Rob Kesseler

Portrait of Rob KesselerLychnis FloscuculiAbutilon

Rob Kesseler’s work is difficult to pin down. He is Professor of Ceramic Art and Design at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design but is very far from being a conventional potter, often working with photography and digital images rather than clay. His work bridges the art-science divide and he calls himself an artist, explaining that ‘I work in the area where craft, art and design overlap’. But the one theme linking Kesseler’s wide-ranging body of work is his overwhelming fascination with plant material and the natural world.

Rob will be speaking at The Making's 'Inspired by Nature - Theatre of Making' seminar at West Dean in June 2007. . Visit Rob's website.

Seed images from "Seeds, Time Capsules of Life" by Kesseler & Stuppy, Published by Papadakis Publishers.


Why is the plant world so important to your work?

For centuries artists have been using plant images on domestic objects such as ceramics, clothes, furniture, floor coverings and wall decorations and my work is a contemporary extension of that applied arts tradition. I use magnified images of microscopic plant structures like pollen to create new art forms. Since the early days of microphotography in the mid 19th century, microscopic images of plant material have been the preserve of scientists and I recognised the potential that this material offered artists. My work at Kew (Kesseler was awarded a three-year NESTA Fellowships to work with scientists at Kew Gardens in 2001) allowed me to explore that potential and showed me how to create new opportunities and new images using this type of material.

Can you describe exactly how you use these magnified images of plant material?

I use them in lots of different ways. For example in 2000 I worked on ‘Gathered’ a project at Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. This built on the tradition of having artists working in the forests and involved using material from the forest in a new way. I collected pollen from local flowers and subsequently photographed them on a scanning electron microscope at Kew Gardens. Individual pollen grains were magnified thousands of times, revealing highly individual structures, complex and rich in ornamentation. The resulting photographs were used to produce a series of burnished gold prints that float across the surface of a 100-piece set of Wedgwood china. The blank plates were printed with these images as well as lines describing the local flowers from a manuscript by John Ruskin who lived at nearby Brantwood. The dinner service was launched by a banquet which took place on the Fells to which a group of people involved in the project including a food historian who devised the menu using food collected in the forest, a botanist, a poet, a herbalist and a bee keeper were invited.

How do you respond to the charge that you are merely reproducing scientific/botanical images on your work?

The images that I use are very distinctive and not at all like those produced by scientists. The images produced by the microscope are black and white so I add colour to them and use it to create mesmeric pieces that will draw in the viewers in the same way as a bee is drawn to the colours of a flower. I use the computer with the same sensitivity that working in pastels or watercolour would require and I can take up to a week working on one image. I manipulate the images to reveal things that were there all the time but not visible – I re-work them to make them more like they are to create what could be described as assisted reality. Pollen and seeds are fantastic structures and I’m not just copying them but exploring ways of using them to create new forms. I think the fact that the images are digital confuses the status of the work but as far as I’m concerned working in this way is just the same as working on conventional ceramics.

How does your interest in historic ceramics feed into your practice?

My ceramic work often references historic pieces which refer to the natural world. I did a show at the V&A called ‘Extending Traditions’ which was all about looking at the past through the present. Ceramics from the historical collection with particular botanical interest were displayed behind a china plate, decorated with magnified images of pollen and containing a magnifying lens inserted into a hole cut in the china. The spectator looked through the lens to view detailed fragments or close-ups from past traditions. Another project directly inspired by historical ceramics was ‘Beyond the Blue’ which was commissioned by the Contemporary Art Society for an exhibition at the City Museum in Stoke, taking the willow pattern motif as a starting point then going beneath the surface to reveal hidden microsctructures.

Does craft play a role in your practice?

My practice is more ideas-led than process-led as my work is strongly conceptual, but I use processes where appropriate. And craftsmanship does play a role as the finish of the object is important to me and so is attention to detail. Even though much of my work is collaborative, it’s important that I have control over the printing and production process. The finished pieces are quite luxurious and so yes, there are craft skills there.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a project for the Botanical Gardens in Oxford. Part of the old greenhouses there are being re-glazed and I am going to etch images taken from microscopic details of the surrounding plants there on to the new glass. So you will be looking through the glass at images of plant material which is actually surrounding you but which you can’t see with the naked eye. I will photograph the images produced by the microscope, manipulate them with the computer and then make stencils that can be sandblasted or etched with acid on to the glass. I am working in collaboration with an architectural glass company and we are currently testing the best way to transfer the images onto the glass. The work is to be installed this summer in readiness for a launch in September.

Are your photographic prints for sale? Thanks. Bill Ramsdell, Austin, Texas, 78746

Yes - some of the images from the books are available as signed, limited edition Giclee prints, printed on 308gsm Hahnemuhle archival paper. Sizes, prices and number in edition are available on request.