Cleo Mussi

Cleo Mussi by Cleo Mussi by Cleo Mussi
by Cleo Mussi
by Cleo Mussi

Cleo Mussi creates elaborate mosaics out of ceramic tiles made from old pieces of china carefully cut down to size. They are full of vitality, humour and quirky detail, although some seem to take on a more sinister character, highlighting the darker sides of contemporary life. While acknowledging the skill involved in her work, she describes herself as a folk artist as she says, ‘my work is naïve, figurative and all about story-telling’.


You originally studied textiles as a student, can you explain how you switched from textiles to work with ceramic mosaics?

Yes, I trained at Goldsmiths College doing an arts-based textiles course. I was interested in sculpture, fashion and textiles and the course incorporated many mediums so I discovered the joy of working with different materials. I graduated in 1987 and started working with mosaic the next year.

What attracted you to ceramics?

I have always responded to the glazes and the functionality of pottery. My first childhood memories were ceramic shops in Spain and all the wonderful green and yellow glazed traditional pottery stacked in rows. I studied pottery classes from the age of 16, but could never get to grips with the methodology and formulaic processes and recipes needed, but I love the colours and the uniformity and repetition of production ware, be it studio-based or mechanised.

Why did you decide to go down the mosaic line?

I was very inspired by Maggie Howarth who makes pebble mosaics. I thought it was an interesting way of working so started doing the same thing and then moved onto building up pictures out of ceramic tiles quite quickly - I had always done ceramics evening classes and so was familiar with clay.


I was also drawn to ceramic mosaic as I knew I could find second-hand raw materials cheaply, either from the ceramic dumps in Stoke 25 years ago or from charity shops and markets. And when my grandmother died I inherited lots of ceramic stuck together with evo-stick including Staffordshires - this was when I was starting out, so I began to use these pieces in my work. Like my grandmother, I am also very clumsy so when I break something it can be incorporated into my work.  

I also thought that ceramic mosaic would enable me to take on both exterior and interior commissions as well as working in gardens – plants and gardening being one of my passions.

Do you see any similarities between the work you were doing in textiles and your current work?

My work is all about creating the illusion of three-dimensionality two dimensionally, which is the same thing I was doing with fabric as I was doing a lot of collage and patchwork. Both my textiles and my mosaic-making share the same emphasis on pattern-making and building up patterns from simple blocks, as well as re-cycling materials, and the understanding of materials is crucial to both media. My textile training helped me with my ceramics as it was a very open-ended course and showed me how to develop ideas and approach form and structure and use a limited colour palette.

How much planning goes into each piece?

It depends whether I have a whole show in mind or am making pieces to be sold individually at somewhere like the Bovey Tracey annual craft fair where the pieces are often smaller and may be bought as presents and so have to work on their own. When I am working on a single show I try and make a whole series of units which tell a story. For example, my current show [at Contemporary Applied Arts, London] is based on a trip I made to Japan a couple of years ago and everything in the show takes Japanese culture – traditional and contemporary – as its starting point. An earlier show, Pharma’s Market, was inspired by a combination of genetic engineering and evolution.

How do you go about making each piece?

I start by sketching it out on a board and then begin to draw with the china. The piece will evolve according to what china I’ve got – it’s a very organic/intuitive process. With the main figures in a show, I will develop the key elements first and then fill in the rest with simple colours and shapes. I stick the china to the background boards using tile adhesive and then add grout.

Do you prefer working in 3D or 2D?

I like working in both. I’ve made 3D figures in the past using found objects, but at the moment most of my work is flat.

How important is re-cycling in your work?

Re-cycling is a practical rather than ethical part of my practice, although I find it quite satisfying that I am able to use so much and so save it from the landfill. I like the look of re-cycled materials and so use them for aesthetic reasons. I also think that they help people connect with my work. It makes it more accessible for them as they recognize familiar elements of china like a cup handle or a pattern from their childhood and are drawn into the piece.

How do you source your materials?

I buy some tiles as it is difficult to get certain colours, but most of my ceramics are sourced from charity shops. I do have a relationship with Emma Bridgewater and buy a lot of seconds from them – I like these pieces as they are hand-sponged and give a contemporary edge to the work. When I am working on a big commission I sometimes make my own tiles if I need a specific piece of text or image.

You work on a variety of projects including public commissions, solo shows and smaller pieces for craft fairs – what is your favourite type?

In the past I did quite a lot of public commissions but I’m not doing so many now as I am spending more time developing my own shows. The big commissions involve a lot of work to very tight deadlines, and you have to deal with a lot of secondary issues such as health and safety which takes up loads of time. I prefer to work on my own shows, although commissions can be very rewarding as they can help develop the work in different directions. My ideal would be to work on both smaller pieces and bigger installations.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

It quite often starts with one piece of work or a particular object I’ve found. For example for ages I had ceramic pineapple stuck onto a pair of ceramic duck legs sitting on my desk which I eventually developed into a mutant creature. This in turn developed into my Pharma’s Market show as there seemed to be lots on the news about stem cell research and genetic engineering and all the ideas seemed to feed into each other.

How important is the narrative element in your work?

I like making things which are attractive, but also which make people look twice and think a bit. I like playing on titles and details in my pieces so that the viewers think they know what they are looking at, but may find an extra twist which makes them look a bit closer. I am happy for people to take what they want from my pieces – for example in the Pharma’s market show some people saw objects depicting the halcyon days of a rural society and other saw genetic engineering.

How interested are you in the history of ceramics?

Very. I love the fact that you can pick up an old dish and that it incorporates so much knowledge and history. It encapsulates all the maker’s understanding of materials and glazes, and the history of the exchange of ideas and the huge ceramic export trade which was so important a part of the growth of the British Empire – it makes me feel very humble. I feel sad that so much of this knowledge is lost and that hardly anyone can re-create objects with this type of depth anymore.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I am doing a faces show inspired by Facebook. It will be all about the way people communicate with each other in the 21st century, advertising and modern media. I might end up doing it as on on-line show or I might show it at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester where I’ve got an exhibition scheduled in the Autumn.

Interview by Diana Woolf