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Kelley Knickerbocker

by Sally  Kinsey - December 2018

Flotsam by Kelley Knickerbocker

        As the year 2018 comes to a close, I can feel the change in the air… change in the season, in the scenery, in my microcosm of the world. This month’s feature is going to be different than before… I am going to start with the questions and responses with our Featured Artist, Kelley Knickerbocker, and share my take on our phone conversation afterward… Otherwise, you may not make it to what Kelley has to say…After all, this is more about her than me!

LMA: How and when were you introduced to mosaic art?


Kelley: Mosaic was never on my radar;  it found me as I was casting about for a creative business idea in 2005. I was looking for a different way to work with stained glass, and (almost literally) stumbled across a stained glass stepping stone at a glass supplier. Lightbulb moment!

LMA: Have you always been interested in art or artistically inclined?


Kelley: I’ve always been a pattern/texture junkie, if that counts. The organization of shapes, the connection of one shape to another. Lots of Zentangle-like doodling in schoolwork margins, mandala-like expansions of repetitive pattern. A few years of calligraphy in high school, decorative music transcription. Many years of hand quilting; the double whammy of intricately pieced shapes with an overlay of stitched texture…ooh la la! Mosaic for the past 13 years, and abstract photography since about 2011 as a way to hone my understanding of light, line, form, concept and composition.


LMA: I have watched your work transform over the years from unique arrangements to varied styles and designs, while still keeping some signature elements. Would you share with readers how you have approached your development in the art form?


Kelley: This will be a bit stream-of-consciousness…


     I’ve always had a rather technical, problem-solving, materials-based approach to mosaic. My earliest works were in stained glass, but I didn’t want them to be flat, or to appear flat. So I began stacking transparent/translucent glass on top of itself and up on edge to get a more structural, architectural dimensionality, and enhancing that dimensionality even further with mirror substrates. I began adding non-glass opaque/matte tesserae (stone and porcelain) with the stained glass over mirror, which focused and enhanced the luminance of the glass-on-glass areas, and that was the beginning of my love affair with contrast and mixed media.


     In 2009 I was getting a lot of questions about my stacked glass technique, so I taught my first workshop. It was loads of fun, with me learning as much from my students as they learned from me, and voila, a teaching career was born. A few years later Claire Barnett founded Seattle Mosaic Arts and asked me to teach a workshop there, which was a blast and something I’ve done at least twice a year since. I credit Claire for my varied course offerings; thanks to her regular inquiries about what’s next I’m now in the habit of analyzing my processes as I go and mentally breaking them down into teachable segments.


     My early work was saturated with color. Not because I understood color, but because I liked it and knew it evoked response in viewers. However, at one point about six or seven years in I realized I was depending on color to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of impact in my mosaics because without any formal arts training I was uncertain of my skills in design, composition, value, etc. So I eliminated color from my work altogether for several years in order to improve those other skills. I took workshops on value and color, and discovered the elemental eloquence of grayscale. I also began what will probably be a lifetime practice of taking abstract photographs as another way to train myself to understand light, line, shadow, contrast, texture, composition, and con-text/concept.


     Dimensionality is still vital to my form of mosaic. I gave up grout years ago so that I could revel in height differentials and have visual access to the edges of tesserae, not just the surface. Contrast is also integral…as in life, most things only reach their full potential in juxtaposition with their ‘other’.


     Mosaic is a daily practice for me, having dived into it full-time from the be-ginning, so I spend a lot of time testing, experimenting, and sampling in order to gain understanding and have a better chance at achieving intent. I think of it as a marriage of intellect and intuition; head, heart and hands working together.



Sharp Strata by Kelley Knickerbocker

Loss Gradient by Kelley Knickerbocker

LMA: What do you hope viewers of your artwork walk away with? Do you feel it is important that they “understand” what you are trying to convey?


Kelley: My artistic process is my business; how your eyes and mind interact with my artwork is your business. In other words, I don’t want to constrain a viewer’s experience of my artwork to my intent in making it. Not to be coy; I definitely have intent, and I’m happy to share it so the viewer can add it to their experience, but I want their experience ultimately to be their own: here’s a jumping-off point for *you* to think/see/feel/wonder. That’s a lovely thing about abstract expression; its ambiguity invites exploration, imagination, and more than one interpretation.



Firewater II by Kelley Knickerbocker

Red Moon Risin by Kelley Knickerbocker

From Dust by Kelley Knickerbocker

Vulnerable Variable by Kelley Knickerbocker

LMA: Would you share an impactful learning moment or creative epiphany with readers?


Kelley: Probably the most significant epiphany of my creative trajectory was when I felt the transition happen from technician to artist. When I started my mosaic business in 2005, it was as a creative technician, an artisan. I was good with my hands and had a bit of intuitive design sense, but no artistic training and (I felt) not a whole lot of imagination. I had an idea of what an artist was: someone who had to create or they’d explode or wither away or something; someone who brimmed with ideas and narratives and meaningful artistic intent; someone who understood color theory, design, etc.; someone who knew what they were doing artistically. I wasn’t any of that, so ergo, I didn’t consider myself an artist. I spent my first seven years developing my technical skills and developing a creative discipline.


     Then in 2012/13 I was asked to do a conceptual piece for the Transpositions exhibition in conjunction with the SAMA conference in nearby Tacoma, WA. The thought of doing a conceptual work for the first time made me nervous as heck but I agreed to give it a go. I had no idea what to do. Our assignment was to respond to the site, which was Seattle’s original Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) building. Though it has long been converted to art studios, the building retains much of the flavor and feeling of its checkered institutional past, including detainment cells and lines on the walls where detainees marked off the days/weeks/months. I was stymied as to where to begin ‘responding’ to this complexly-historied place.


     At the time I was volunteering at a homeless youth art center a few days a month, and one day I brought some black mortar with me and mixed it up into a slurry. Distracted with conversation, I added too much water to the slurry; more than could be absorbed by the mortar. I reached for a white paper towel and dabbed at the standing water in the cup in hopes of being able to salvage the goopy mortar underneath. As I watched the black water absorb into the white paper, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. I took pictures of the black/gray/white paper towel, and went on with my day, but kept thinking about the visual effect of the black absorption into the white.


     Because I was also thinking about my conceptual assignment, I began to analyze how I could tie the two together. I thought of absorption from a cultural standpoint; how when someone enters a new culture they begin to absorb aspects of that culture both intentionally and unintentionally, while also endeavoring to maintain aspects of their original culture. So there was my idea, but how to make soppy paper towels into effective tesserae? Much testing and experimenting led to a steeping/curing technique and voila, tesserae! Long story short, the concept/artwork was successful. I stood back and looked at the finished work, and in that moment owned my artist-ness.



Ciondolo(Pendant) by Kelley Knickerbocker

LMA: What would you consider your single greatest asset when it comes to creating?


Kelley: That’s easy. Curiosity.  What just happened there? What made it happen? What’s working? What’s not working? Why does this piece work better here than there? Is there another way to see this? Curiosity is what leads me to observe closely, experiment, test, take risks, and learn. From everything. Always.



LMA: Do you have any organizational tips for those just beginning to build there materials inventory/studio spaces?




1. Use transparent storage containers so that when you’re casting about for inspiration you can easily see what you have.


2. If you can get it easily, don’t stock much – if any – of it in your creative space. That way you’ll have more room for – and be constantly inspired by - unique and interesting materials.



Suture Self by Kelley Knickerbocker

Pair Bonding by Kelley Knickerbocker

LMA: Where would you like to see yourself in the future within the mosaic art world?


Kelley: I see myself dedicating more time to conceptual work in the studio, continuing to participate in exhibitions around the world, and still actively teaching theory, design and technique, with more longer-format workshops closer to home (partnering with local producers of fascinating materials; stay tuned!).


(I don’t usually tack “within the mosaic world” onto my future planning, because the world is just the world [I’m now thinking of that game where you read fortune cookies out loud and add the words “in bed” at the end of whatever is said, and I’m giggling, and I’m more concerned with whether I’m ma-king/teaching good art than whether it stays within the ‘mosaic’ category.  I like the term ‘visual artist’ because it more accurately encompasses the sort of mixed-media/assemblage/mosaic hybrid I’ve got going on.)



Ring Study by Kelley Knickerbocker

Points of Balance by Kelley Knickerbocker

A Circular Logic by Kelley Knickerbocker

     Inspired? Questioning your process? Questioning your beliefs about your process? Asking yourself, “Okay…what exactly am I looking to convey with my artwork?” I am! Kelley is lucky this conversation was not in person, as she would probably be wondering how the heck to get rid of me. If my creative mind was a house, Kelley just added a greenhouse of windows and light and space and seeded all the pots with beautiful things that I need to acknowledge, educate myself with, and nurture to grow.


      There are two topics I would like to share with you, which I found important to my understanding of being a creative person, as well as my own creative “process”: The first I will call “science vs. art”. Kelley put this in a very relatable and more importantly, understandable way… (I am paraphrasing here) Kelley said that many of us do not allow ourselves to make things we do not like. Instead we set this unrealistic expectation that every time we enter out creative space we must create. Not only do we expect ourselves to create, we expect ourselves to create art! Something beautiful, something inspiring, something for display or sale, something we can call a “finished product”.


      Only have 20 minutes? Make a small substrate. Have 30 minutes? Pull some materials out that you like together and play with arrangement while noting likes and dislikes, pull some other things into the equation and rearrange… 40 minutes? Ad-here some of those materials to a piece of mesh. When doing the science, pay attention to the qualities of what you are doing and what possibilities they may offer for different applications. Learn from them and store that in your knowledge saving ac-count for future withdrawal. This doing the “science”, and art is what we do with the science. Kelley likened this to an opera singer… All week long they practice singing their scales (science), in preparation for the weekend concert (art). There is a whole lot of experimentation going on before the big show!


     The second topic I would like to share is the importance of creating a series. Kelley shared an experience she had when visiting the Chicago Art Institute. During her visit she noticed these large sculptures on each floor done by the same artist of the same subject. She wondered “WHY? How boring to do the same thing over and over and over!”  It was not until much later that it all made sense.


     When it came to discussing the importance of a series of work,  Kelley likened this to “serial-dating vs. a relationship”. The serial-dating approach typically culminates in learning many different things about what we like or don’t like about different people, but we are not really exploring outside a set perimeter… We are not really taking what we learn and using the knowledge for personal growth.


    On the other hand, in a relationship, we stay with one person and continue to learn more about them and ourselves, ever deepening our understanding, and strengthening the bond between us. It becomes more stable and it becomes stronger. There is more relevance and interconnected cohesiveness.


     Now allow me to interject that there are times that relationships are not good for us either. We need to not only know when to “fish or cut bait”, but also what is a “keeper” and what is a “throw back”. Kelley said she knows when a particular piece she is working on is finished, by when “the magic is gone”. When it is gone, it is done. So here I suggest to you, be mindful of what is benefiting your growth and what is hindering it, what is working and what is not, and especially pay attention to whether there is still magic in that relationship of a series.


     There are so many questions running through my brain after talking with Kelley Knickerbocker, that I do not want to forget them, as I feel they are all import! O here I will jot them down and challenge you to ask yourself a few as well…


• Change: Do you embrace it or fear it? Why?

• Are your expectations of what you are hoping to achieve during your creative time realistic? If not, what can you do to change that?

• How do you learn? Do you learn from experience? From others?

• Do you expand upon or follow through on your experiences to see where they will take you?

• Are you mindful of what is happening when try something new?

• If what you are doing is not getting the result you are looking to achieve, do you stay with it like a mathematical equation or do you allow it   
      to spark a new, possible even better idea?

• How do YOU bridge the gap between “intent” and “achievement”?

• Are you allowing yourself time to do the “science” as well as the “art”?

• What self-talk is going on in your mind as you are creating?

• Are you sharing your creative process with others?


     I hope you all keep exploring the different avenues your creative spirit leads you to and share those experiences with others. It is when we open our creative minds with others that we truly learn about ourselves. It is also when we can receive the gift of a new idea, a spark of inspiration, and a camaraderie to cherish.





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