Reflections on Lockdown with Joanna Kessel 

Joanna Kessel / Photography by Shannon Tofts

Joanna Kessel / Photography by Shannon Tofts

In this four-part series, we hear from makers across Scotland reflect on how they continued their craft practice during the lockdown. Read Part One with Cally BookerPart Two with Emily Stephen, and Part Four with James Donald.
In Part Three of the Reflections on Lockdown series, designer Joanna Kessel shares how her practice has transformed due to the lockdown and how she has acclimatised to a new workspace. 
Joanna first started to work with mosaic in the early 1990’s, undertaking several public art commissions for local councils, schools and hospitals as well as for private clients. In 2009, she set up Edinburgh Mosaic Studio, and now combines her own studio practice with teaching, research and commissioned work. 

I create contemporary mosaic artworks inspired by architectural detail, hidden glimpses of built environments and a deeply personal response to place - being in any given place at any given time.    

For me, mosaic is tangible colour. You can hold each tessera (an individual tile used in mosaic) in your hand and feel its weight and material quality. You connect with the material, how it cuts and how the light affects it as you place it. I respond to the physicality of the material and the sense of place inspires the concept. It is very much about being present and noticing nuance - making a mosaic can be a meditative and immersive process.  

I often combine materials, from sumptuous 24k Venetian gold leaf mosaic, glass smalti and marble to cast and polished concrete.  Work varies in dimension from intimately scaled, jewel-like pieces to modular, architectural work that could be infinite in scale. I am interested in the dialogues created as materials are juxtaposed; elements are repeated, particularly with the play of light on matte and reflective surfaces shift.   
 Image: Joanna Kessel’s Invisible Cities / Photography by Shannon Tofts

 “I had to stop work and radically re-think my creative practice” 

The effect the pandemic has had on my working practice has been dramatic for a number of reasons.  

First of all, the loss of income. By mid-March we had made the decision to cancel the two Mosaic & Tapestry summer courses we were due to run in Kefalonia, Greece. It was disappointing news yet a reassuring decision for students. We refunded the courses fees and hope that people will wish to join us at a future date. Cancellation also resulted in the loss of an important element of my annual income stream. 

Secondly, the loss of opportunity. Exhibitions and projects variously were put on hold or went online. As we move forward these may or may not come to fruition. For example, a significant project I had was with a UK fashion house.  

Finally, the loss of studio access. I have a Wasps studio and these were shut to tenants with an hour’s notice.  My studio is not solely a place to make work, it is a personal creative space. It was not practical to transfer materials and equipment home to continue working within a domestic setting, so I had to stop work and radically re-think my creative practice. I had to consider what was possible for me to make within my tiny lockdown studio that the back bedroom had become. I decided to draw. 

Images:  Joanna Kessel drawing in her studio setup at home / Images by the artist 

“I packed pencils and a sketchbook into my rucksack and drew on my daily dog walks up Arthur’s Seat.” 

Losing so many things at the same time resulted in gaining a sense of fragility, sadly this came to pervade everything. 

Initially, I mainly spent my time drawing. I packed pencils and a sketchbook into my rucksack and drew on my daily dog walks up Arthur’s Seat. We were lucky to have such good weather throughout lockdown and we are lucky to have this relatively wild, volcanic hill in the centre of Edinburgh. The stacks, strata and crystalline structures of the rocks fascinated me and it was interesting to explore their mass and line.   
 Image: Joanna Kessel / Photography by Shannon Tofts
I transformed the sketches into studio drawings and found that what emerged resonated with my mosaic work, particularly the mass of the rock in relation to the cracks and spaces around them, which are similar to tesserae and their surrounding interstices. 

“As time moved on and I began to find my place within this world of change, upheaval and uncertainty.” 

Like many I took up #artistsupportpledge and benefitted from the comments, community and income this generated. I welcomed this positive and proactive ‘spirit of generosity’ initiated by artist Matthew Burrows. 

As time moved on and I began to find my place within this world of change, upheaval and uncertainty, I was able to start to look forward and to think about what I wanted to do creatively.   

Beginning to take control again brought about new ideas for mosaic artwork that I would be able to make at some point in the future.  However, not being able to physically make work enabled me to be creatively explore ideas on paper.  Creativity transformed from observational drawing and research into design development and plans for new work. 
Joanna will be running an inspiring Mosaic Workshop Programme from Glass Lab in Leith this autumn. You can find more information at the programme section of her website. We have also listed Joanna’s workshop on our What’s On section: 

Introduction to Mosaic (new format) – Saturday 17 & Sunday 18 October 2020 - £185 
To learn more about Joanna Kessel and her work, please visit her website and Instagram.  


Reflections on Lockdown is a four part series which explores the experiences of four makers based in Scotland during lockdown. Read Part One with Cally BookerPart Two with Emily Stephen, and Part Four with James Donald.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Materials Ceramics

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