discoveries. Otherwise we’re limited to only what we can think of, which ain’t everything.

About Kelley Knickerbocker
Self-taught and Seattle-based, the ever-curious and bling-averse mosaic/assemblage artist Kelley Knickerbocker is nearly 20 years into a studio practice involving installations, exhibitions, awards, collaborations, residencies, and her parallel passions of teaching and run-on sentences. Experimentation and innovation with mortar and material properties are hallmarks of Kelley’s work, and have captivated collectors and students around the world as well as readers of the numerous publications in which her work appears.

Instagram: @k2makes