Persona Grata: Kathy Vissar, maker of scagliola — the art form you don’t know

John M. White
Jul 2, 2018 · 9 min read

Persona Grata is a series of profiles of artists, makers and entrepreneurs — the passions that drive them and the fears they run from.

The studio is cool and damp, despite the heat outside. There’s the smell of plaster in the air. Though little Ida May’s vision and hearing is poor, she always knows when there’s a visitor, and runs to greet them with her tail beating. This place is huge, going four rooms deep in an old factory in Northern Liberties, Philadelphia. Each room presents something more for the eyes to take in, each one visually describing to the visitor the process of how plaster becomes an art. The walls are lined with giant wooden shelves holding molds, plaster, tools that have been used again and again. Kathy Vissar sits at her desk, paperwork and drawings of all sorts surround her. She’s totally at home.

Kathy and her team’s home base at Wells Vissar is where they make scagliolascag for short. I wouldn’t have known it before seeing her studio, as it looks exactly like stone, and is used for crown molding, wainscoting, and even sculptures and fireplaces. Named by the Italians, scagliola imitates or replaces marble and precious stones.

Kathy and her recipe.

“It was popular in the 17th century in Europe, and again here in the United States in the 1800s when many state capitol buildings were designed.”

These days, she has to explain to general contractors what scag is, and hope they have some appreciation for the craft. Her friends and peers know and appreciate the work, though, even if some builders don’t.

“If you ask other people in my life, they’re like, ‘Oh, Kathy was established years ago.’ I never felt that. Never ever.”

Lots of samples, lots of tools.

It’s not really the scagliola itself that resonates with me, even though it is quite striking — it’s the way Kathy sees her own work, how she struggles to be relevant with an antique art form.

“I got a call from the Met, and they asked, ‘Can you do some scagliola for us?’ And we were in there, we were in the museum. Our piece, our studio name, everything. We were in there. I was like, ‘I can die now.”’

This call was only five years ago — thirty years into Kathy’s career. Three decades of working under the radar is a long time, though not unheard of in creative endeavors.

So, why do it? Why put so much of yourself into one thing, if there’s no guarantee of “making it?” If, even after gaining the respect of one of the world’s greatest art institutions, you don’t always feel recognized or appreciated?

Kathy started the studio with Amy Wells, both of them putting in the hours to create beautiful scagliola while developing their elevator pitches about what it was and why it had value.

So, how did you get the business started, needing new clients and understanding of the product? “Hours and hours and hours. Sleeping here, I sleep here. Still to this very day, hours and hours and hours of work. It was through focus and a lot of work.”

“I was hungry, there was no money in the bank account.” Again, on the subject of passion and a drive created out of necessity. “‘Can you do this?’ ‘Sure, I can do this.’ No, I never did it! I’m scared shitless.” This was Kathy’s early clients asking her about her ability. “‘Can you do this?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll do this. We’ll make it happen.’” She figured it was sink or swim; she’d either take the work and succeed, or go out of business giving it her all. No middle ground, which I find entirely relatable.

Drawings; Tavern on the Green.

But with every artist that makes something beautiful, there’s also a struggle. The money factor, the scary financial stuff that haunts everyone. Growing up middle class, I had the misguided belief that once you were an adult, money stuff would just somehow…work itself out. As anyone reading this surely knows, it doesn’t. And it’s worse for entrepreneurs, worse still for artists. But somehow, speaking with another artist, I find it strangely comforting to hear that everyone — even Kathy who has nationally recognized work — has the same struggle. “You look at my bank account now and you look at it six months from now — and you’d be shocked. {laughs} It comes and goes; takes a while to get used to that, it doesn’t come real fast, but it goes real fast.” Ah, guess I should just get used to that now — her experience is not an outlier, it’s the rule.

Eventually the two partners separated professionally. Kathy stayed with the studio and Amy chose California and a husband.

Do you feel like Amy lived your alternate life, the one where you chose the family and less risk?, I ask her. Not the kindest question, but I’m curious.

“I don’t have a husband, I don’t have kids,” she says. “I’ve sacrificed everything for this. I was thirty-four, thirty-five when I went into this full force, when I could’ve been looking for a relationship. It’s the best move I ever made, was to do this.”

What is it like to live the same life, day after day, doing the same thing over and over again? Well, that’s Kathy. “You can make it, but that’s the only way.”

Kathy brings me into the holding room, which is easy to identify with all the hardened plaster on every wall. “Just watch this, you’re gonna love this.” Step by step, I see the process unfold; first the recipe, then mixing, then the veins (to imitate the imperfections of marble), then whisking into the mold, then de-molding, then sanding. Three to four hours on just one small sample piece.

Probably the most other-worldly parts are the veining and the whisking — just, wow. Watching her hands unfold the veins — silk strands, actually — and then fling bits of plaster onto them with something that looks like a mini cat o’ nine tails, it’s like watching an historical documentary on the art and sculpture techniques in the 17th century. Old world, just like Kathy says.

The Divine Lorraine Hotel, Philadelphia.

Her tone changes when I ask her about her part in the restoration of the Divine Lorraine, a landmark hotel in North Philadelphia recently redeveloped into a luxury apartment building. I’ve seen the Divine Lorraine. Even before I knew what it was, I knew that it was something — it just had a magnetic quality, even in its most extreme state of disrepair. I bring it up, knowing that that she did some marble matching with the baseboard, thinking she’d be proud of her role in it. But it wasn’t the work that she did that mattered to her — it was the work she could have done.

“They had scagliola floor to ceiling, which would have been beautiful if they had restored it back to the way it was originally,” she says wistfully. “This is my field, this is what I do. There was a whole room, a whole lobby — and you know, one of the best scagliola people is in the same zip code. [But] they didn’t use us. It was heartbreaking.”

It wasn’t just the one that got away, but the one that would have been truly great, something to not only show off Well Vissar’s ability and craft, but something the Divine Lorraine was almost entitled to. Without it, well…

“They erased all that history from that lobby, and they turned it into a mediocre space with purple lighting.”

The problem with working in an antiquated art form is that it rarely gets recognized as new work, which hurts Kathy, or at least bothers her a little. She seems to want it to be recognized for what it is, and not mistaken for an artifact from an era when everyone had all the time in the world and such intricate art was more common. The fact that it looks like it could have been made fifty years ago or 500 strangely makes it harder to appreciate, like it was always just… there.

Kathy wants people to know that it was made, and made by someone who lives down the street, or in the same city, or is the person you see while grocery shopping. She wants you to know that it’s created by working artists and that it’s not easy, not something to be taken for granted.

Sheep heads; breaking out of the mold.

Though it can be funny sometimes, the case of misunderstood scag. At Tavern on the Green, a prestigious restaurant in New York City, the previous owner’s daughter wanted to know, “Where did you find this? We didn’t even know the fireplace was there.”

Of course, Kathy and her team made it. “I don’t use computers. I do my own drawings.” She holds up a drawing for me. “This is not CAD. I do hand drawings. And I do it that way so I know what it’s going to look like when it’s made. And then I make the pieces from raw material. That’s old world.”

One of her subcontractors, Andrew, sands a piece nearby, and out of the corner of my eye I see him nodding his head up and down in agreement.

And then there are those who simply don’t appreciate the work, or at least, it doesn’t fit with their aesthetic.

“Designers have told us, ‘We want to rip this out. It’s just too strong.’ Happened to us last year. The designer came in and wanted hundreds of thousands of dollars of work ripped out. She wanted it down. I had to write to the owner and say, ‘You can’t do this, no one in the world has this.’”

Thankfully, the owner took her advice, saving a piece of modern (yet old fashioned) piece of art.

Veining and splattering.

The work is stunning. It takes time to master, takes time to really appreciate. You have to hold it in your hands, really running your fingers over the slightest grooves to feel how long it took to fashion a piece. Years, essentially, for all the right materials, skill and love to come together to make a Wells Vissar scagliola.

Lucky for us, Kathy doesn’t plan to take it with her — she’s just waiting for the right apprentice to want to spend enough time to properly take up the mantle. In this case, the scagliola mantle.

When I go by the Divine Lorraine now, I can’t help but think about Kathy. I imagine that most people see it as a beautiful structure, one that has been restored to its former glory. But, it’s really only on the outside, it’s just the façade. And isn’t that what we get most of the time, just the façade?

If I’m struggling, that’s the first thing I work on — the outside, to show that I’m working on the problem. Some sort of report card that indicates progress to onlookers, even if it isn’t lasting or significant. It’s a short cut, just doing enough to get credit for changing or attempting to change.

It would have been much harder to restore the Divine Lorraine inside and out. Restoring just the outside was enough to get the desired effect: the appearance of change.

Kathy laments this approach, which goes against her whole creative vision. If they’d done it the right way, “people would have come to see that building. But now, it opened and now you don’t hear about it. What do you hear about it?”

Nothing of which I’m aware.

John M. White

Written by

Filmmaker, photographer, Philadephia enthusiast.