On an unassuming residential street in Venice Beach, California, nestled within a row of houses that look just like any other, there is a glistening, gleaming, resplendent mass called the Mosaic Tile House. It’s clear from the sidewalk that something magical is brewing on the other side of a spiky, mirror-and-tile covered fence that faces the street. What that might be, exactly, requires a deep dive into the ceramic estate.
While the Mosaic Tile House is open to most through self-guided Saturday afternoon tours at $20 a pop, I am lucky enough to find myself personally escorted about the kaleidoscopic grounds by none other than the lady of the house herself, Cheri Pann. She and her husband, Gonzalo Duran, have lived at 1116 Palms Boulevard since March 1, 1994, when they bought the house in its original, ho-hum state. A grainy photo of the pre-tiled iteration of the house is displayed in a plastic frame on a tiled bistro table at the entrance of the front yard. The original house appears pedestrian and quaint, painted in what looks like a light moss color with red trim. While other buyers might have simply thrown on a fresh coat of paint or done a bit of landscaping work and called it a day, Cheri and Gonzalo had other ideas.
“We bought the property to build our art studios,” Cheri tells me at the top of the tour. She has rust red hair and a big grin she flashes at the end of most sentences. “Then we started tiling it right away.” After 29 years of nonstop tiling, the Mosaic Tile House is now a veritable fortress of prismatic wonder, with completely tiled pathways, archways, walls, benches, and sculptures throughout.
Cheri slowly leads me through the front yard, her delicate voice bouncing about the shimmering structures with the sunshine. I follow in awe. “I make all the tiles you see,” she says proudly. “Gonazalo makes the blue and white ones because his major in art school was illustration, and he likes to illustrate quotes; they’re everywhere. But mostly I make the tile and then he sets the tile and makes the form.”
Cheri and Gonzalo are both trained fine artists: Cheri’s worked in paint for the last 63 years, while Gonzalo specializes in painting and constructing automaton sculptures. “I have a Master’s in Fine Art from university, so that’s what sets this house apart from folk art,” she says. “Everything’s done through the eyes of painters. That’s what we both do, mainly.” Neither Cheri nor Gonzalo had any real experience in mosaic tiles before they started tiling their house together, but nevertheless, they felt compelled to do so.
The intense love that’s shared between these two artists radiates from each tiled detail, from the love letters to Cheri that Gonzalo has painted onto his illustrated tiles, to the hearts patterned throughout the property, to the countless other tender moments embedded into the design. I ask Cheri how she and Gonzalo met. “He was working at [Culver City paint shop] Nova Color, where I was buying paint, and I reached over the counter and started kissing him,” she says directly. “And here we are, 31 years later! So it pays to reach over the counter and kiss someone.” I laugh nervously, replaying the recent interactions I’ve had with the shopkeepers at the art store in my neighborhood.
“I guess for your generation, it’s really hard to meet people; you have to go online,” Cheri continues, her thoughts unspooling gently as we walk. “But, see, I have to tell you: there’s somebody right in front of you, and you have to just be aware when you go shopping, when you’re doing anything. I met him while he was selling paint, for goodness sake. It took a long time though, because he was a confirmed bachelor,” she admits. “It took him seven years to move in. We’d already built the studios and everything. I’d already been married twice though, so I didn’t care.”
Cheri guides me down a pathway to the side of the house as I haplessly take photos that don’t even come close to capturing the surrounding splendor. “I get a kick out of sitting down and watching people explore and have so much fun,” she says of people like me visiting her Mosaic Tile House for the first time. “Sometimes it’s kids, but mostly it’s adult couples. It’s also nice for me to get to look at it through somebody else’s eyes.” When she and Gonzalo first started hosting tours back in the mid ‘90s, they’d have about 15 to 20 people come each month. But since the advent of Instagram about a decade ago, that number has climbed to 50 to 150 visitors a month, all funneling through during a three-hour window on Saturdays.
When guests arrive, they can take a print-out of features to find around the grounds, including an elephant with a chicken on top, a flying man, an iguana, a panda, and, one of Cheri and Gonzalo’s latest additions, a dragon. But otherwise visitors are encouraged to explore in whatever direction they’re pulled, choosing their own adventure. “I like it,” Cheri says of having strangers in her space. “I let them explore, and then they get what they get from it. But I’m always happy to answer questions, no problem.”
We come upon a man quietly tiling one of the house’s already tiled walled. “This is our incredible worker Gerardo,” says Cheri. “He’s been with us for 15 years. He works here full-time. Gonzalo shows him which tiles, and he’s the one who actually puts the tiles on the wall now.” Each segment of the house features a carefully considered amalgamation of porcelain oddities, scavenged doo-dads, and pre-loved tchotchkes. A curvature of coffee mugs loops into the sky to my left, green glass bottles melted flat in Cheri’s kiln swirl in a pattern of concentric circles beneath my feet, and a large caterpillar bench protrudes from one of the walls.
Cheri excitedly brings me to a small mirrored box that’s been built into the wall by the caterpillar bench. “This is going to have shoes in it,” she explains. “We already had some shoes in it, but it got wet from all of the rain.” She then ushers me into her studio to show me the replacement shoes in question. “The only time I’ll take people inside the studio is if they really show interest in my crazy paintings,” she says as we enter a large room filled with tables covered in tiles in various stages of production. “But most people don’t even look at the paintings. They’re not religious; they’re just very personal. People don’t know how to deal with that.” Two of the walls in Cheri’s studio are covered in a series of brightly colored portraits— one wall features paintings entirely of Cheri, and the other is just Gonzalo. “These are all Gonzalo, from hair to no hair,” she says with her biggest smile yet.
A menagerie of miniature shoe figurines is displayed on one of her work tables, which will be placed in the mirrored box in the wall. Like many of the building materials used in the house, these shoes were a donation. People bring items to Cheri and Gonzalo for their mosaicing, sometimes even in truckloads. “Social media works really well in that way too,” says Cheri. “You can say ‘I need this’ and you’ll get 400 pieces of it.” They also source supplies from the 99 Cents Store and Goodwill.
Through a door at the back of Cheri’s studio is Gonzalo’s studio, where she and I find him hunched over a workbench while wearing a metal face mask and using a sparking mechanical tool. He greets us kindly, but is too focused on the task at hand for much more than that. “Gonzalo will work on a project for a bit and then just move onto the next,” says Cheri. “Men are so different from us. Haven’t you noticed that?”
We move on to the back of the backyard beyond their two studios. Cheri shows me her hot tub that’s shrouded in a canopy of tiled arches. She uses it every night. We head back in the direction we came in, where Cheri points out a wall that depicts characters and scenes from Alice in Wonderland. As my tour with Cheri winds down, Gonzalo ambles out of his studio. He insists on taking a special photo of me in a strategically placed shard of a mirror. He tells me exactly where to stand, and positions my iPhone in front of the tiny mirror just so, so that he has the perfect angle to snap the picture. “Now you’re part of the town,” he says. “Hey, that’s a nice ring,” he adds as he hands the phone back to me, no doubt assessing how he’d be able to incorporate the aquamarine stone on my finger into his next project.
The Mosaic Tile House is more than a house, and even more than a work of art: it’s a journey, a physical encapsulation of Cheri and Gonzalo’s love for one another, and their love for one another as artists. And for now, at least, that journey continues, despite running out of real estate. “He has more ideas, and I say, ‘Well, I don’t think there are many walls left here,’” Cheri says. She explains how they’ve consulted with architects in the past who have told them that they can’t tile above a certain portion of the house’s facade, so all they can do is paint. “We have to move and start with a new house,” Gonzalo jokes. Or is he?
Cheri and I have completed our loop of the grounds and find ourselves back in the front yard at the base of an orange tree. A woman walks by the house’s front gate on the sidewalk and compliments Cheri on her beautiful home. I ask her what her neighbors make of what she and Gonzalo have created. “Well, they like it, but almost no one on the block has seen the house,” she says. “They’re not drawn to mosaic tile; they take it for granted. Even the neighbors on either side of us hadn’t come here until finally they visited last year.”
“I’ll visit you anytime,” I tell her. And I mean it. It’s time to go, but I don’t want to leave. The Mosaic Tile House is an escape from reality; a magical realist dream world concocted by two abundantly generous spirits united by their love of art, each other, and an insatiable desire to keep creating. “We had no clue that this was what this was going to turn out to be— and that we would still be obsessed with it,” Cheri says, reaching up to pick one of the perfectly ripe oranges above her. I thank her for her kindness, and for so intimately opening up her home and heart to me. “Yeah, a little too intimate, huh? But I’m a sharer. Cheri the sharer.”