Sharing the magic of mosaics
Mirrors, pots, trivets, water features, splashback kitchen walls and more, there is nothing East London local Justin Hempel cannot make beautiful with a few tiles and tons of creativity.
Starting his mosaic business after his handmade gifts became popular, Hempel, who studied fine art at the former Port Elizabeth Technikon (now Nelson Mandela University), has filled the homes of close friends and happy customers with colourful mosaics for the past 10 years.
“After many years of not doing very ‘arty’ things, I became interested in mosaics and thought I’d try it out.
“I started making gifts for family and friends, and then started a Facebook page, Mosaics by Justin, and it just snowballed from there,” Hempel, 44, said.
While co-running a family stationery business has him working full time, Hempel said creating was his number one passion.
“It's not my full-time job, so things become a bit chaotic when I have a lot of commissions, but as an artist you have to keep creating things, otherwise you just get down,” said Hempel, who majored in printmaking and minored in photography during his studies.
Inspired by Middle Eastern and Eastern design, his mosaics are mandala-like, each with a unique pattern and colourscheme.
“I have a very specific style so I don’t mosaic pictures — it’s all very geometric.
“Most of the pieces I make are one-offs, unless I make a pair.
“Otherwise they are all pretty different and you won’t find two of the same design,” Hempel said.
From conceptualising the design to placing each tile in the right order, grouting and finishing the items, Hempel is the brains and the labour behind every step of his mosaic-making process.
“I’m very precise and detail-orientated in my work.
“I cut all of my own tiles, and they all have a specific shape and size to fit perfectly into the design,” he said.
“I’ve got commissions for mirrors and pots to house numbers and signs, I’ve done all sorts of things and I’m always trying to find more interesting stuff to mosaic.
“I love that I can make my own personalised gifts for people and seeing how happy they are with something you’ve made is very rewarding.
“I enjoy making utilitarian things for people’s houses, and it’s wonderful to see the items displayed and used in the homes of my clients.”
While working on commissions, Hempel also provides stock to the Red Tulip boutique in Vincent on a fairly regular basis.
“I don’t really do markets any more, because of the increasing number of commissions.
“Whenever I don’t have big commissions I try to make some stock, so it really just depends how busy I am.”
He said he worked on multiple items at once, often 20 to 30 items at a time, and that larger commissions took up to two weeks to complete.
Over the years, Hempel’s mosaics have become a firm favourite and even travelled worldwide as gifts.
From Madagascar to the UK, his mosaics have caught the eye of ex-pats and international tourists alike.
“It’s mostly South Africans that have emigrated who take some of my mosaic works back with them as gifts, but my mosaics have travelled everywhere — New Zealand, Ireland, the US, Germany.
“It’s amazing what social media can do for small businesses and creatives in town,” Hempel said.
He said that, while the process of making a mosaic piece required a lot of work, it was also an incredibly therapeutic process.
“I love it. Making mosaics can be so calming and the entire process from start to finish is enjoyable.
“I think the colours and the way mosaics catch the light is what really drew me to the art form.
“My friends and I always joke and say that ‘shiny’ is my favourite colour and it’s true.
“The way the mosaic tiles glitter in the light is really my favourite thing,” Hempel quipped.