The Maysville Community and Technical College – Licking Valley Campus (LVC) in Cynthiana, Kentucky has an art gallery in it. It shares space with the job placement center in a strip mall at the Harrison Square Shopping Center. For such a small space, though, it features a surprisingly wide variety of local artists and their works.
One such artist is Claire Muller, whose work in paper mosaics frequently captures the attention of gallery visitors.
One of her most striking works is a portrait of a white horse looking over its stable door. The entire image is made up of carefully chosen bits of torn paper arranged in such a way as to convey the image of the horse.
This image, as it is with all of her work, is unique in that the paper she chose to create the image was from maps.
It is tempting to infer a meaning from the intentional use of maps in the portrait, but as with most of her paper mosaics, the images on the paper are incidental.
There are two noteworthy exceptions to this rule in her past work. One is portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a print of which is on display in the LVC art gallery. In that portrait, Lincoln’s face is made up of important figures in Lincoln’s life while the background is made up of events in his life.
The other is on display in the dental office of Dr. Neil Rush. It is a pastoral scene of a farm fence. Some of the papers she uses intentionally depict farm animals enclosed by the fence.
Most of time, though, the torn bits of magazine merely provide the color palette for her images, she said.
The portrait of the white horse presented her an unforeseen challenge, she said.
White magazine paper does not conceal the print or the color on the reverse side of a sheet. The colors “bleed” through the white.
In her search for opaque white paper, she found her answer in maps.
“I was surprised to discover the vivid colors used in printed maps,” Muller said.
Maps of the sea come in shades of sea-foam or turquoise. Road maps have patches of yellow to contrast populated urban areas from the countryside, which are in shades of white.
The black maps that provide such a vivid contrast to the horse’s face are all taken from star maps and charts, she said.
The only significance in the images are in her initials. In keeping with her medium, she “signs” her work with strips of paper.
For the white horse, the pieces of her name are from a map of Verdun, France, where Muller was born and where her father, now a retired lieutenant-colonel, was stationed for a time.
As an army brat, Muller said it is difficult to say that she is “from” anywhere. She has lived in several places in the U.S. and abroad, including a brief stint from eighth to ninth grade in Kentucky.
Muller is neither a native of Harrison County nor a lifelong resident of the Bluegrass state. But for all the places she has lived so far, there is no finer place on Earth to live than central Kentucky’s horse country, she said.
“Horses are one of my first loves. My parents told me that ‘le cheval’ was the first word I ever spoke,” Muller said. “I consider France my home and I love returning there from time to time. But I’ve always felt at home in Kentucky,” Muller said.
Describing herself as a very “right-brained” person with a passion for creativity, her parents enrolled her in classes at the Art Institute of Boston.
“It was sort of a hole in the wall place when I took classes there, but it gave me an outlet to express myself,” Muller said.
Her art is a part of her life, but it is not the only thing.
Until recently, she and her husband provided foster care for medically fragile children. They have six children, two of whom are theirs biologically. The others are adopted through the foster care program.
The Mullers also support missionaries and their work. They coordinate a program that provides missionaries with a car while visiting in this area of Kentucky.
But art is an important aspect of her life, one that is more than just a hobby or a means to simply pass the time.
She has only been working in paper mosaics since about 2010. Before then, she worked in other types of media such as pastels, oil painting and papier-mache.
She was inspired to experiment in paper mosaics when she saw a California artist’s work during the 2010 World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park.
“I knew instantly that I wanted to try this. Magazine paper offers an interesting and vivid pallette of colors in which to work,” she said.
Not certain if she wanted to commit her first work to an expensive canvas, her first piece, a portrait of her husband and grandson, was put together directly on a blank wall in her home in Kelat.
Pleased with the outcome, she went on to create several other works, each a bit different and presenting a new set of challenges, Muller said.
Most people are familiar with her larger portraits: the white horse, the elephant, the swans, the lion’s heads. They are titled according to lines of poetry that have inspired her, she said.
But some of her most accomplished pieces are these smaller pieces. One of them, a 5-inch by 5-inch portrait of an owl, was a painstaking process. She used an exacto knife to cut fine pieces of paper to capture details in the feathers, beak, and facial expression.
She received compliments from friends and family on her mosaics. However, it is another thing to receive artistic validation from others.
Muller got that validation when she donated a small horse portrait for an auction in support of Horse-Aid, an organization dedicated to providing shelter for aging and retired horses.
She didn’t anticipate it would bring much to the organization, but every little bit helps, she said.
At the Fasig-Tipton auction, Muller was stunned to find out that the portrait was bought for $3,000 in fairly competitive bidding. She was delighted that her work had brought support to a cause she cared about. It was also some personal validation for her work in this medium.
“My husband [Tom] is incredibly patient with me when I work on these mosaics. There is just tons of paper pieces everywhere in the house and kitchen,” she said. “It’s no wonder I’ve been insanely in love with him for 37 years.”
Muller has no idea how long she will work in this medium. For the time being, it is presenting her some new creative challenges. But she knows herself and there will come a time when some new form of expression fires her imagination.