Botanicals: A journey of discovery

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Pictured above: Green Man Jack of the Green (203 x 75 cm) and Burry Man (205 x 122 cm)

Trailblazing ceramic artist Cleo Mussi weaves together historical fragments of china to craft modern narratives that reflect the world around us. Rhona Duffy catches up with her as her exhibition Botanicals opens in the Compass Gallery in Glasgow, Scotland.

By Rhona Duffy

In her art, Cleo Mussi explores narratives mapped from her personal journeys through history, science, art and nature, with underlying themes of anthropology and humanity. Her work incorporates cross-cultural references in design, travel and commerce, representing the rich tapestry of industrial ceramic history. 

Chinese ceramic meets Wedgewood, Poole sits next to Japanese porcelain and Staffordshire unites with Homebase to form a unique collection of work. 

Bottles from Medicine Cabinet
Medicine Cabinet (65 x 51 cm)

“My favourite ceramics to work with are Edwardian to 1960s,” says Cleo. “Mass-produced contemporary ceramics shatter and are much harder to work with. I have someone who scouts out ceramics for me and people often leave me gifts.”

In her exhibition Botanicals, which takes place from 7 October to 7 November at Compass Gallery in Glasgow, Cleo explores how plants were introduced for culinary, medicinal and therapeutic purposes and are established as part of our diverse culture, linked with folklore, superstition and agricultural toil. It features a range of pieces from life-sized expressive figures to smaller, more intimate pieces, all created from repurposed ceramic tableware. 

Carl Linnaeus (103 x 123 cm)

One of the central figures in this exhibition is a legendary figure called the Burry Man, a central figure who parades in the annual pagan procession at South Queensferry in Scotland, which dates to 1746. The festival celebrates death and rebirth. Tradition holds that the Burry Man will bring good luck to the town if they give him whisky on his procession. The figure is covered from head to toe in burdock heads with a flower crown, and flower staffs to aid movement, and he is accompanied by two attendants, walking for nine hours covering about seven miles. 

Cleo has made a living from being a studio artist for 35 years now. Originally she was interested in working in textiles, studying a business course in textiles in Brighton before graduating in textiles at Goldsmiths University of London. 

Ceramic posies

“I started to work with found textiles, because it was affordable as well as there being an inherent quality in them. I then studied ceramics at evening classes for about ten years. Having decided I’d like to make larger and more permanent pieces, that could perhaps be sited outside, I saw Maggy Howarth’s work, which I think is fantastic, and tried out pebble mosaics. While I enjoyed it, it wasn’t for me. Then I started working with found ceramics, using what I could get my hands on, so I almost went full circle to where I’d started with found textiles. Things developed from there.”

“Then I started working with found ceramics, using what I could get my hands on, so I almost went full circle to where I’d started with found textiles. Things developed from there.”

She experimented with making her own tiles, but decided that also wasn’t for her. “I tried out transfers, glazes and slip casting, but the resulting surface wasn’t lively enough for me. It didn’t excite me. I much prefer to use ceramics with a history and story, and plenty of details,” she continues. 

She started small and, gradually, her pieces got bigger – first she worked in abstract and her style has evolved over the last 35 years. Cleo has never had a studio assistant, preferring to cut every piece by hand herself using her trusty tile nippers. 

She does about eight shows every year. “You have to be very business-minded and focused about it,” she adds. 

Despite numerous invitations from overseas, most of Cleo’s shows are in the UK. “It’s complicated to send heavy work abroad – and it’s even more complicated now by Brexit.”

Asked what advice she’d give others trying to make it as a studio artist, Cleo says: “Take time to develop your ideas. Read. Absorb what’s going on in the world around you. If you’re going to make a piece, you need to make ten or twenty, not just one. It’s only through repetition that you get to understand why things work or not. 

“The technique is fairly simple; it’s what you do with it that counts. Just keep experimenting until you find out what materials speak to you and until you find your own style. Exhibit as much as possible in the real world, not just online.”

Dr Mussi Quack Salver

Cleo has a number of other exhibitions planned next year, including Photosynthesis next July in Stroud, which she’s doing in conjunction with Fiona Haser Bizony, founder of the sustainable, off-grid flower farm Electric Daisy Flower Farm in Somerset and an ethical flower shop in London. 

She’s also working on an exhibition of pieces around the theme of romance, which are based on the books by her grandmother who was a romantic novelist. 

Votif arms

Instagram: @cleomussimosaics