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Charlene Man

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Charlene Man, a Camberwell graduate based between London and Hong Kong, creates art which, in its joyful simplicity of composition and colour, is open to all. While during her early career she worked mainly on commissions, she has recently begun to enjoy dedicating her talent to her own personal projects and putting more of herself into her work, a transition that, as she explains, came about organically, and through a path that she would not have expected to follow when growing up in a stone house in her home town of Sham Tseng, Hong Kong.

The positivity and playfulness of Charlene’s work can lead you to wonder if the happy figures in pastel colours conceal any deeper meaning. In this interview, conducted shortly after her first solo show, DOWN TIME, Charlene unveils the messages and influences behind her unique artistic style.

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What do you do?

I like to say I make happy images. I’ve mostly been doing illustration commercially since I graduated but recently I had my first travelling solo exhibitions in Japan and Hong Kong 1 which helps me to explore more of my personal work. I still consider myself an illustrator though. I enjoy making things people enjoy looking at, so if people are happy, I am happy. That’s how I’d like to describe it.

Upbringing & Artistic Education

What was your upbringing like?

I was born in Hong Kong, in a small village called Sham Tseng that is famous for roast goose. People will drive there just to have the roast goose. There are lots of stray dogs and cats everywhere and I’d just run around, catching fish from the river. I lived in a stone house that my grandad built, which sits sort of halfway up a mountain.

I moved to England when I was thirteen because my dad got a job in Nottingham. I never looked at my results in Art when I was in Hong Kong because my mum would always point out what I did badly in, like how I always failed Maths. Some years later, I looked back at my results when I was tidying and I realised that I always did well in Art, then I thought “I’m actually good at it!” so I decided to take Art for A-Levels 2 and went on to do Art Foundation at Nottingham.

Was your mum okay about it?

My mum was really upset because I did a year of Art Foundation and didn’t stay in Nottingham for uni. Also, I “wasted” £3000 doing a year of Fashion Illustration at LCF 3 before dropping out to go to Camberwell for Illustration. 4 She used to tell me a lot that I wasn’t good enough, and not on the right track. My family are not even the most conservative but they still wanted me to be educated and do the ‘proper’ subjects at school.

Being the youngest of the family does allow me to be more neglectful and do what I want but I have never forgotten the responsibility I have towards my family. After uni, I tried to work full time in Hong Kong for two years and freelance at the same time, but I decided to fully go freelance when I realised the only way to get my illustration career going was to invest the same amount of time in my own work as I did working for others.

In a previous interview I was asked if I consider myself as rebellious. I guess I am because I’ve always been doing things my parents don’t want me to do. Part of me wants to prove them wrong, and it’s that which pushes me to work harder. Sometimes I do feel selfish and irresponsible towards my family but it is also this selfishness that allows me to do what I genuinely enjoy. 5

I guess I am [rebellious] because I’ve always been doing things my parents don’t want me to do. Part of me wants to prove them wrong, and it’s that which pushes me to work harder.

Illustration and Beyond

You’ve been successful as an artist for a while now, but you’ve recently switched to making more personal work. How did this transition take place?

When I first graduated, I was working part time at COS and shared a studio with Day Job. 6 I worked on a project called Play-o-logy 7 with Katie Johnston 8 for my final year and we started doing workshops and children’s festivals. 9 It was all going well but we started to realise neither of us could do much of our own work at the same time, so Katie decided to do an MA at RCA 10 and I moved to Hong Kong in 2014.

In Hong Kong I started straight away at a full time job at a wallpaper company, just out of guilt that I have towards my family. Three months after, I changed to a kidswear company 11 doing illustration and graphic design work. I really enjoyed my time there, I learned so much and I got to draw every day, but at the same time I started to do more personal work when I had free time, just as an escape from doing all different styles of illustration at work. My zine Villain Hitting 12 is probably my first successful personal project. It got me more attention that I thought it would, which encouraged me to do more personal work and to quit my full time job.

You have just been through a crazy period of solo shows around Asia, in Japan and Hong Kong. How would you describe your first solo show DOWN TIME?

When I first got back to England in late 2015, I noticed a lot of my friends were talking about yoga and meditation. I wondered why it was so trendy suddenly. Yoga has been around for a while but personally I find yoga so stressful, worrying that I’m not doing the pose right, that other people’s poses look better, copying others for poses I don’t know, not remembering the names of the poses — also all the pain afterwards… 13 Mediation to me is also just making a trip elsewhere, rather than your house, and kinda just ‘doing nothing’ there. To me, it’s more of an activity than doing something relaxing.

I would rather do something that I am really good at, which is not doing anything at all — だらだら (dara dara). 14 This exhibition started with me quitting my job in Hong Kong, moving back to England and sitting in my parents’ study ‘doing nothing’. Sometimes I just sit there and think for a while, or I go to bed and a thought comes up and I just can’t stop thinking about it, and to me that’s very relaxing and keeps my brain active with my work. The experience of these moments is what I wanted to express through my first solo show, DOWN TIME.

Translating Charlene’s Personality

Going beyond your most recent show, DOWN TIME, is there a specific message you are intending to convey through your artwork?

I guess there is a message: I want people to be more truthful to themselves. I am a honest person and I don’t like lies. A lot of times, I just speak my mind even though I know it might upset others but I feel so strongly about not lying to myself and not to dwell on the thoughts which will affect my feelings and judgements towards everything, so I just have to say it. I believe if people can be more honest to themselves, they will be genuinely happy.

I often try to look at the positive side of the bad things. For my show DOWN TIME I tried to transform words like ‘lazy’ and ‘bored’ into something positive. I don’t understand why these words have such negative connotations, they’re just words to describe a feeling. I want people to see my show and think that being ‘lazy’ or ‘bored’ is not a bad thing, it’s just natural and everyone has those moments — we should embrace it more.

For example, in Katamari, 15 when I am rolling up all the people and animals and destroying everything, there is a strange sense of satisfaction — even though it’s clearly evil, it makes me happy. In the last level when I rolled up the whole solar system it just didn’t feel like an end for me, I believe there’s more, in Keita Takahashi’s 16 mind at least! Just like how I think Michael Jackson is still alive, sunbathing on Miami beach, I like thinking of the alternatives and questioning things — why is a certain action called lazy or boring, who decided that anyway? Maybe it’s not totally relevant but that is something I want to achieve in my work.

Do you think you apply these values to your artwork and to your own life?

I used to get quite worked up doing illustration, constantly trying to make things look sophisticated and perfect. I actually prefer my roughs, but I used to feel like they weren’t ‘finished’ and that wasn’t what the client would want, so I would draw them again digitally.

When I was living in London, I used to get stressed out and find it hard to get motivated. Since most of my friends are in the creative industries, I found it hard to not compare myself to others. I felt like I was living in a bubble, which is why I decided to move to Hong Kong in 2014. It was only when I moved away that I got to learn about myself more, and started to realise that I can draw in the way I feel most comfortable with, I don’t have to worry about what other people think. I think that’s when I truly fell in love with what I do and learned that being honest is key.

I want people to be more truthful to themselves. I am a honest person and I don’t like lies. [...] I believe if people can be more honest to themselves, they will be genuinely happy.

What made you realise that your stylistic approach back then was not suited to you?

When I was working at the kidswear company, my manager would quite often tell me “it’s too much, too complicated! Simplify it!” From that, I noticed that maybe I have always over-worked my illustration, lots of colours, patterns and textures, filling all the empty spaces I can find. The company focused on knitwear so most of the time I only had four or five colours to play around with. At first, I was finding it quite difficult but I also realised that having limitations really makes an impact on the results. Then I started to limit my own colour palette and keep things simple.

Now I love using pastel colours, they are my favourite! Probably from my childhood memories like the estate buildings in Hong Kong, 17 animated food and manga. I haven’t read many books, but I have definitely read over a thousand manga stories. 18 It has definitely influenced me in many ways, stylistically or even in choosing to do art in the first place.

I never liked the idea of a full time job. I won’t say I super enjoyed it when I had one but it was nice to get to learn a lot things in such small amount of time, especially executing something good quickly and looking professional at the same time. It’s definitely something they don’t teach at university.

Learning Through Play

You seem to be drawn to the subject of education: your dissertation was on the topic of learning through play, and you also occasionally teach at the Camberwell College of Arts. How do you enjoy teaching?

I guess it could come from my personality, I like to take charge and share my knowledge. At college, Katie 19 and I were running workshops with Play-o-logy 20 at a primary school, all our projects were related to education and play. From that I think my tutor knew I wanted to teach.

I want to share what I didn’t get in my own childhood through teaching. When I was studying in Hong Kong, I had dictations every week, tests every month then exams every few months. I remember crying to my teacher when I failed my dictation and worrying about being told off by my parents. Even when I failed, it didn’t just end there — I was punished by writing the words over twenty times just to remember how to spell it right. I found that such a boring way to learn. From these experiences I had, I want to make a change and share the way I would have enjoyed more, which is learning through play. 21

Again, Keita Takahashi 22 really inspired me with his ideas around learning through play. He once proposed a playground project in Nottingham. 23 Even though it never happened in the end, I was amazed at the ideas that he came up with. One of them was that kids would have to dress up in fluffy costumes to play on a loop slide, and they would be cleaning the slide and playing at the same time. I think it doesn’t matter what the kids make out of it, but the moment they play and are sparking up with imagination and all sorts of ideas; that’s more fun and natural. 24

Future

Last but not least, what’s coming up for you in the future?

It’s always harder to achieve stuff when you think too far ahead, it makes me sad to think I won’t be able to do it because I want to do everything I said I would do. So what I’m looking forward to is my Taipei show at the beginning of May. It’s quite a big venue so it should be the biggest show I’ve ever had. I originally proposed DOWN TIME but I’ve changed my idea and it’s going to be about ‘small thoughts’ — things that pop up in your head, but you tend to think they’re not important. I see this show as a step forward from DOWN TIME in terms of research and the ideology behind the project. Hopefully, I will get to transform these small thoughts into some big pieces of work.

  1. Charlene’s show, DOWN TOWN, was exhibited at printing studio and gallery Retro Insatsu Jam in Osaka, Perhaps Gallery in Saga and Odd One Out in Hong Kong.
  2. For those who are unfamiliar with the British education system, A-Levels refer to one of the two qualifications taken by most UK teenagers as part of their secondary education. GCSEs are taught during years 10 and 11 (from ages 14 – 16) and are followed by A-Levels, taken by students from ages 16 – 18.
  3. The London College of Fashion, one of the six colleges which make up the University of the Arts London, is internationally renowned for its alumni including fashion designers Jimmy Choo and Ioana Ciolacu.
  4. Camberwell refers to the Camberwell College of Arts, a South London art college which, along with five others, makes up the University of the Arts London. Two of our previous interviewees also have graduated from Camberwell: artists Charlotte Mei and Felix Treadwell.
  5. Charlene (centre) with her whole family at her grandparents’ stone house.
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  6. Day Job Studio is a collective which was founded in 2012 by ten graduates from the Camberwell College of Arts: Joshua Checkley, Daniel Clarke, Grace Helmer, Katie Johnston, Charlene Man, Charlotte Mei, Ella McLean, Peter Rhodes, Victoria Willmott and Aaron Ziggy.
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  7. Play-o-logy was founded by Charlene with Katie Johnston, a fellow Camberwell Illustration graduate.
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    The duo provided interactive workshops for children, built around the themes of creativity and learning through play. To find out more about Play-o-logy, see below for a talk Katie gave at the monthly ‘Nicer Tuesdays’ event, organised by It’s Nice That, where she explains their project.
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  8. Katie Johnston is an illustrator who has recently graduated from a Master’s course at the Royal College of Art, having completed her BA at the Camberwell College of Arts.
  9. Find out what Charlene and Katie used to get up to on their (now inactive) blog here.
  10. RCA refers to the Royal College of Art, a university offering postgraduate degrees in art and design with two campuses in central London, at South Kensington and Battersea. It’s considered one of the most prestigious institutions for art and design in the world, topping the QS World University Rankings tables for these subjects in 2015 and 2016.
  11. Rumour has it that Charlene might be working on a childrenswear project in the near future!
  12. Charlene’s zine Villain Hitting (pictured below) refers to a type of folk sorcery popular in southern China and Hong Kong, involving the use of magic ceremony to curse enemies.
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    The ceremony consists of a ‘villain hitter’, often an old lady who attracts her clients on the streets, beating paper with slippers, shoes or other objects. See below for a fairly rare interview with a ‘villain hitter’ sharing her practice and experiences with her clients, and buy Charlene’s zine here.
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  13. Charlene turned these feelings into a zine, Lazy Yoga Guide. She refers to it as an alternative guide “for those who does not want to do proper Yoga and just want to relax and chill.” You can buy it here.
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  14. だらだら (dara dara) is an onomatopoeic term in Japanese, meaning ‘to be sluggish’.
  15. Katamari Damacy is the first in a series of video games which consist of rolling a highly adhesive ball to collect increasingly larger objects, until the ball has grown big enough to become an actual star. The series has a cult following for its simple yet innovative game style, as you can see in the video below. In 2012, it was even part of an exhibition at the MoMA in New York called Century of the Child: Growing by Design, chosen for the way it highlighted how “players of all ages can interact in a creative, surreal way with ordinary objects and built environments.” The game also came up when Us Blah + Me Blah interviewed musician Calum Bowen, who praised the soundtrack composed by Yuu Miyake.
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  16. Keita Takahashi, born in 1975, is a Japanese game designer who is most notable for publishing Katamari Damacy with Namco.
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    Since leaving this company to work independently, his most recent project is a Playstation 4 game, Wattam, likely to launch in late 2017 – watch the trailer here:
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    He has also founded a duo unit called uvula with his wife Asuka Sakai, a composer who wrote one of the best-known tracks from Katamari Damacy, ‘Fugue #7777’. Listen below.
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  17. You may be familiar with the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a five-block estate building complex which inspired Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express. The complex is well known for encapsulating the spirit of globalisation: its inhabitants and workers are almost entirely foreigners and its shops display products imported from all over the world, mainly Africa and other Asian countries. You can watch a rare interview with the building’s chairwoman below. While the Chungking Mansions initially became famous in the seventies as a top destination for cheap accommodation in Hong Kong, from the nineties, they became a hub for wholesale retail businesses. This anecdote, from the second issue of independent magazine Works That Works sums it up: “There is a Hong Kong opal dealer, who buys opals from Australia, which are then sent to Shenzhen, China, for processing, then shipped to his office in Hong Kong to be sent back to Australia as a tourist souvenir.” The writer also estimated that 20% of the mobile phones used in sub-Saharan Africa in 2007-08 passed through the Chungking Mansions. We strongly recommend reading it as the article is fascinating (and so is the magazine).
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  18. Charlene later added “I used to read Crayon Shin-chan when I was young. I also used to read a lot of shōjo (‘girly’) manga and I still read them now. It’s so cheesy and I love it. I read them when I want to not think of anything. The stories always end up in the same way but I like how different mangaka draw people’s expressions differently.”
  19. See the 8th footnote for more information about Katie Johnston.
  20. See the 7th footnote for more information about Play-o-logy.
  21. Charlene’s progressive ideas around education remind us of the Finnish system, where there are no standardised tests and almost no grading at school. While a less structured system than in many countries, Finnish education nonetheless produces amazing results, and has reached the top of the famous PISA rankings for mathematics, science and reading. One part of Michael Moore’s film Where To Invade Next which you can watch below, shows the Finnish Ministry of Education stating that instead of doing homework, students “should have more time to be kids, to be youngsters, to enjoy their life” which is somehow close to what Charlene aspires to with Play-o-logy. https://youtu.be/1ZbGlDMF7HQ
  22. Refer to the 16th footnote for more information about Keita Takahashi.
  23. In late 2009 it was announced that game designer Keita Takahashi would be creating a playground in Nottingham, though sadly, this project was later cancelled, apparently for budgetary reasons. Going by Takahashi’s initial designs, which you can take a look at here, this seems a real shame! According to a recent tweet, it looks like Takahashi hasn’t given up on the playground project. Until then, however, he’s shared a few ideas about what Trump’s border wall might look like...
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  24. After our chat, Charlene also mentioned the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy she admires. Originating in villages around Reggio Emilia in northern Italy after World War II, it is based on the hypothesis that people form their personality during their first years and that children learn through expressing their ideas with different languages such as painting, sculpting or drama. This philosophy has a lot in common with Charlene’s beliefs that children must have some control over the direction of their learning and that they thrive when provided with opportunities to express themselves. See below for a (very old) CNN feature on the Reggio Emilia approach that not only explains the educational philosophy behind it, but also shows the theory applied to some children in a school in the United States. Source: Wikipedia
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This interview was posted on 13 March 2017 and was originally conducted in English.

Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Tsukasa Tanimoto

Copy-editing (English):
Kate Reiners

Translation (English to Japanese):
Marie Sasago