As Seen In Manchester: Mark Kennedy

As Seen In Manchester: Mark Kennedy

Having been open quite a while, we’ve accumulated some pretty fascinating customers over the years. So we thought, instead of going on about us and our glasses, we’d shine the spotlight on the people that wear them for a change…

This time around it’s the turn of none other than mosaic master Mark Kennedy. If you’ve spent any time in Manchester you’ll have probably noticed Mark’s work — he’s the man responsible for the numerous tiled wonders which are dotted around the city — from Jack and Vera Duckworth on the side of Affleck’s Palace to legendary Manchester City manager Joe Mercer at the entrance to the Etihad Stadium.

We met him in his studio to find out about making mosaics, Manchester in the 80s and his love of Jacques Marie Mage specs…

How long have you been making mosaics? Can you remember when you started?

It’s approaching 30 years. I’d say I started around ‘92 or ‘93.

Were you always artistic when you were growing up?

My art really comes from school — because I was bad at everything else. I haven’t got a brain that can work numbers out — they don’t make sense to me — but I was always good at art. I loved the fact that you could sit on your own in the corner, and express yourself. It was like there was a door in my mind, and I knew that when the art lesson came, I could open that door, and escape.

"The one thing that my work has given me, which I’m really grateful for, apart from making my living — was that I got to meet my heroes, and do you know what? They never let me down." - MK

I can’t imagine making mosaics was an accepted career path growing up in the 1980s.

In those days in Manchester, if you didn’t want to work in a factory, there were three options to get out of it — music, football or boxing. If you said, “I’m going to contribute to Manchester culture,” what would the job finder at school have said about that? “Don’t you think you’d be better off making parachutes for Action Man toys at Sharna-Ware?” 

You’ve got to remember that there wasn’t a culture you could invest in back in those days. There wasn’t a culture like there is now. I think it was people like Tony Wilson, and the bands, and football, that created modern Manchester.

Do you think they came from a similar place to you, thinking, “I want to get out of this.”? 

Yeah, the ideology was to create a vehicle and leave — because you wanted to see a different world. I never felt like I fit in — something in me believed that I was different. That sounds arrogant in some ways, but it wasn’t like I was better than anybody, but I just felt different. 

For example, I would go to the library, whereas other kids in my school wouldn’t — unless they were going to nick something. I think that was another way of entering my imagination, and then when I started getting into music, the library wasn’t as important. Then it was about buying records and listening to The Fall. 

I never thought that one day I’d be creating record covers for The Fall, or going to football matches with Mark E. Smith, or Frank Sidebottom. The one thing that my work has given me, which I’m really grateful for, apart from making my living — was that I got to meet my heroes, and do you know what? They never let me down.

Mark Kennedy mosaics Manchester

Mark's wearing the Jacques Marie Mage Jagger sunglasses here

Yeah, they say never meet your heroes, but I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve met mine. 

Our heroes are different aren’t they? They’re not like Jim Morrison. Mark was ultra-ordinary, and ultra-extraordinary. It’s a great dynamic — he could sit in a pub, and then the next thing you know, he’s written a song about goblins. 

I learnt a lot about art from him, in the sense that people tend to look for inspiration in the wrong places, but Mark would get his inspiration from the Bury Times. If you look under your desk, you’ll probably find what you should be making work about — it definitely shouldn’t be about what’s going on in New York. If you want to meet the world, you’ve just got to sit in Piccadilly Gardens for an hour.

I suppose that comes into your mosaics, and how you use figures from around the local area in your work. What led you to make mosaics in the first place?

A girl I was seeing at the time was Spanish, so I lived with her in Madrid for a while. Her friend was doing a mosaic on the exterior of a pub and I was watching him, thinking how good it looked. And then when I came back to England, I got involved with Buddhism — and a big part of Buddhism, and a lot of religion, is iconography.

From there I started to think about Mancunian iconography, because no one had really done it, apart from Central Station Design. I suppose you could say they started this idea of Mancunian iconography, in a pop art sense. 

"When I started making these mosaics, there was no internet, and the nearest thing I had to a tool was a photocopier." - MK

So you combined a few ideas together — the iconography and the medium of the mosaic. What was the first one you made?

It was either Jack Keroauc, the Dalai Lama or Chairman Mao. They were the first three that I did — but I can’t remember what the first Mancunian one I did was. When I started making these mosaics, there was no internet, and the nearest thing I had to a tool was a photocopier.

I hadn’t thought of that, but I suppose at that time even finding the images in a decent size to base your mosaics on must have been difficult back in the early 90s.

Yeah — you’ve got to be able to blow it up — even now I have to use photographs because one — I can’t get access to Elvis Presley, and two — he’s dead. You’ve got no choice. 

Mark Kennedy mosaics in Manchester glasses

Again, these are the Jacques Marie Mage Jagger Sunglasses

I can’t imagine there were many reference points to aim for as a mosaic artist in the 90s. Was there a point when you started to feel like you were on the right track?

I remember maybe 20 years ago there was a sports bar on Coronation Street, and my work was featured in the bar. It was so weird seeing my work on Coronation Street. You have certain times in your life when you feel like you’ve arrived — certain things happen. But the thing is — that buzz fades really quickly — one minute, you’re made up, but then the next, it doesn’t mean anything — it’s all chippy paper. What did Mark E. Smith say? “You can be on the front cover of the NME, and still have no food in your fridge.”

Very true. You seem like quite a social person, but making these huge pieces of intricate work must be quite a solitary activity. Is there a sort of meditative feeling to making them? Does your mind shut off?

I used to think that, but I’d say it’s more akin to being in prison now being locked away for days and nights on end. My attitude to it has changed so much over the 30 years. It’s like hell sometimes, but at one time I felt like I was in heaven, because I was creating these things and I didn’t know what they were going to turn out like. Mark Kennedy mosaics Manchester

Just a small selection of some of Mark's fine work

Although the mosaics are quite abstract, it’s not like being an abstract painter — like Jackson Pollock throwing paint around — I’d love that freedom. This is precise, all day and all night. It goes on forever. Recently I worked 16 hours a day for two and a half months — I didn’t have a single day off. At the end of it I was a zombie. 

That’s a heavy stint. Was there some kind of epiphany at the end?

Nope, I just slept. I was so tired I couldn’t lift my feet up when I walked down the street. 

"I’ve got tiles from right back in the 70s and 80s. Some colours you just can’t get anymore — you can’t get many browns now — they’re totally out of fashion." - MK

Where do all your tiles come from? You must go through a few.

I’m sponsored by Johnson’s, but before that I’d get my tiles from skips — keeping an eye out for when houses were getting cleared out and there was a skip outside. I’ve collected tiles for 30 years, so I’ve got colours that don’t get made anymore — some colours which are really important to my work.

I’ve got tiles from right back in the 70s and 80s. Some colours you just can’t get anymore — you can’t get many browns now — they’re totally out of fashion. 

It’s like those old avocado bathroom suites — apparently having one of those at one point would devalue your house by about £10,000.

Yeah. And one thing you notice is how much austerity plays a part in things like craft and design. In the 70s everything was hedonistic, with bright oranges, but now things are more austere, the colours have changed. These things affect everything. It’s funny that a lot of the interiors I used to hate, I really like now — like those big puffy grey sofas. It only takes a decent documentary photographer, someone like Richard Billingham, and all of a sudden those old interiors look really interesting.

Mark Kennedy mosaics studio

Here Mark's wearing his beloved Jacques Marie Mage Torino glasses

Definitely. A lot of art and design is now done on computers — but is that sometimes too perfect? There are a lot of interesting angles in mosaics.

The mosaic behind me — my girlfriend made that. It’s the philosopher Alan Watts, he was this sort of psychedelic philosopher from the 1960s who was into zen buddhism — and she’s not tried to make it look exactly like him. I’d consider it abstract art, and what’s interesting about abstract art is that you can keep on looking at it, whereas with photorealism, you soon stop being able to see it, as it just becomes flat. Your mind just bounces off it, whilst something more abstract, you can keep looking at it. 

Like those psychedelic band posters from San Francisco in the 60s? They’re amazing to look at, even if it’s hard to make out what the words say.

Yeah, they’re brilliant aren’t they? And they go back to that thing of how things are a product to the economic situation of the time — that was all about freedom and the mind. 

We should probably talk about style now, as that’s a big part of these interviews. Is style something that’s important to you?

There was a great quote I saw on a video. This man was talking about suits, and he said something like, “Eventually on the journey of finding your own style, it stops being about style, and it becomes an almost spiritual quest to find the skin you’re living in.” And now that I've gotten older I understand that, because when I see the style of a railway worker, or a lumberjack — those clothes are beyond style, they’re functional. You’re looking for something stylish, functional and well-designed—it’s sort of becoming at one with what you are. 

"I think I could be naked with a pair of Jacques Marie Mage glasses on, and still look good." - MK

Yeah — design that fits with how you live.

With clothes, or style, it can all get very complicated, but the good design strips things straight back. And that’s why Jacques Marie Mage glasses are so cool to me. With every frame, you can see where it has come from — whether it’s inspired by a writer or someone from the silver screen. They’re so true to the subject matter, and they’re so well made. 

I’ve had three or four pairs now, and the day I’ve bought them has always been a great day. I go into Seen, Tareq puts them on my face, then I walk out into St Anne’s Square and everything’s crystal clear. I’ve got brand new lenses in, and every line I look at on a bicycle or a woman’s face or a man’s beard is so well defined. That moment of walking from Seen to St Anne’s Square — when the light hits. They’re just so well made that I get a buzz out of wearing them, but before Seen, when I used to go into an opticians, I’d look at the frames — and none of them hit the mark. 

I suppose as someone who works making real, tangible objects — you’ll appreciate the craft in other things.

Yeah definitely. I remember years ago, I wanted to be called an artist, and I’d kind of look down my nose at craft-people. But it’s turned around completely now — I’m totally enamoured with craft, whilst artists are ten a penny… they’re like DJs. 

Craft is useful and functional. It’s a basic, useful thing.

Everyone needs to eat out of a bowl. I think I could be naked with a pair of Jacques Marie Mage glasses on, and still look good. But take the glasses off and it’s bad news.

Mark Kennedy mosaic spray paint

One of just 150 made, these are Jacques Marie Mage Buckley in Pine

That’s an interesting thought. Are there any particular frames you’re after now?

All of them, even the women’s ones. And that’s the interesting thing about these glasses — they can be worn by men and women. Obviously some of them might not work — I might end up looking like Dame Edna Everage…

As someone who works making art — making a visual object — is your appearance sort of an extension of that? In my head it’s strange when visual artists dress terribly. 

That’s an interesting thing. Sometimes you get these people who are so good at what they do that they transcend clothes. They can wear the worst clothes, but still look cool. 

Maybe it’s a confidence thing — almost like how old men often look cool because they’ve stopped trying?

Yeah, they’ve let themselves go, but they’re still wearing something cool — maybe just a watch or something — you can tell a lot about people from their watch.

"I wrongly like to believe that I can work in a three-piece suit, and not get any cement on it." - MK

I imagine making mosaics requires a certain type of attire. Is there almost a work uniform?

Yeah — to a certain extent. You're using your arms a lot, so you do need to be able to move. I’ve got an old army boiler suit somewhere — and it’s so cool — but I can’t get into my head to come into the studio, put my overalls on, and start work… it’s too much faffing about. 

I wrongly like to believe that I can work in a three-piece suit, and not get any cement on it — that I’ve mastered my craft — but obviously in the end you just have to move the wrong way and you’ve got it all over you.

I suppose everyone makes mistakes every now and again. I’d probably better let you get back to your work now — rounding this off, have you got any words of wisdom to add?

Yeah—just try and keep your head above the water.