“I give people a holiday from their heads”: Mosaicist Tessa Hunkin on helping people heal through art

Tessa Hunkin, creator of the Hackney Mosaic Project. Pic: Nasra Abdi

Located in the centre of Hackney Downs Park – one of the boroughs major green spaces – a small, unassuming building hosts the work of the volunteer-run Hackney Mosaic Project

It was created in 2011 by Tessa Hunkin, a professional mosaicist with a background in architecture and mental health services.

Before creating the project, Hunkin worked as a commercial mosaicist. There, she met a woman named Suzy Balazs, who ran an organisation that provided activities for people who were recovering from mental health problems. 

Balazs and those she was helping would often come down to Hunkin’s stall to buy mosaic materials. “They were always so interested in what we were doing and the commissions that we were working on,” Hunkin recalls.

“I thought this was amazing, that these were people who had real enthusiasm, but for whom time was a real problem because they weren’t able to work. A lot of them had sort of lost contact with their families and they needed something to do.”

Due to the slow nature of mosaic work, it can be the perfect activity for respite from mental health issues.

“I often say that I give people a holiday from their heads.” she says.  

Commissioned piece for Hackney Downs Park, children’s playground. Pic: Nasra Abdi

And so the Hackney Mosaic Project was founded – initially it was meant to last six months, however after receiving such a positive response from the public, Tessa decided to keep it going.

The project faced risk of closure in 2015, when Hackney Council pulled its funding.

To keep the project afloat, Hunkin switched to commissioning mosaics and crowdfunding through platforms such as GoFundMe.

“We hang on by our fingernails. We’re never secure, but we’ve survived,” she says.

The project now runs sessions twice a week. One attendee, Danielle, has been creating mosaics at the project for around six years.

“I knew about it for about a year or so before actually getting up the nerve to actually come. But then I started coming every week. Absolutely loved it”.

Danielle working on her new mosaic. Pic: Nasra Abdi

A volunteer since 2011, Nicky is working on his new mosaic of musician Bon Jovi.

Nicky joined the project after being invited by Hunkin to make a piece and has been with the group since.

In an interview with the British Association for Modern Mosaic (BAAM), he spoke on the support he has received from the project’s founder. “She’s always helped and has been very good with anything I want to try and do, Tessa’s always been there to give me her opinion and her help.

I’d like to carry on doing mosaics for the rest of my life.”

Nicky’s new piece on Bon Jovi. Pic: Nasra Abdi

“That’s another nice thing about our project, it brings together all the disparate bits of the community… we got all kinds of people who are interested in the project from both the new, fashionable Hackney residents, the old richer people and everybody else, all the way through.”, Hunkin said.

Looking towards the future, she is working on a proposal to send to the council, which includes sketches of floorplans to transform the project’s building into an open community space. 

The proposal will allow for many different groups to use the space, as well as make room for a café at the back of the building.

One of the proposed new floor plans by Tessa Hunkin. Pic: Tessa Hunkin

This plan would be a crucial step for the future of the Hackney Mosaic Project, both for the work they are doing with current members and in memory for those who have passed away.

Some previous members of the group have taken their own lives, a reminder of the harsh realities of mental health issues.

The group is currently working on a mosaic for Butterfield Green park, as a memorial for one of the volunteers. 

Before their death, the volunteer was working on a mosaic which included a quote by Groucho Marx, which read: “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.” 

”I know from my experience, parks are where people who are feeling vulnerable often go to,” Hunkin says.

“I thought it would be good to have a positive message like that in a public place so that people can meditate on it and think: it’s hard, but it’s also interesting not to be like everybody else. It’s not all bad.”

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