For TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new – have stood the test of time. This month, Mina and Elena met with artist Agalis Manessi at her studio in south-east London. Below is her story.
Agalis Manessi’s studio is reminiscent of a Dutch genre painting, a busy scene with limited but potent light that catches angles – cheekbones, knuckles, glazes, pages. We are in the cavernous basement of a Georgian house in Kennington, south-east London, at the end of which sits a desk illuminated by a rectangular beam of daylight streaming down from what was once a coal chute.
Several of Agalis’ works – painted vases and ceramic animals – are also lit up, as are manifold jars and pots brimming with assorted paint brushes. Above the desk, she has tacked a few postcards of paintings, inspiration for one piece or another, among them some that evoke the very lighting in this room. It feels brilliantly meta.
Manessi makes and paints ceramics here in a technique called maiolica. Using red terracotta clay, she forms pieces – ranging from dishes to figures – and dips them in an earthenware glaze loaded with tin oxide, for a cloudy, opaque surface. She then paints onto this with metal oxides like copper, cobalt and iron. “I love the way things look light and fresh and not labour intensive with it,” she says, “but that belies the difficulty of the process. It’s quite a gamble – lots can go wrong.” As she talks, I notice the economy with which Agalis moves – no gesture is wasted, each one graceful and considered.
This soon makes sense. Growing up in Corfu, Manessi had her heart set on classical dance as a career, but after an accident, she took some time out to reconsider. She’d had no formal art education – it didn’t exist in Greece at the time – but was drawn to it, particularly to ceramics, “because it seemed a bit like dancing, a material that could move about.” In Greece, only Athens offered an opening into the world of pottery, and only as an apprentice. Manessi wanted to study and, having heard about British art foundation courses, applied, among others, to Hammersmith and Chelsea College of Art. “I stuck with the idea of ceramics, partly because it was something I could get my mind round. The concepts and the language of art were like Chinese to me, but ceramics felt more practical.” Her career started and continued with an intuitive flow: she has worked with clay ever since.
The two-part process of making ceramics and then painting onto them always interested Manessi. For the first few years, she worked with porcelain, using a method called scraffito, scratching lines onto raw clay before filling them with tin oxide. Drawn to the range and intensity of colours, she then experimented with maiolica – a process which, by definition, is far less forgiving than scraffito because things can’t be undone. From a single, initial piece of clay, she moulds platters and vessels, models and figures; as forms, they are chunky, rustic, peculiarly at odds, I think, with the delicacy of Manessi’s painting. It is as though, with these two phases to her process, she is exercising two parts of herself.
Her shelves are peppered with sprawling whippets and hovering bunnies, also ducks, chicks and sparrows with openings in their beaks – designed, she says, to be placeholders for a wedding – their bodies and faces looking out from tins of paint powder arranged by colour families – blues/greens, reds/pinks. And then there are the cats – “I’ve always liked cats” – which range from figurines to vases she describes as “catamorphic”, inspired by the British Museum’s collection of mummified cats. “They are like the cats’ apparitions,” she says, each with its own character. Some sleep, others smile, others still have a knowing look. I feel I might have been plunged into a book by Lewis Carroll, a poem by T.S. Eliot. Beneath dream-like faces, the cats have whimsically patterned bodies, untidily geometric, their stars or flowers, or hexagons suggestive, I think, of a reptile’s skin. There is a kind of wonder to them and to this room, it fizzes with ideas.
The piece that turns my head, however, is a small plate picturing a glamorous, dark-haired woman. “She’s called Fritza,” Manessi tells me, “and she was one of Gustav Klimt’s muses.” The starting points for her portraits are diverse, inspired by what the artist might have read lately – the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Isabella Blow’s biography – or special commissions, “someone once sent me a picture of Cranach the Elder to paint – and I thought what a fantastic hat he had.”
Manessi notices details. The feel, the texture, the colour, the patina – these things matter to her – and there seems to be heightened tactility to how she experiences the world. Of a linen nightdress, the first piece she bought from TOAST, she says, “I wore it so much that it melted”. When the nightie had disintegrated beyond sleepwear, she used it to roll clay.
Today she is wearing a thin white voile cotton shirt – “almost transparent”, with two layers at the hem, so she can either wear it over trousers or tucked in – and elephant cords in paprika, a colour she hasn’t seen since, so she doesn’t wear them often. “But I don’t buy clothes for specific occasions,” she adds, “I buy them to wear” – for ceramics in London, for gardening at her house in Corfu. She has TOAST garb with paint splatters, a denim dress marked with rust; hers is a working wardrobe. “In Greece, people are very bourgeois about dressing for an occasion – the informality of Britain always appealed to me.”
“When we lived in Hackney, I’d sometimes walk to the Islington store if I’d made a sale,” Agalis tells me. She and her husband, Rob Kesseler, also an artist, are relatively new to south London. They sold their house of 30 years in Hackney – the home their son, Marco, grew up in – just a couple of years ago, now splitting their time between the flat above Agalis’ cavernous studio and their home in Corfu, inland from the coast and once surrounded by olive trees. Not long after they bought the land, there was a devastating fire, leaving it “like a Paul Nash scene from World War One”. It soon rained, however, and as green shoots started to peek through, Agalis and Rob saw the beginnings of renewal and the possibilities it brought. They built a house.
Agalis clearly planted roots deeply in Hackney, however, and during her years as a resident, no matter how far her work took her, always took part in local exhibitions, such as Ceramics in the City at the Geffrye Museum. “I could entice people I knew from the community, who would never have travelled into central London for a show,” she says, alluding to her teaching work at Homerton hospital. For almost three decades, she combined teaching with making her own art. She worked alongside the hospital’s occupational therapy team to provide classes for local people with mental health issues, “in which I have no training, but which the hospital saw as a strength.” Patients could shed their medical labels and become simply ceramics students.
For Agalis, too, the experience offered the chance to reframe, shedding light on her own work, just like the coal chute in her studio. “I learnt a lot about what was possible with my material. In the ceramics world, there’s lots of emphasis on how things should be done – but I watched as people who had never touched clay produced beautiful things simply through play.”
Agalis wears TOAST corduroy trousers from the archive. Shop our current collection of corduroy.
Find more of Agalis' ceramic works on her website.
Interview by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.