Cleo Mussi Drawing with China

by | a Day in the Life

Cleo Mussi is a modern myth maker, an artist craftsman working in a mosaic medium, whose work has curious circularities.

She treads lightly upon the earth picking up and gathering potsherds to clip and grout into fables of modern bestiaries and chimeras. A homespun waste-not-want-not process of recycling or upcycling. The fabulous worlds she creates with busy hands are populated with invisible friends made visible – of robo-rabbits, mosaic mutants, mad dogs, cutes and astronauts. A cycle of modern folk art and surreal narratives, born of an ancient medium that mirrors the greater cycles of life – not least in the mix of materials from which all life is made. Look very carefully at our DNA and perhaps you may also find the motley telltale marks and stamps of Wedgewood and Homebase, Chinese, Poole or Staffordshire.

Cleo gives us a glimpse into a typical day of living and making…

Bombus by Cleo Mussi

Bombus, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

I wake at about 6.45

I try and do 15 minutes yoga for stretching. With work my back and neck take the strain.

I have been bending over a desk deconstructing and reconstructing china for about 30 years. Mosaic is the term that describes this technique though I think of it more like drawing with china. It is a simple technique, but the ideas I develop can be quite complex.

A Craftsperson through repetition develops an instinct and a second nature, knowing their materials and what needs to be done order for it to perform. It involves a lot of repetition, intense research for the core of the ideas to develop; and obsessive behaviour. When I pick up a piece of ceramic in a split second I consider and evaluate:

· Weight, size, shape.

· Earthenware, stoneware, porcelain or bone china.

· Matt, opaque, gloss finish.

· Hand built, coiled, slip cast, press moulded, mass-produced.

· Hand painted, dip glazed, transfer printed, stencilled, digital.

· Imported or made for export.

· Antique, Contemporary, Edwardian, Victorian, pre war, post war, utility, its decade of manufacture.

· Wedgwood, Poole, Port Merion, Spode, Buleigh, Homebase or M&S etc.

· Made in the UK, made in the Far East , made in Europe.

· A copy, a fake or an original.

· Are the designs influenced by grand tours, country scenes, vegetables or portraits, local history and so forth- does the design cover the whole plate or just the edge.

· What are the glazes made from – the raw ingredients – the history of developing the recipes and the firing?

· Are the pieces old, chipped , cracked , stapled, crazed- been in a dishwasher or left out in the frost?

· How will it cut?

· What will that sound like?

Cool Sister Moon and Dove, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

cool sister moon by cleo mussi
Nature Recycles Everything by Cleo Mussi

Nature Recycles Everything, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

And so with china there is also a layer of association:

I drink a cup of jasmine tea in bed from a cup made by a local potter, it is always set out on a Japanese lacquered tray, a gift from friends who I became close to when stranded in Japan whilst the Icelandic volcano erupted. It was the best research trip ever. People were flying back to the UK via the States or India to France and then cross Europe.

I stayed on for a couple of weeks with my husband and teenage daughters and visited the region where Hamada ceramics were developed and Bernard Leach visited and worked. We went off the tourist route to gather inspiration take onsen and eat the most amazing food – all in the name of research for a touring show called 50/5.0

Phrenological Head - Creativity 2012 by Cleo Mussi

Phrenological Head – Creativity 2012, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

Who made, designed or owned that cup, where has it been, what has it seen?
Is it the pattern you ate Sunday lunch from at your grandmothers when you were small?
Is it a pattern from the picnic box of great Aunt Hilda, or a wedding gift?
Did you break a piece you found in Japan on a research trip and incorporate it to give it a new life?

All this information is held in each shard that I cut and informs how I will use it. I give a new life to old.

To make an old life newer, I walk to the pool and swim 30 lengths (four times a week).
I eat Museli. (That is a stomach work out for breakfast).

Sucking the Gut by Cleo Mussi

Sucking The Gut, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

I consider myself both an Artist and a Craftsperson. Some Artists do not have a sense of Craftsmanship within their work or even have a relationship with their materials. Some Craftsmen are not Artists, it is just a technique. There are no rules with creativity, just technical restraints. Sometimes its easier if you do not know the rules. Although I trained in textiles at Goldsmiths, I am completely self-taught in mosaic which is liberating.

People that make stuff are put into boxes – a potter, a painter, fashion designer, architect. I like the cross fertilization of mediums and materials. If I had to choose to be in a box, my box of choice would be an oxymoron: Contemporary Folk Artist or Trained Outsider Artist.

I feel that visual work should speak for itself and should not require an explanation in order to make a connection, it should touch you emotionally and take you to another place or space. Individual interpretation is the whole point.

I make, I use materials and I exhibit. I have honed a simple technique; that of cutting up old china into shards to manipulate and marshal into position to create a mosaic narrative.

My studio is 2 minutes walk from the house, I can commute too and from the studio a few times a day if need be. It beats sitting on public transport or driving and I do not waste any time. When my children were little I hated wasting time traveling too and from my studio in London.

The great thing about being self-employed, is that every day is completely different and If I want to spend a sunny day gardening I could.
I do work most day.
It is a proper job.

Yo Brother Sun and Grumpy Sun Platters, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

Grumpy Sun Platters by Cleo Mussi
Sushi and Phone Charms by Cleo Mussi

Sushi and Phone Charms, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

People often ask how long my pieces take to make, which is a strange question as the making of work is only part of the process. I have been developing the ideas and the method for over 30 years. It is a luxury to have a whole day making mosaics in the studio. Making work is the main focus of being an artist, but so many other aspects of the creative process take up time. Simple things like packing up a major show can take days. Other jobs that distract from the making process are photographing and pricing work, collecting the raw materials, e-mails. On line orders, organising exhibitions.
I am not good at delegating – so I am a one-man band. I love silence and being on my own in the studio.

I go to a spin class once a week, as swimming is not enough.
I eat a lot of home made cake.

Strange Fruit Branches by Cleo Mussi from 'Pharma’s Market' , Photo- Peter J Stone

Strange Fruit Branches, by Cleo Mussi, from ‘Pharma’s Market’
Photo – Peter J Stone

I work on a number of ideas and shows at the same time. I create about 8 small shows a year and make a number of private commissions and sometimes public commissions. I tend to create larger exhibitions over a period of 3 years. My shows usually have about 80 pieces and then I tour it around the UK.

My last show was called ‘All Consuming’ and was shown at The Saatchi Gallery amongst other places at an exhibition called Collect. My next show will be based on plants and their meanings, symbolisms and uses and I hope to take it to a well established gardening venue in London and to Edinburgh perhaps. The tentative beginnings will be at The Brook Street Pottery Gallery in Hay 2017 in May/June

I love Lindy-hop and go dancing for a couple of hours every week.
I smile so much when I am dancing, I smile both inside and outside.

Cutes 2016 by Cleo Mussi

Cutes 2016, by Cleo Mussi © Cleo Mussi

My other joy is gardening. It is a meditation and I garden quite a few hours each week. I have also been involved with the local museum creating a walled garden in an old vegetable garden – its the back garden of the museum, I have been creating the planting scheme with a team of people and in a few years time I think it will be on the Garden Map.

I play Bridge twice a week informally – it keeps your brain on the hop.
I prefer it to Poker, but also love Cribbage.
It makes me laugh, but I think its supposed to be quite serious.

Sucking the Gut by Cleo Mussi

Strange Fruit Branches, by Cleo Mussi, from ‘Pharma’s Market’
Photo – Peter J Stone

I am a Londoner who moved out 18 years ago. If you are thinking about moving out – Go For It. Moving to Stroud was the best thing I ever did – I was such a Londoner and thought nothing happened outside except sheep and cows and country shows. I made a long list of pros and cons, but never looked at it once I moved. I am just an hour and a half from Paddington. Its not a great distance from anywhere. I remember once it took me over an hour to get from Putney to Chelsea. I go to London regularly and catch up with exhibitions, friends and the amazing evolving city its architecture and food.

I finish work about 5 or 6 ish and try not to work weekends, but one is always thinking and working on ideas.

There is always stuff happening in the evening, private views, bands, cinema clubs, events and endless festivals- Arts, Textiles, Film, Photography, Printmaking, Literature, Science and Music – and you can walk everywhere including into the countryside.

To find out more about Cleo Mussi and her mosaics please visit her website.

You can also find Cleo Mussi on Instagram and Facebook.


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