Under the Microscope

Rob Kesseler’s work bridges art and science. As well as working with ceramics he also works with photography and digital images. One theme linking his wide-ranging body of work is his overwhelming fascination with plant material and the natural world, particularly microscopic plant and cell structures.

Scabiosa Cretica - photograph by Rob Kesseler

Scabiosa Cretica – photograph by Rob Kesseler

Richard Bright: Your work focuses almost entirely on the microscopic aspects of plants and their functional, structural and decorative qualities, which you translate into imagery in a whole series of works in different media; glass etchings, ceramics and sculptural objects and large format images. How did this interest in the microscopic come about?

Rob Kesseler: I was brought up in the Midlands, outside of Birmingham. I was wedged between the industrial heartlands of Birmingham and Shakespeare’s Warwickshire. My father was an engineer and a second-hand shop hound, and he gave me a beautiful, brass Victorian microscope when I was ten. I think he enjoyed the mechanics of it, the beautifully turned knobs and he knew I was interested in nature. It was a very defining present really. When I was thirteen I had to choose between Biology and Art at school. It was a very difficult decision, I chose Biology, but I got halfway through and failed miserably! So I thought I better swap to Art after all, but I always kept my interest in the natural world and towards the end of the 90’s I’d been doing a lot of work looking at the cultural appropriation of the natural. I’d arrived at a point where I felt I had come to the end of that and I was thinking of where to go next. I’d been looking at some old engravings of sections through tree trunks and patterns and that made me think about the microscope, so I got it out again. This was also at the time when research funding was starting to raise its flag in universities, so I was asked to put a research bid in by the end of the week and was told it has to relate to ceramics because that’s what I was teaching. I was successful in getting seed funding, around £700 I think. I said I would make a link with the botanical institution, with the museum and with a manufacturer, and I’d write an article. I think sometimes this is just that little kind of push that one needs.

I wrote to Kew Gardens in London, looking for an expression of interest really, from people to work with, and I only got one and that was from Madeline Harley. She was the head of research into pollen, but she had a former career in interior design which gave her a strong visual appreciation of the material she worked with. She said she would be keen to do exhibitions of her work, but research always took a higher priority. Secondly, it was thought, this is science, and they didn’t recognise its value or interest to public audiences. So, we each had our own particular motives for working together, in a sense were kind of mutual Trojan Horses.  So, Madeline invited me in and we started working together, and it snow balled from there. More recently I have been working with Melina Schuh, a cell biologist at the MRC in Cambridge, so it is kind of diversifying, but plants are very much my territory. I think it’s partly because of the way it migrates into society in different ways, the way it impacts, and it’s also just so phenomenally spectacular really!

Sand milkwort seed. Photo: Rob Kesseler & Madeline Harley

Sand milkwort seed. Photo: Rob Kesseler & Madeline Harley

RB: Can you describe your working process from that initial observation of the natural form to the finished artwork? I’m particularly thinking of your work with seeds.

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