Charlotte Duffy, the Art of Storytelling
and the Magic of Cardboard
‘If history were told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten’,
Tell me a story. One of the greatest requests anyone can ever make of another human being.
Tell me a story.
The storyteller opens their mouth, starts talking, starts weaving a new reality around you, a parallel universe to explore through someone else’s eyes. Stories connect us with someone or something, we didn’t know before.
How many friendships have been founded on a shared love of the same books, or the same plays, or the same characters in a TV series? Whether it’s a TV series or a book trilogy, when we meet other people who have heard the same stories as us, we feel like we have shared something, an experience, a moral dilemma, a history.
Narratives are important to the visual arts. You can create a piece of art which is technically brilliant, but if it doesn’t have a narrative, it might as well be wallpaper. A piece of art should speak to you, ignite a something inside you, share something with you. It should tell you a story.
Charlotte Duffy is not just an artist, she is a storyteller. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte uses discarded cardboard to create pieces that just by looking at them you can tell they have a history, a story to tell. She describes her aesthetic as rough, naïve, honest and handmade, but it is also beautiful and engaging. Charlotte’s creations are full of character and it was great to learn more about them and about her.
Tell us a bit about growing up in Fife, do you come from a creative family, where would you go to for inspiration in your home town?
My mother was a ballerina, my father was an actor / puppeteer and my brother is a filmmaker and photographer. To me that’s just what work looked like, especially with my Dad. I saw him, working as a freelance artist from a very young age and I just thought that’s what everyone’s parents did. Then I realized that’s not what everyone’s parent’s did, not everyone’s Dad made puppets with them at the weekend, or not everyone’s Mums were choreographing community dance pieces. That was the way they chose to interact with the world, to put stories into it, to create things.
There aren’t many places to go in Auchtermuchty (where I grew up), so it was quiet and it was easy to get lost in worlds of imaginative things, stories and making. The house used to be an abattoir so there are a few outhouses in the garden that were set up as workshops for my Dad to make puppets in. There were tools and materials, I could always make things if I wanted to.
Do you have a studio or do you work from home? What does your work space look like?
I have a little studio in my home where I spend most of my time but when working on bigger pieces I tend to share my partners studio space. Everything is covered in glue and there is always a layer of scraps of cardboard on the floor. I’m not a very tidy worker.
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to podcasts a lot; the Moth, Mystery Show, This American life. With music, it has to match the pace of what I’m doing. Instrumental stuff like soundtracks to films, or Ryuchi Sakamoto if I’m working at an average pace, but if I’m up against a deadline it’s either Amanda Palmer or terrible metal. Most of the time I have bad television on in the background, so I don’t over analyse what I’m doing as I’m doing it. It has to be crap though, not something I want to watch. It’s just background noise, background visuals.
Your philosophy studies in aesthetics led you to question the value of art and in challenging these concepts you started working with cardboard. Where the true value of art does lie, as you see it, what value does creating art have for you?
I can’t remember which philosopher it was but I remember really vividly studying this piece that argued that the value of art is rendered somewhat by artistic figureheads in society. If a gallery owner or collector decides that a final piece is of worth then that is what makes it valuable to the masses. I just thought that this was such a horrible argument, but actually there was quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this was a trope that existed in the art world, historically and also currently.
I sort of decided that even if that system of belief was in play I didn’t want pander to it. If the value is added once a piece is finished and sold, or exhibited, then I think that can have really negative effects on two things. Firstly, it can really inhibit the production process, the physical act of making is where the value lies. Purely because that process is why I do it in the first place. It’s cathartic, it’s my way of connecting to everything that surrounds me. I feel like you can tell when an artist is really engaged in the productions process. It is really sad when where a work is going in the end overshadows the initial point of creation, focusing on something being more valuable because it is going in a respected gallery.
Secondly, I think that if we look at value as being something that only comes with widely regarded and conventional success then the next generations of artists will be effected. Just by stressing making and creativity and by opening up conversations around the topic, young people will feel as though they can be artists without it being dependant on someone else gracing them with that title.
Everyone connects with the world around them in different ways, they process that information differently and what they choose to do with it is really important. If someone finds it natural to go about life by making things in response to their environment then they should feel empowered to do so and, most importantly, valued for doing so.
We have spoken to a few other artists recently who studied philosophy rather than art. Perhaps part of the attraction to this subject is getting to explore ideas and the downside is, it doesn’t culminate in you making a piece of artwork. What was it about philosophy that pulled you in?
I had an image in my head of being at art school, sitting in front of a blank canvas and realising that, at the age of 18 I didn’t have enough to say about the world. I hadn’t seen enough, or done enough. I didn’t want to make things that didn’t speak true of anything. I don’t think I entirely understood what philosophy entailed either. They never tell you that there are no answers, only questions. And then more questions. I wasn’t really very suited to it.
It is undeniable I got a huge amount out of it, and even just from being in St Andrews, but I underestimated how word based and academic it was going to be. I could only connect to arguments when they were referencing visual images, which is what led me to aesthetics. I could hold onto visual representations of the concepts and I think then I realised that maybe that’s all art is, taking concepts and exploring and expressing them visually, viscerally, audibly, tangibly. I know that sounds like a really rudimentary thing to have realised, but it took me struggling through really interesting but dense concepts in a really, personally, difficult medium to realise it fully.
There is so much life and character in your work, reminiscent of Doug Tennappel’s comic Cardboard, about a young boy making living things from enchanted cardboard. One of the many pieces of yours that demonstrates your ability to breathe life into your work, is the portrait you did of a cat. Was this fun to make? How much has your work in theatre and particularly puppetry, influenced your work?
It was such a lovely project to work on. I was at the fringe selling my work out of a little shack in the West End and Mark (who it was for) approached me to discuss the commission. I got to first hand be told the stories of his cat and his career as a photographer and how he’d documented the cat from being a kitten. That’s why it was so lovely, I didn’t just have to replicate his pet I was trying to translate everything he’d relayed to me. Telling the story of his stories.
Theatre and puppetry has influenced me a huge amount. It’s always been about trying to tell an original story. When I first started making theatre at university, it was because I was so frustrated with seeing things that were rehashings or retellings of stories that already existed. My work might not have been polished at the time, but there was an undeniable originality in it and in it’s making.
It was a platform to experiment with the most effective, or satisfying way for me to communicate stories. It also helped me form an aesthetic, one that I have stuck to; the handmade, rough, naïve, honest. It was unavoidable, I guess, you couldn’t see these pieces and props and not almost visualize the hands that made it. So I don’t know if I would have come to that aesthetic, and been confident in it, if I hadn’t had the chance to establish it within the framing of theatre production.
The thing about puppetry that fascinates me to this day, is the concept of an object being brought to life and artists asking a room full of people to believe that it is not object but in fact something that is alive. But that belief can be suspended further if you tell that story in the realest way you can, not literally but figuratively. My adult piece of puppetry involved a puppet being rather violently murdered and disemboweled on stage, everything was very obviously made entirely from recycled materials, I didn’t try to hide that, but people who saw the show said that it was all the more disturbing and upsetting than if it had been an actor playing the part with fancy stage effects and blood and make up. Because they had bought in to the story, bought into these objects being alive that were being killed in front of them. That sort of confirmed for me that I would never need to hide the fact that I was making things from cardboard as long as I made sure that the stories I was telling with it were things that could people could believe in.
The biggest effect though, was quite early on I knew I wanted to work with children, or make art for children. Making art that wasn’t patronizing and helped them to form an idea of what an artist is. Theatre gave me the chance to work with children, but also to get feedback from them. Children are to the point, they tell you what wasn’t understandable. They know what they like, and they know why they like it. I wanted to always be doing workshops in my own practice, which I still do. I’ve always got a child critic in the back of my head. They just don’t tolerate bullshit like adults do.
This time last year you won the Sculptural Storytelling, Maker of the Month. This idea of sculptural storytelling is very fitting for your work as there is so much character and life in the things you make. They are like sculptural illustrations. Do you find yourself thinking about the narrative of piece when you’re working on it? Can you tell us about a time when finding a narrative or a way of approaching a piece was particularly challenging?
Sometimes I do think about the narrative while making, especially with commissioned pieces or work that fits into a pre-existing collection. But there is certain amount of just switching off, and allowing my hands make a thing. The narrative must be there. I’m always constructing narratives in my head, whether it’s somebody at a bus stop, or walking down the street. It’s more about subconsciously accessing that, at times, mindless reaction. I think I only find it challenging when it is forced.
I find ‘happy’ narratives, things that are intentionally ‘joyful’ really difficult. Maybe cardboard has a sombre quality to it, it feels quite jarring any other way. There is so much more depth to tiny moments of sadness, or insecurity, or something in the negative spectrum of emotion. There are so many different things to access and work with and to portray that can help to make a piece’s narrative overall more believable, understandable, relatable.
I find it challenging, in human representation, when people just want to find someone that it looks like, or is meant to be, everything is fabrications and imaginings from my head. True things that are seen, but none of them are based, visually, on someone directly. I find that hard that an audience want a point of reference based in fact, in reality.
On your website you mention the title of your business, Waste of Paint, comes from the Bright Eyes song and you quote a lyric from it. That quote has a resonance with most artists because, creating can be as much about trying to find meaning as it can be avoiding things! Can you share with us any ideologies that you have either taken on or been able to dismiss through the process of making art?
I think I decided quite early on that making art has a huge amount of responsibility involved in it.
I just want to be working towards getting the next generation of artists making. People talk about sustainable art, and I think that’s the only way to make art truly sustainable, keep interacting with people about your work and the processes you use in the hope that it encourages them to feel as though they can do the same.
On my 18th Birthday I got the lyrics ‘ideal ideology’ (misspelt) from Waste of Paint tattooed on my arm. A few years ago I had a cardboard box added next to it. It resonated with me as a teenager but I don’t think I knew why. Maybe I hoped that the future would bring clarity to it.
I think people get very lost in what they are making, and things they are creating, but ultimately, you still need to be outward looking. It is very easy to get caught up in these things, and it is important that you give it a kind of balance. You need to believe in what you’re doing and believe it has worth and importance, but at the same time, be able to keep it in perspective and be able to laugh at yourself. I know that it is a bit ridiculous that I make a living from a material people throw away.
Marcel Duchamp once said that the artist is unaware of the significance of their work and the spectator should always participate in supplementing the creation by interpreting it, which is a comment on how it’s not just making the art that’s important but also, having it seen. Which proffers the question, who do we make art for? Who do you make art for and how much do you think about your audience when you’re making a piece?
Now and again with bigger works, when I’m working for an organisation, and a brief, there is an aim for what they want the piece to do. I enjoy that working to purpose. In those situations, I think a huge amount about the audience, because it is for a group of people, and I want to do that well. Like Saltcoats library for instance.
I’ve tried thinking about audiences a great deal in my own practice and I’ve found it quite stifling. It makes me second-guess myself, and edit myself, so I try not to.
In a way, that can lead you to a vulnerable place. I’ve made a lot of stuff people don’t like, but I enjoyed the process regardless. I don’t think it’s always honest when I’m tailoring those stories to an audience in the hopes that it is more likeable, or palatable, or more accessible to the greatest amount of people. I’d rather speak quietly and truthfully to one person, than loudly and pointlessly to a crowd.
Your work is also reminiscent of Chris Gilmore, for use of cardboard and sculpture, Bill Woodrow, for the cut our aspects as well as re-purposing / recycling waste materials. There is also a similarity to the mysterious book sculptures gifted to various educational establishments in Edinburgh. Can you tell us about an artist that you find particularly inspiring, and what your 3 biggest creative influences have been up to this point?
I think all the artists I find inspiring sometimes are not ‘artists’ in the most often used sense of the word. Their work isn’t in galleries for example.
My dad, because he made things with his hands, and if he didn’t know quite how to make what he wanted to make he would learn. He made his work from what we had leftover, tin cans, bits of wood. But also he introduced me to the concept that objects have capacity to tell story. Everything can tell a story. Any object can translate a history, or a story. If they don’t, then you can make one up for them and that is just as brilliant.
A show called ‘Lilly Through the Dark’ by the River People. It was one of the first times that I saw a very dark story, being told in a beautiful way, but with a tone that was child-like. It was a show for adults, but it recognised that there is a beauty to scaling back, and to naivety. I still think about it now a huge amount. It was a show about a girl killing herself to try and find her father in the afterlife. There was a room full of people applauding a thing that was so dark and it told me it was ok to tell hard stories, or tell that side of life and represent things that are not necessarily ‘nice’ because you can still do it in a way that is beautiful.
Bread and Puppet as well. I visited their premises in northern Vermont. I’ve never seen a performance by them other than videos. It was off season, but I think that had a lovely effect on my work. I saw the theatre objects they use to tell the stories. For the first time I saw the props, and a community of artists that for years have been working to the same mission. They have the same cause and purpose; to tell difficult stories about political injustice, and the atrocities of war. Although those are not things that I want to explore, it’s amazing to see something that though the years has dedicated itself to something, from small recognition, to large recognition, but the recognition isn’t what effects it.
The biggest part of their work that really struck a chord with me though was their ‘cheap art manifesto’. They lay down these rules for themselves, where art is everything, and art is cheap. It doesn’t need to be made from something of value, or something expensive. There is art in making a loaf of bread. Art isn’t a luxury it’s nourishment. I guess that is what I see now, what you have at your disposal should never stop you. If you have something to say, you can. In workshops I kind of try not to teach practical skills, but it’s more about building belief in your imagination. Stories are from everywhere. I keep seeing gaping holes in children’s confidence today, they want to make things in a shiny packaged way and really, they can tell those stories in a much rougher way. In the same way Bread and Puppet showed that to me, I want to pass it on.
Do you have a favourite type of cardboard to work with?
It changes. It changes a lot. My first favourite cardboard to work with was the packaging for beer bottles. Co-op French beer, because it was thin 1 ply. It was good for small objects, but it creased in a way I grew tired of. Now I really love amazon packaging. It is single corrugated with a really fine fluting. But really, I like working with any material as long as I has been thrown away. New cardboard feels wrong. I’m also fascinated by the typography, and the images that are printed onto cardboard. I’m trying to collect pieces from as many countries in the world as possible. Friends bring me back samples from their travels and people have passed the word along and some strangers post me little bits of cardboard. It’s really lovely.
How would you like to develop your work, is there another material you would like to experiment with?
I’d like to make large-scale pieces more often. I’d also love to spend time developing perhaps full-scale cardboard environments. I don’t think I will feel done with cardboard until I have done that. I have kind of always had an image of an immersive installation.
With other materials it would have to be reclaimed, or re-purposed. I’d love to do woodworking. I think that’s the thing, I have to be physically making the thing. I want to be able to use my hands to make things so any change of material will have to facilitate that.
Bonus Question: If you were able to bring to life one of your creations, but it kept all of its cardboard qualities, what would it be and why?
I had tried to capture that social anxiety in pieces before and hadn’t hit it on the head quite like I did with him [Formal events... pictured above]. I’d like to bring him to life, because quite selfishly, I think I would like him in the corner with me at formal events, dry mouthed and sweaty palmed together. But also, he is mid-motion, just tweaking the bow-tie. At times, it also feels mean to have left him in this moment of static, it would be nice to free him of that.