A two-part post on the Hackney Mosaic Project in London led by Tessa Hunkin and assisted by a team of volunteers. Tessa, who has a string of mosaic books to her name as well as numerous prestigious mosaic commissions from Westminster Cathedral to cruise ships and celebrity homes, started the project in 2011.
It’s odd to think that when mosaic artist Tessa Hunkin hit upon the idea of setting up a community mosaic project in London she didn’t have her door battered down by excited supporters and willing funders. The idea, which has since morphed into the Hackney Mosaic Project – responsible for some of the finest community mosaics in London – started off as a relatively modest plan to make a mosaic to mark the London 2012 Olympics.
‘I thought it could be an Olympic project since the Olympics started in Greece and mosaics started in Greece so I did a drawing based on the seasons and tried to sell it,’ said Tessa, who trained as an architect before becoming a full time professional mosaic artist in the late 1980s. But none of the London boroughs took the bait until Tessa approached Hackney Council, which had a budget for Olympic preparations and the vision to see that this would be a perfect way to bring the community together and cheer up a neglected corner of the city.
And so, starting with a handful of volunteers, Tessa set to work on what would become The Shepherdess Walk mosaic. The mosaic, which took two years to complete and ended up including around 150 helpers, was originally two panels for a local park. An updated version of the ancient Roman tradition of making mosaics to represent the seasons, the Shepherdess Walk mosaic shows aspects of contemporary life in Hackney from picnicking and frisbee playing on a summer’s day to a child feeding the ducks on an icy winter pond as his distracted mother checks her phone messages.
The mosaic received widespread acclaim (including receiving the British Association of Modern Mosaic’s Mosaic of the Year Award in 2014), the volunteers were keen to continue and, bit by bit, more funding was found to keep the project going. So further panels were added including the names of the volunteers, shepherdesses tending their sheep after whom the park was named and pavement mosaics of local flora. By the time the work was over the Hackney Mosaic Project had completed a whopping 50 square metres of mosaic work and blossomed from a small group of volunteers into a mosaic making phenomenon.
At first the Hackney Mosaic Project operated out of a disused shop on Murray Grove Street and largely relied on volunteers from a local service providing support for people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. But as the project gained momentum other people joined in and two half days a week and alternate Saturdays became two full days because once people started they didnt want to stop. The next major project was a commission for the local branch of Sainsburys showing various forms of entertainment at a music hall that once stood nearby.
At that point, towards the end of 2013, the volunteers moved to a modern pavillion in the middle of Hackney Downs park while they worked on another 40 square metre mosaic to cover an outdoor theatre in a children’s playground next door. The design, inspired by a recent trip Tessa had made to see ancient mosaics in Jordan, shows a variety of large wild animals, in an animated, colourful composition intended to delight and intrigue the youngsters playing nearby.
Other commissions followed and new volunteers arrived while others drifted away. As time moved on, Tessa’s team of mosaic makers has encompassed all sorts of people (and dogs), of varying nationalities, ages and walks of life, from children with troubled family backgrounds who liked to hang out in the Murray Grove premises and make the tea to the retired head of conservation at the British Museum. Sex workers, homeless people, people with learning difficulties have all contributed to the Hackney Mosaic Project which has attracted helpers from all over the world including Israel, Brazil, Sri Lanka and numerous European countries.
Now if you approach the pavillion you will hear the gentle tsisk-tsisk of mosaic clippers as the volunteers work on their own individual segments of a new mosaic for the West Hackney Recreation Ground.
The latest mosaic, like all of Tessa’s designs, has been made to scale on paper and then cut into manageable pieces. The tesserae are then laid in place using the reverse method before the sheets are re-assembled on site by Walter Bernadin, a specialist in fixing mosaics.
Go inside and everywhere you look there are mosaics: large ones in progress, smaller ones hung up or casually propped against the wall, mosaic designs scattered over Tessa’s desk, mosaic signs, a row of individual mosaic panels displayed on a low wall outside, and a mosaic billboard quietly declaring that this is where the Hackney Mosaic Project can be found:
Yet despite the acclaim, the pride, the community spirit, the sense of purpose and achievement, the beauty, the brilliance, the hard work, the diligence and the sheer drop-dead gorgeousness of the mosaics themselves, that billboard might soon be packed up and end up collecting dust in the back of a dark cupboard. The Hackney Mosaic Project has one more commission and a few more months before they have to vacate the Hackney Pavilion and before the money runs out.
Their last work will be three panels for a new lion breeding enclosure at London Zoo. True to form, Tessa’s preliminary designs, still to be tweaked and revised, are full of lively activity and brilliantly capture the story of the Asiatic lions from Gujarat, India, whose viewing area the mosaics will decorate.
‘ If I get the funding, I will go on,’ says Tessa, ‘but the climate here is quite difficult. Times are hard and premises are limited. At least the zoo mosaic will keep us going until the end of February  so we’ll get through Christmas which is such a burden and difficult time of year for many of our volunteers but after that I just don’t know.’
For more on the Hackney Mosaic Project’s output and to see amazing photographs of their work in progress including the Shepherdess Walk Mosaic go to http://spitalfieldslife.com/2013/10/07/the-mosaic-makers-of-hoxton/ and linked articles.
COMING NEXT: The Hackney Downs Mosaic in detail.