By Greta Cobar
The Mosaic House of Venice is more of a museum than a house. It is the creation of Cheri Pann and Gon- zalo Duran, who have been living, working and loving each other inside their masterpiece for the past twenty years.
Entering their nest is like stepping into another world – one full of sparkle and color – for every surface is covered in mosaic. But it’s not your usual carefully-designed and meticulously-cemented type of mosaic, but an original and wild kind instead, one that incorporates found and donated items of all types in between their hand-made and hand-broken ceramic tiles. And it all comes together magically, much like Cheri and Gonzalo did.
“I was a regular customer at Nova Color in Culver City for acrylic paints, and he was working there. I used to kiss him – once you kiss someone you don’t know where it’s gonna lead – might be to the rest of your life,” Cheri said of how she met Gonzalo.
It turns out that their whole lives they’ve been chasing after each other, but through the other locations they’ve been about three miles and three years away and apart from each other.
“We live happily ever after sur- rounded by a gift box,” said Gon-zalo.
Twenty years ago, after divorcing her second husband, of twentytwo years, Cheri bought the house because it had a big back yard, and she wanted a big studio to paint, exhibit and store her paintings. When she was eighteen she stood in front of a Van Gogh painting and figured it out: “Oh my God, I’m an artist!”. After a couple of years at UCLA, she got her Bachelor’s and Master’s in Fine Arts from Cal State L.A. and contin- ued to paint.
“Painting is very, very, very hard for me – the most difficult thing I could do,” she told me while we were standing in front of a wall with forty portraits that she painted of Gonzalo. She told me that if it wasn’t so difficult, she probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.
“For me ceramics is something I love doing,” Cheri says. And I found that somewhat obvious, standing in their home: the kitchen shelves are covered in mosaic, the ground and walls around the house are covered in mosaic, the bathroom and the half bathtub that serves as a bench outside are all covered in mosaic. And it seemed that the two of them are glued to each other like the mosaic to the cement, and that made sense given that she makes the tiles and he sets them in cement. It was difficult, at first, to really grasp where her job ended and his began, as they and their artwork seemed so interlaced and inter-connected.
Gonzalo was born in Mexico and came here when he was ten. He was raised in East L.A. (so was she!) and attended Chouinard, which was the equivalent to the Otis Art Institute in the 60s.
“I was walking through a gallery, and I met someone who needed to decorate pots, and I worked for them for seven years. Then I worked at Nova Color for thirty-five years, until recently my wife told me to stop working. She said: ‘I need you at home.’ Now I work for my wife – that’s also fun to do,” Gonzalo said.
Of course, my burning question was: how did the ceramic house come to be?
“Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it,” Cheri said of the house when she first bought it. “All I saw was the studio” – which did not exist, but she and Gonzalo built it in the backyard. She says it was Gonzalo’s idea to put mosaic all over the front of the house.
“She made some tiles for the bathroom, and they didn’t do well together – we broke them up – it was a better design – you can put only one at a time and in no time you have something nice – it was so much fun and also therapeutic,” Gonzalo said of how they started putting the mosaic on the front of the house.
“I do the happy, colorful, whimsical,” Gonzalo said. And indeed it is all that. The mosaic itself is mixed in with so many different found and donated
objects, that it could also be described as a collage. And both Cheri and Gonzalo’s other artworks are dis- played in-between the mosaic, and they too could also be part of the bigger picture, which is the collage.
He paints what she calls “vignettes of our life together,” while she paints mainly portraits of him, and some of both of them together.
“I have fifty-five years of painting,” she said. Before painting Gonzalo, she used to do political paintings, but decided early on to drop out of the art world. “I’m happier this way. You have to pay a huge price to be part of the art world – they tell you what to paint to sell,” she said.
Cheri also makes ceramic vessels and sculptures, and enjoys making her own glazes. “I loved glaze technology at Cal State L.A.,” she said.
“It’s a good tax thing to do,” Cheri said of their marriage, which happened nine years ago this month. Happy Anniversary!
“I was all set to live by myself, I was quite content. When I met her, she was so special – full of life, independent, red hair burning off her head, a reflection of her character,” Gonzalo said. “It’s been a good life,” he continued.
Now 74 and 70, Cheri and Gonzalo see their art projects as if they were their kids. “Doing art is instead of having kids – neither one of us has kids,” Cheri said. And then she went on to describe kids’ reaction when they visit the Mosaic House: “This is my home! Do you like my house, mommy?”
When asked about the future of their mosaic project, he said that “it will go on forever, just to stay in practice.”
“I’d like it there to be an end to this project – ten more years – and for it to be turned over to some public institution to become a museum,” Cheri said. I hope that they both are correct – that their project will go on forever and that it will eventually become a public museum – it could very well be our first museum in Venice!
The Mosaic House was first discovered by the Venice Home and Garden Tour, which is taking place this month as well. The Los Angeles Times ran an article about it in 2003, and a week later HDTV came, and have been back four times since, two of which were just last year.
“This week twenty-two people are coming all the way from Australia to see it,” Cheri said. Anybody can schedule a tour, which runs for an hour for $10 per person, with no minimum. Another great thing to do is visit during their yearly free Open House, which always takes place the weekend before Halloween, this year October 26, from 12 to 5. Some of their artwork is for sale at that time, and there are some great pieces of Venice art to collect or give away (preferably both).
You can see the Mosaic House at 1116 Palms Blvd. or at http://www.cheripann.com.