A former student of Illustration at the Camberwell College of Arts, today Charlotte Mei combines her core practice with several different media — apart from the ceramics she is best known for, she experiments with sculpture and painting, with plans to explore animated projects soon. Immediately after completing her undergraduate studies, Charlotte attracted considerable attention for her striking ceramic pieces, with which she demonstrated impressive sensitivity to both UK and Asian cultural references. Now, four years on, Charlotte shares with us her future plans and ideas for a unique artistic direction. In this interview, as well as describing her transition from paper to ceramics, Charlotte reveals her new ambition to produce artwork that is more focused on creating socially engaged content than on building a style which “won’t really have longevity”. As a mixed-race artist with roots in England and Hong Kong, she not only details how her multicultural upbringing has affected her current practice, but also explains how her work has allowed her to, consciously or unconsciously, explore her own identity.
First of all, can you explain who you are and what you do?
I am an artist, an illustrator and at the moment I’m doing a lot of ceramics and paintings. I enjoy trying lots of different mediums, to find the best way to communicate an idea or feeling — I studied illustration so my background is in visual communication, but mainly I just love making!
Did you know from quite a young age that you wanted to pursue an artistic path?
I actually didn’t even know what illustration was until I was taking my art Foundation Diploma at age nineteen. I wasn’t even going to do art at uni. I did my foundation at Bristol, 1 and I kind of did it as my year out before I started studying. Maybe somewhere in my head I was planning to take art further, but I honestly didn’t know anything about art or illustration at that point. I was planning to work for another year after the Foundation Course and then study politics or history. I still am really into history. I never had an idea of what I wanted to do but I guess I knew I was interested in the world around me, stuff that really happened. I guess that still feeds into my work, but not in a way I expected it would. 2
What made you change your mind?
A tutor in Bristol recommended for me to apply to illustration courses, and so I applied to Bristol but I didn’t get in. I also got an interview for Camberwell 3 and I actually didn’t go because I thought I’d never get in so I just forgot about it for a while. Then, maybe a month or so later, I got a letter from Camberwell saying “there’s another interview slot on this day, do you want to come down for it?”. A friend of mine happened to be driving up to London on that day so I went to the interview and found out later in the day that I got a place. I was so shocked!
Did you enjoy your degree at Camberwell?
I loved Camberwell, I really liked it there. It’s such a great course, the tutors were so good as well. I really got a lot from that. The Camberwell definition of illustration is looser than on a lot of illustration courses, I think. We were encouraged to play around and try different things. That’s probably why I’ve ended up doing so many different things after uni.
You went from drawing illustrations to making ceramics. When and how did that transition take place?
It was during my third year when my tutor recommended an evening course to me. I did that and I was just like “wow I love this so much, this is what I want to do”. I think at that time, I was surrounded by lots of classic illustration and it felt like what I was doing did not really fit in with the same kind of ways of working that they used. I couldn’t find where I would fit in and so exploring in 3D was a way for me to personally explore content and imagery without being so hung up on how I was presenting it. 4 My work is a lot about mark-making, so there will often be something where you can see the artist’s hand in it, like brushstrokes or finger marks. That is one thing that made ceramics a natural progression for me.
I do think there was an element of frustration, it was just in that exploratory phase when I was at university, trying to figure out what I was doing and how I could naturally represent the ideas I was thinking of. Actually, doing that has enabled me to come back to painting and have a better insight for that as well. Now I approach painting in a similar way to how I approach making stuff with clay, which I never did before. Ceramics gave me a new way of thinking about making. Using clay really helped my practice.
When I graduated, I was so preoccupied with trying to make stuff look right. [...] Now, while I admire lots of artists with a very technical and tight style, I know that’s not me. I try not to be so hung up on style just because I know that it won’t really have longevity."
From Style to Content
Would you say that your practice has changed since you graduated?
I mean it’s definitely evolved. I was still doing a combination of painting and ceramics when I graduated in 2012 so in that sense it hasn’t changed a huge amount, but I can definitely see many differences. 5 When I graduated, I was so preoccupied with trying to make stuff look right. I think at that time I was trying to be a technically better artist. Now, while I admire lots of artists with a very technical and tight style, I know that’s not me. 6 I try not to be so hung up on style, just because I know that it won’t really have longevity. I wanted to put more of my energy into the ideas, so I’m focusing more on experimentation and I try to let it be a bit more exploratory. But I think it needed to take as long as it did to try everything and figure out how I work best, and where the best results come from.
How did your desire to make more content-driven artwork emerge?
When I first graduated, I ended up making a lot of the same thing as my ceramics got a bit of interest and people wanted to buy my designs. That kind of happened organically. Then, I realised that I could use that to support myself while I could do my personal work, but, more and more, I started to feel like I was kind of selling out. Or maybe just focusing too much on the selling or business aspect. Not that I think there’s something wrong in doing that, but it did not feel like I was getting the right balance in my practice. At times, I felt like “wtf am I doing? What does this even mean?”, that kind of insecurity about making meaningless art.
I still want to share my work with people so that they can buy it, but I don’t want to put as much energy as I have been doing into that side of it. 7 I now feel an internal pressure to produce more socially engaging content and to touch on things that I think are important to talk about. I suppose the more I give myself to work on personally-led work, the more I can explore that. I’m trying to give myself some time every week to explore what I like doing, what I’m interested in artistically, like painting or doing some ceramics just for fun.
Are there any specific social topics you would like to touch on through your artwork?
Of course there are things I think about in my personal life, societal and environmental stuff, which bother me. I haven’t yet found an appropriate way to tackle any of these issues directly. Right now, it feels more natural for me to create work which touches on social stuff in a more indirect way, and how we react to them and each other, as humans. I like to make work which has more of a sense of positivity and empathy, but also that which can look through a lens of uncertainty and doubt. I guess I like my work to touch on the range of emotions that make up the human experience. I think there’s something to be said by ‘showing less to say more’ — I try to make simple visual statements which might trigger a larger message or understanding.
Do you have any examples of how artists tackle issues in an indirect way?
I love how science fiction uses an alternate world to explore real-life ideas. Akira is my favourite film of all time, I just think it’s amazing. 8 The ending is super surreal, it leaves you a bit like “wtf is going on?”. I love the combination of the crazy shit happening and this deep philosophical subtext. Also like in Ghost in the Shell, 9 where everything kind of unravels. I love The Matrix 10 too, which is obviously heavily inspired by these animes. I’m quite interested in that — the tension between something in real life and some kind of fantasy world.
I now feel an internal pressure to produce more socially engaging content and to touch on things that I think are important to talk about.
You’ve said that you’re interested in “why we think things are gross or scary, and why we think other things are cute.” 11 Is this something you think about when making your own work?
I think I’m quite interested in the emotional response that you get from an artwork. Maybe that’s what attracts me to exploring ideas of cuteness or scariness, because I think that’s what I like in other people’s work — something that evokes some emotional responses in me. For example, I like music that makes me feel sad. 12 Maybe art is something to make you feel something.
Is this why you really like anime and manga?
Yes, definitely. I really like how direct anime and manga are with their use of signifiers. 13 The emotional responses are codified. For example, if someone is having a nosebleed, it means they fancy someone. 14 I love those direct links, it’s almost like it’s a language on its own — imagine every time you fancy someone, you get a nosebleed, it’d be ridiculous, but I love that! I mean, in a way, some of those signifiers are really good at representing feelings. Even though you don’t get a nosebleed, you know what they’re getting at. But also I was brought up with quite a lot of Asian influences and Japanese cartoons too, so maybe I was just exposed to it earlier.
Spending time in Japan and on the manga course definitely opened my eyes to those possibilities, a world of showing emotiveness through imagery.
You visited Japan for a few weeks during your time at Camberwell. Do you think that trip influenced you to look further into these emotional signifiers?
I spent six weeks at the Kyoto Seika University 15 in 2011, during my second year of uni, with six others including my regular collaborator Grace Helmer, 16 my housemate Aaron Ziggy, 17 and Chie Miyazaki. 18 We spent some time on their illustration course which was really different to ours as it was focused on manga production whereas our course was more “do what you want! You can print your bum if you want!”. But it definitely did impact my practice — it gave some validity to the idea of showing emotion through my artwork because the imagery there is so emotive and there’s always characters. I’ve always been into that, but it’s not acceptable in Western artwork so for me seeing that, I was like “wow I can do this, I can make these references and that’s ok, I can draw faces on everything if I want”. 19 Spending time in Japan and on the manga course definitely opened my eyes to those possibilities, a world of showing emotiveness through imagery. 20
Speaking of Asia, as a mixed-race artist, does your artwork help you to explore your identity?
I think for mixed-race people, especially growing up, there is definitely an identity crisis thing. 21 Your parents will tell you that you’re special but to everyone else you don’t quite fit in. When I first went to Hong Kong, I thought I would finally understand it all, finally understand what my place is, but I didn’t. I was more of an outsider there because I was culturally different and I stood out. People there saw me as white and here people saw me as Asian. I definitely had this classic mixed-race identity crisis growing up. The tension between those two things in my work is a way of exploring those two identities and figuring out where I sit in them. That is definitely something I am aware of. It’s not something I’m always thinking of when I’m making work, but it is there somewhere.
Some artists find it risky to get involved with cultures from different countries, especially nowadays with the increasing media prominence of issues such as cultural appropriation. Do you worry about this?
Our generation are very aware of that kind of thing. I think it’s good that we are sensitive to each other’s cultures, but I also think we should talk about them and explore them. Naturally, I want to explore my heritage, which is mixed. That often comes up in a conscious or unconscious way in my work. I like to be able to touch on both. You know when I was making those things, I would never think “oh this Drake reference is so Western or this bishōjo-inspired 22 thing is so Asian”. I don’t even think of it when I’m making it, they are just parts of my unconsciousness that come out. Drake, for example, is like royalty in pop culture, and I love him so it just made sense to refer to him in some way at that time.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m pretty open to seeing what happens. In general, I’d love to make some large-scale things. The reason I want to do that is because I’m so limited by the space I’ve got in my studio, so I’d love to be able to make a large sculpture or painting. I’m also really interested in animation. The right time to go down that avenue hasn’t come up yet, because I know I need to give it the time it deserves. But as a big fan of animation, I’d love to try it. Maybe I could work with an animator to make it happen, I’d love to do a music video or a short hand-painted animation. I am still very much working on my craft. I’m just trying to figure things out, and I’m happy to see where that takes me!
- Charlotte completed her Foundation Diploma at the Bristol School of Art. ↩
- Charlotte gave an example with the below image, from her Instagram account. She says, “it is an early piece from a project I’m working on with Chris Harnan, based on museum artefacts. The project is in its very first stages so I can’t say too much yet!” ↩
- The Camberwell College of Arts is one of the six colleges of the University of the Arts London. It’s located in South London, between Peckham Rye and Denmark Hill stations. Notable graduates include film director Joe Wright and art director Kate Moross. ↩
- Jack Sachs is another illustrator who shifted from working in 2D to creating 3D art. On his website, he explains that while studying Illustration, also at Camberwell, he “suffered a massive injury to my drawing hand before starting my final year, to confront this I began to learn to use 3D software to make my work while my hand healed. I now have two fully functioning hands and continue to make work across and around the two mediums”. Below is an advert for the Maynards Bassetts confectionary company, which Jack Sachs worked on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk-6VWZoR6s While he specialises in 3D design, he also, like Charlotte, combines his illustration with ceramic pieces, as in the below image from his Instagram. ↩
- It’s Nice That was one publication which was quick to spot Charlotte’s talents. This article from 2012 showcases some of her work from back then, such as the below piece which says “home run” in Japanese. ↩
- For example, Charlotte admires graphic & motion designer Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) and surrealist painter HR Giger. ↩
- One of the bestselling pieces in her online shop is this extremely cute Bread Plate. Check it out here. ↩
- Akira is originally a Japanese manga by Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in a post-apocalyptic Neo-Tokyo, the work uses the conventions of the cyberpunk genre to explore themes of social isolation, power and corruption. First published in 1982, the film adaptation of the manga, also directed by Otomo, was released in 1988 and is today considered a landmark in Japanese animation. Fun fact: the movie actually predicted that the 2020 Olympics will take place in Tokyo (see the cut from the movie below): ↩
- Ghost in the Shell is originally a manga by Masamune Shirow, first published in 1989. Ghost in the Shell shares many similarities with Akira — an animated film adaptation was released in 1995, and, set in a mid-twenty-first century future, features cybernetic bodies and superhuman abilities. In the manga, Shirow explores his ideas on sociological issues, the consequences of technological advances and the nature of consciousness and identity. Along with Akira, the film adaptation is widely considered one of the greatest anime films of all time. ↩
- The Matrix, as you most likely know, is a sci-fi action trilogy written and directed by the Wachowskis, a sibling pair of film directors, screenwriters and producers who also wrote and produced V for Vendetta. They have previously shared their fascination for anime pieces such as Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Wicked City, Ninja Scroll and Fist of the North Star. The video below shows how much The Matrix was inspired by Ghost in the Shell. ↩
- The quote is taken from Charlotte's interview with Lazy Oaf. ↩
- Charlotte says, “Aphex Twin’s music is so emotive, this track “Alberto Balsalm” makes me feel sad and happy at once! I don’t know how, I think it’s magic.” ↩
- Charlotte went on to say how much she enjoys some of the cartoons she watched as a child, such as Crayon Shin-chan, Sailor Moon, Hamtaro and Doraemon. Charlotte has, in the past, even drawn Crayon Shin-chan’s main character on a pot she designed: ↩
- Master Roshi from Dragon Ball often gets nosebleeds when reading erotic magazines. ↩
- The Kyoto Seika University is a private university, located, as you might have guessed, in Kyoto. Founded in 1968, its manga and anime courses are widely admired. Famous graduates include Yoji Shinkawa, responsible for the character and environment design of the video game series Metal Gear, Naoto Ohshima who is known for his character design of Sonic the Hedgehog and Dr. Eggman. ↩
- Grace Helmer is a London-based illustrator who, with Charlotte, studied Illustration at Camberwell. In October and November 2015, Charlotte and Grace held a joint exhibition in Tokyo and London called “わくわく! Waku waku!”. Shaun Spark directed this lovely video on it, not only explaining different Japanese onomatopoeia like “waku waku” but also showing their time in Japan. ↩
- Aaron Ziggy, while also a former student of Illustration, today works with such diverse media as “wine, wooden furniture and shoe brushes”, according to his website. Charlotte and Grace Helmer work with Aaron as part of Day Job Studio, a collective which they founded in 2012 with seven more Camberwell graduates: Joshua Checkley, Daniel Clarke, Katie Johnston, Charlene Man, Ella McLean, Peter Rhodes and Victoria Willmott. ↩
- Chie Miyazaki is a Japanese illustrator and ceramicist. She mainly works in collaboration with her sister under the name Chie Chihiro, producing a body of work which ranges from illustration to ceramics and animation. ↩
- Tokyo-based artist and illustrator TOMBOSENSEI shares this desire of Charlotte’s to give expression to anything and everything, marking the people and objects he draws with his signature face. About his practice, he says, “draw three lines and TOMBOSENSEI appears anywhere you want”. ↩
- As part of their six-week stay, the students were asked to make a short documentary about manga and the Kyoto Seika University. The film, viewable below, was shown at the Barbican as part of the 2011 Premiere Japan film festival. ↩
- The unique experience of mixed-race people in Japanese society is something which comes up for examination again and again: as mentioned in our interview with Sarah Midori Perry, the 2013 documentary Hāfu brilliantly depicts the difficulty of life as a hāfu (someone who is ethnically half Japanese) living in Japan. More recently, this issue was raised when Priyanka Yoshikawa (pictured below), of mixed Indian and Japanese heritage, won the 2016 Miss World Japan title, as she was criticised by some for not looking Japanese enough. Source: The Wall Street Journal ↩
- Bishōjo is a Japanese term used to refer to beautiful young girls who are, usually, below young adult age. It is quite common for anime films and manga to have a bishōjo as one of their main characters, especially within the lolicon movement, which explores an attraction to young or prepubescent girls. You can read more about this topic in our interview with Japanese illustrator Kazami Suzuki. ↩
This interview was posted on 1 October 2016.
Interview (Us Blah) & Footnotes (Me Blah):
Translation (English to Japanese):