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Concrete Designs to Thrive  >  4 Design for the Mindful Pause

Walk by Design - 4 Design for the Mindful Pause

PRAY - Part 4 of CONCRETE Designs to Thrive 2021


A Walk and Talk with Joanna Kessel, artist and ambassador of the British Association for Modern Mosaic.

Faith Buildings, Art and Sanctuary

11 June 2021 
Charteris Land, Moray House, Canongate, Edinburgh 

Joanna Kessel, Mosaic Artist


This conversation highlights the impact of art in the public realm, as a focus for a "mindful pause" in the busy urban environment. Moving through the landscaped gardens of Old Moray House, longtime seat of teacher training and educational research, the pair discuss their past encounters which include viewing work of architect Carlo Scarpa in Verona and Venice.


Continuing to the campus of new Moray House Department of Education, University of Edinburgh, the pair settle beside a striking set of concrete relief sculptures. This encounter introduces Concrete Designs to Thrive, a programme from Journeys in Design exploring the contemporary design of places and spaces for living well. Materiality across art, design, and industry defines the programme.

The encounter also introduces the theme of PRAY with its exploration of Art and Sanctuary.

Here you can watch the full video, and you can read the full text adapted from the transcript of the conversation below.

Introduction: Welcome to Concrete Walks by Design 4 - "Pray"

John Ennis: Welcome to a further encounter on our Concrete Walks by Design in Edinburgh. Today we're in a rather splendid garden again, just off the High Street in central Edinburgh and behind us is Moray House.

My name is John Ennis, curator producer at Journeys in Design. We’re introducing our new program, Concrete Designs to Thrive, and we've been doing something of a riff on Patrick Geddes the great town planner of late 19th century. Patrick Geddes was responsible for his “conservative surgery” in this part of Edinburgh too.

Many people in Edinburgh will associate Moray House with the teacher training college, and its most recent incarnation as Department of Education at the University of Edinburgh. who have wonderfully restored the landscaping in this area. That's significant in terms of Patrick Geddes - hand, heart and head. The manual labour associated with education, the spiritual community of education, and the learning process itself were central to his thinking and his time planning.

Moray House was built in 1625 and was one of the original landed houses near the Palace of Holyrood. Here we are in what was a significant garden of the time and a rather under-sung bit of Scottish history. This is the site of the signing of the Union between Scotland and England in 1707. There is a mosaic remembering that act in one of the college buildings. We can't access the mosaic today but that's rather a nice segue into introducing of our guest today, Joanna Kessel, mosaic artist.

Joanna Kessel: Hi John nice to meet you

John: Great to see you again. For me, this is a special moment and I’d just like to say thank you, as you've been a great mentor to me in many ways in preparation for our concrete designs to thrive program. Today our theme - and as you'll know we've been choosing essential acts of life to give focus to our program - is “Pray”.

When we're looking at the spiritual and the sanctuary in the urban environment, for sure that gives an opportunity to look at faiths and sanctuary buildings, but also it lets us look at how we design our built environment to give those moments of mindfulness. Joanna, we'll get to talk a little bit about materiality today, particularly when we look towards some wonderful concrete structures which are which are close at hand. But as we walk towards those, would you like to tell us a little bit about your own work - particularly involving concrete? 

Joanna: That would be great, John. I’ll maybe start by building on the idea of noticing the urban environment. My interest in Italo Calvino's novel, Invisible Cities, 

John: Which you introduced me to six or seven years ago. And what a wonderful read! Tell us a little bit more about how that has guided some of your work.


Joanna: Well it links in with Carlos Scarpa (the venetian architect)’s work which we maybe will touch on when we get further along our walk. For me it's very much about being in a place at a given time. And in my work I’m making a sort of continual series titled (In)visible Cities. Ii’s very much about hidden glimpses; what comes into sight when you are in a place, and maybe in a particularly mindful, or just aware and noticing, state. Which for me is very important. It's about being present.

John: That's absolutely what I took from the work. We’ve had a chance to be in Verona and Venice to look at some of the work of Carlos Scarpa - again thank you for that educational tour. The wonderful blend of mosaic and concrete is part of your work as well.

Joanna: Yes, exactly. When I saw Scarpa's work for the first time, I was on a research and development funded award by Creative Scotland. That’s many years ago now, but my goodness, the legacy of that lives on. So it was such a great thing to receive. 


I was looking at architectural mosaics in particular and then I just came across the work of Carlos Scarpa. It was a significant moment, or a pivotal moment in my life, of seeing the mosaic as a jewel within these vast areas of cast concrete. Areas which, for me, also have great beauty. But maybe what I started to see were possibilities for the mosaic to be extended. Maybe by the concrete. And to marry the precious and the ordinary.


John: Perfect, I mean that's what I get from viewing your work. And it was a great privilege for me to be with you and when you were presenting at Collect.


Joanna: Collect was such a fantastic opportunity (again part funded by Creative Scotland, which is just so helpful when you're doing such large projects). Collect gave me the opportunity to make some architectural scale mosaics. So one absolutely minute hand cut marble and gold leaf glass smalti, and the other piece was gold leaf glass smalti; so it's gold leaf encapsulated in glass but cast into polished concrete. Very rich… beautiful… velvety. So quality - not what you're expecting when you think of concrete.


John: Outstanding work. Very, very beautiful. Congratulations on that exhibition. it was lovely.


We're confronted by something of a less attractive building in many people's eyes. It's called Charteris Land. Interestingly enough - and Patrick Geddes would be pleased - it's the home of teacher training for art and design, and has been that for for some time.


Joanna: I think we both feel education in its broader sense is very important. Sometimes it's just a little conversation like this which might get somebody going in a thought process, and take them to another point.


John: Absolutely. And I think that's been my experience chatting with you on pretty much every occasion. I think the notion of seeing in ways, and I love the dialogue we have about Invisible Cities. The corners, the avenues, the alleys, the closes, the courtyards.


Joanna: I feel the more you notice, the richer life becomes. A lot of my work is about noticing something. You know, I might walk back to that corner and go, ‘yeah there was something there that was of interest’. Then I kind of note that, capture that, and then distill it. And then back in the studio quite often there's quite a lot of imagination that also comes into play. I'm not trying to recreate. And I think that's also the case with these sculptures.


John: These are amazing! I just want to touch on something you said there; “moments of pause”. Particularly in the last year (2021 pandemic) of course. Moments of pause, for all of us, whether they're enforced or chosen. I think moments of pause really help people’s well-being. That's well evidenced. And moments of pause as offered by works of art in the public landscape offer that too.


I think it's quite fitting that we're thinking about the theme of ‘Pray’ - and the notion of mindful, the spiritual - in front of these pretty uncompromising concrete artworks.

when you connect to an artwork it can draw you in. It can also create an opportunity for you to look out. And that can be very enriching

Joanna: I think when you connect to an artwork it can draw you in. It can also create an opportunity for you to look out. And that can be very enriching. To get drawn in, and into the mind of the artist, and the location of the architect. It's all married together. Then what you take from that, and what you start to notice. Again, coming back to that word - enrich. I think is really important.


John: When we first saw these together we had different reactions, responses, interpretations. For me, perhaps with the bioscientific training I've had, I saw cellular structures. Something of the complexity of life. The gametes in the middle, and reproduction. Then these to me looked like mitochondria, the building blocks of a cell. So they seem to represent life force in education.


Joanna: And it's really interesting what you do see when you come across work for the first time. Particularly if you've not read anything about it. Because you're enabled then to respond. You bring all of what you've got in yourself; your own knowledge and experience. So your response will be naturally different to mine. Then when you go on to read information about the work, that will further colour the way that you see something.


John: You've just reminded me of one of the dilemmas I have as a curator, about labelling and interpretation panels. I love to keep it to an absolute minimum. We've been using a minimum title and a bar code now - to let people have that opportunity. To have time with a piece of work without feeling the need for deeper meaning.


Joanna: I think that’s a very interesting thing about expression in terms of words and visual expression. If we go into a major museum or gallery and they generally have huge text boards when you enter a room. I don't know about you, but my natural inclination is to go and read them first. Sometimes I feel that I get overloaded. I need to just go and do the responsive stuff! 


John: I’ve done that! I've taken myself away from the boards and gone around the exhibition, and then come back and started again where I've had the opportunity.


Joanna: During lockdown I spent a lot of time up there (pointing to Salisbury Crags). We can just see Salisbury Crags, Arthur's Seat - the volcanic hill in the centre of Edinburgh. Which is rich! It’s volcanic, and there are these great intrusions and sills. I'm just learning more about geology - it's absolutely fascinating! 


I've been drawing stones. (Joanna takes a stone from her pocket) I maybe shouldn't have picked this up but I was just really fascinated by the shape. This was between some sort of basaltic bubbling away which are very rounded, with onion forms. They have little cracks. You can see how similar this is in shape, particularly to this first bass relief.


John: Yes, I'm immediately wanting to go up close, and I think this is the joy. I would say heads up to the archivist at Moray House institute of education and University of Edinburgh. We found it a little tricky to get some background information about these reliefs. But you know, one of the most joyous things is that we found out who the artist was. It’s my favourite name of the year, David “Dusty” Miller. “Dusty” Miller was a member of staff at Moray House College, which is great isn't it! How wonderful that he was given the commission - but who knows if he was paid, we'll have to find that out!

Between 1966 and ’69 - that time of pretty uncompromising modernist buildings - David Miller had this extraordinary opportunity to adorn this building with a sculpture wall.


Joanna: From my understanding he carved the design into a high density polystyrene and then there was a direct pour of concrete. It took something like 29 hours for the whole process. This is one section, and of course there's a section around the corner. We uncovered that with the extension that's now on the inside of the building. 

Look at these! You feel like they're just such big pieces and you want to feel around them to feel the texture. 


Joanna: Look inside. This is almost like basalt rock, which we've got around Samson's Ribs (on the southern side of Arthur’s Seat). So the artwork is again getting me to look around and make associations with places that I know. But now I want to go back and have a look of how that's constructed - similar to Giant's Causeway of course.

John: The local geology, and its influence on art form is very interesting. We did discover what these were called. Can you now introduce us to the artworks?

Joanna: This first one is titled “The Maze”. I’ve got terrible memory but there was something to do with brain patterning and experiments on rats. It was the sixties


John: Very much related to educational research, which I guess was happening in this building. 

The second design, ‘Growth and Development’. I think I got this right. The sex the gametes dividing and that that's implied with this one.


Joanna: And there was some nice additional information. The outer form took shape kind of naturally, or in terms of a creature. We're talking about nurture and nature, so the experiences let the outer shape come into being.


John: Yeah, the nurture nature thing going on there. That's clever. Now, I was wide of the mark with the third design

Joanna: ’Assimilation of Knowledge’. I love order. These are kind of structural ordering. But they also again make some references to the rock formations here, and James Hutton's discovery of unconformity, which is visible at Salisbury Crags. So you've got the rock layers which are layered down and then pushed up. And then sedimentary layers coming over the top. So we've got the vertical and the horizontal here. Well, that's what's going on in head at the moment! 


John: Sure, and that's the joy of approaching something like this in the public realm. So I certainly have had pause. And my mind has been cast up elsewhere from the business of the day. So there's a power in that, isn't there? Some power in being drawn away from self to a different thought process. Very healthy.


Joanna: Yeah, just sort of getting you to look. Being and seeing. I think it's really nurturing - so we kind of go back to the nurture and nature - but it is a really nurturing process.


Joanna, we're lucky to be able to ask some questions as they've been coming in on our live chat. Now, you mentioned the work that you prepared for Collect. That was a very velvet-like smooth concrete, and this is clearly in contrast. And thanks for letting us know that it's been cast onto carved polystyrene!

I notice sometimes in construction, concrete depends on the form into which it's poured. So sometimes you get wood marks from pallets. It’s that legacy of very humble materials. 

So this question is, What's it like to work with concrete? I mean it's heavy!?


Joanna: Yes, it is heavy! The first piece I made was rather an homage to Carlos Scarpa. I made a number of separate sections and then I mounted them all on the board together. I then realised that I couldn't actually lift it! So I've now devised very quickly, a way of working where it's kind of composite pieces which are hung together. So everything is manageable.


John: They're exquisite, they're absolutely exquisite. Have you had a chance to experiment with material at all since since that time?


Joanna: I've used some material. Your standard blue circle builders concrete which we've got here. Then also the Jesmonite - I should say polymer - concrete which is very refined and will pick up high definition detail.

One of the things that I'm going on to, which I won't speak about because it's in gestation, is to make very small handheld pieces of terrazzo. That's like a conglomerate. So the aggregate will be very special and they'll probably be quite pebble like - that you could put in your pocket; maybe become a wearable artwork. Very intimate pieces for people to hold, which might come from some waste material that somebody owns? I don't know. Anyway, ideas… ideas… 


John: You've reminded me of a heads up which I mean to give. I’m very grateful to, and excited by, all the museums and galleries reopening in Edinburgh. The City Arts Centre, here in Edinburgh, and Edinburgh’s museums and galleries are to be congratulated for a wonderful pair of exhibitions. And there's a bit of a link to today - Patrick Geddes was known for collaborating with the most extraordinary artists of his time. We will be able to dip into the archive held by the university, thanks to Fran Baseby and colleagues, to look at those relationships in more detail.

A great big thank you to Murdo McDonald, who really has led, in many ways, the research into those artistic relationships and the product of those relationships. And Edinburgh museums and galleries at City Arts Centre are showing George Mackie, who was a colleague and and collaborator with Patrick Geddes at the time. In the same building, Ian Hamilton Finlay - I'm mentioning him because of the term ‘concrete poetry’ which is essentially any object that uses words at its most basic form. He was also a sculptor and did use concrete to mould some wonderful works of concrete poetry. So a double meaning to the concrete poetry there. There's a beautiful exhibition by Ian Hamilton Finlay in the same building.

It's so wonderful that after this time of being deprived of our culture in many ways in galleries and museums (due to Covid), they're opening up again and a big thank you to Edinburgh museums and galleries.

It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you again and to share some of our thinking and your guidance. (In)visible Cities, your own work, we hope to revisit that through the next two to three years as we travel around Scotland and reach out to European centres, through the course of Concrete Designs To Thrive. Joanna, thank you very much.

Thanks very much and for joining us this lunch time. We’re going to take a break over the weekend. Next week we're going to have a look at some more themes in our Walk By Design in Edinburgh. We hope to see you next Tuesday at six o'clock.

Next video: Heal - places and spaces for Health and Well-Being >

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