Cleo Mussi Mosaics

by Rachael Chambers

Cleo Mussi

by Rachael Chambers

Hidden in an unassuming tin roofed shed, the only clue that this is home to mosaic artist Cleo Mussi, is the veranda which stores the china Cleo uses as part of her mosaics. It is also used as cover for grouting when the weather is grim, like today. 

When talking to Cleo it rather surprised me that she had trained in textiles, working in recycled cloth initially, before using recycled ceramics to create more permanent exhibition pieces. The appeal to Cleo in using recycled ceramics is born in the restrictions it imposes and the story telling opportunities she has become renowned for. 

“I like the directness and the limitation of the medium, which allows me to develop my ideas,” explains Cleo. “I think the content and the storytelling that I create in the exhibitions gives the work a lightness of touch even though it is very time consuming; achieving a spontaneous quality. I also like to explore dark themes and twists in the detail, alongside humour.” 

The restrictions the medium imposes only seem to encourage Cleo’s creative thinking, especially when working on commissions: “I like all commissions,” she comments, “I have to explore themes I wouldn’t necessarily choose and work within certain constraints, so I often discover and experiment and follow a new direction. I am proud of the John Lewis commission in Solihull, which I made and installed when my girls were four years and one year old - I still don’t know how I did it.”

Sourcing the broken crockery for such a commission is a task in itself, but thanks to friends helping out and trips to charity shops, car boot sales and markets, Cleo is able to find the recycled materials needed. She enjoys the restrictions imposed in working with whatever she comes across. Often there are some real treasures in Cleo’s finds and these items are kept to one side until the right design comes to fruition to accommodate them, as she explains: “I work with what I have and enjoy the limitations. I tend to save little gems for special works, and put them aside to wait until the right idea develops for that particular piece of china.” 

For Cleo, working with such a medium is closely entwined with her ideas and methods of working. “I love the inherent quality and can’t work in any other medium. The china has a story before I even start to use it.”

Cleo’s own story currently spans 25 years and commissions for John Lewis in Solihull and BBC Radio Leicester (where I first saw and admired her work several years ago) have seen her take a leading role in British mosaics. Currently she is being funded by an Arts Council Grant to take her new project ‘All Consuming’ to both Collect at The Saatchi Gallery, London in May 2014 and The Museum in The Park, Stroud in July 2014. 

“Over the past two years I have been developing my next installation of mosaics. Leading on from ‘Pharma’s Market’, this project explores genetics, economics and sustainable practices to create a new mosaic installation with accompanying notes. The resulting exhibition is a story; in the traditional sense of Folk Art, reflecting the world that we live in whilst connecting to bygone days. In this show we come across a mysterious mosaic world. ‘All Consuming’ is a comment and an observation on man’s evolution within our environment and our desire to consume and collect everything. 

“From ‘Mitochondrial Eve’ we go through a narrative of life size figures exploring energy consumption, agricultural practice, the fable of the bees, clean water, alternative energy and finally the savings bank for the Genome, in the form of a modern day ark, our own perfect space ship - Earth.” 

The new installation has 80 life size elements that Cleo has been making for over two years, on and off. Books and the radio are a great source of inspiration, with current topics and debate being a catalyst for her ideas. Current topics include economics, sustainability, endangered species and biodiversity. Cleo then creates mosaic characters to act out her stories. 

“I create stories: the current show ‘All Consuming’ will have all sorts of characters in it,” she explains. “I draw out the characters on a board, cut them out with a jigsaw and then re-draw directly with the china to create form, movement and detail.”  

The same process was used when creating her recently acclaimed work ‘Pharma’s Market’ and the ‘A-Z Hand Book’. In the ‘A-Z Hand Book’ Cleo wanted to create a small exhibition with an accompanying book that was accessible and inspiring to five year olds and ninety five year olds alike. 

“The images were represented in a traditional A-Z format often used in children’s books,” says Cleo. “Set alongside was simple and inspiring text created by Paul Patterson. The closed hand is an image that reoccurs in many of my shows and has become a symbol and trade mark for my mosaic work and thus the idea of a ‘Hand Book’ - a guide through an alphabet of images with stories was developed.” 

And from Hands there then came Faces, in the ‘A-Z of Facebook’! 

“Following on from the ‘A-Z Hand Book”, the mosaics put faces through their paces,” laughs Cleo. “From D for ‘Dolly Bird and ‘Dandiprat’ to Q for ‘Queer as a Fish’, this compact show explored simple expressions of love from a ‘Kiss’, to more complex studies of Phrenological Heads and X-rays. There was also a good sprinkling of humour to keep viewers thinking.” 

Like Cleo’s current project her equally thought provoking ‘Pharma’s Market’ was a two year project. “‘Pharma’s Market’ was a mosaic installation exploring the contrasting imagery of historical and contemporary farming. It connected traditional ideas about food, agriculture and animal husbandry with modern developments in stem cell research and genetic modification. 


“Although the setting of the exhibition was a traditional agricultural fair, visitors to the gallery experienced an exhibition with a distinctly contemporary twist. The characters, from life-sized ‘robo-rabbits’ to ‘space scientists’ and ‘bucolic’ farmers, all jostled for their part in the plot. The stories were derived from the real world of science and medicine, albeit reconstructed through the process of my own particular visual imagination.” 

And while there may be many mosaic artists, Cleo Mussi stands out from the crowd for her unique characters, story lines, and humorous interpretations of life. A truly unique character in her own right! Ever done a self portrait Cleo?

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