London Art Spot: Charlene Lam

Longing. Belonging. Belongings.

These words describe the essence of Charlene Lam’s art. They stem from a multicultural background She’s a German-born Chinese-American who has grown up in NYC and San Francisco where she performed as part of a hip-hop troupe though she also has 10 years of classical ballet training. She’s lived in Germany, Sweden and now London. To top it off, her husband is an Italian-born Peruvian.

Needless to say, she loves to travel and if you read on through this week’s London Art Spot, she explains how those words above tie her wanderlust and artwork together. She also talks about her obsession with wandering the banks of the Thames to collect washed-up materials to use in her work (a sort of reinterpretation of belongings) and she shares a lovely story about a woman called Lee Chin Won Ying.

LLO: Which aspects of London life influence your creativity?
CL: I love my East London neighborhood of Shoreditch. It’s super trendy and full of drunk people on the weekends, but the feel is entirely different than that of West London. I like my cities to be a little gritty and full of surprises, and this area certainly qualifies, with its mix of old and new, high and low. Plus, the street art is excellent, and I see something new every time I go out.

LLO: On your website, you wrote: “I love exploring the potential of different materials, especially repurposed ones, and letting the materials tell me what they long to be.” What’s the most unusal material you’ve worked with and what did it turn out to be?
CL: I’ve been obsessed with the clay tobacco pipes that wash up on the banks of the Thames, particularly the fragments of pipe stems that date from the late 16th to the early 20th centuries. If I’m by the Thames and it’s low-tide, I’m down on the banks collecting bits of clay — no matter how impractical my footwear.

I’m still playing with the possibilities of the pipe stems, bundling them together with thread, combining them with different materials. I’d love to make them into jewellery. I read a report that suggested pipe stem fragments were reused as wig-curlers, and I’m curious if I can use them that way in my curl-resistant Asian hair.

I find it amusing that I’m playing with a previous era’s rubbish. Why am I so enamoured by a bouquet of discarded pipe stems when a cluster of cigarette butts would only disgust me? I’m aware that I’m romanticising a past that I don’t understand, but I’m endlessly fascinated: some of this city’s garbage is older than my country!

LLO: Is there a certain material or object you’ve got your eyes on that you’d love to work with but haven’t tried yet?
CL: So many materials! I’m coveting all kinds of offcuts from various businesses, because I love the challenge of making something out of nothing and hate seeing things go to waste. But to name a certain technique, I would love to work with clear resin. The ability to physically capture an object — and perhaps a moment — so that it’s at once preserved and yet untouchable is very appealing to me.

LLO: Why should we immediately pop over to visit your blog, “Someday London” and where did the title come from?
CL: “Someday London” is London through the eyes of a creative expat: my triumphs and humiliations, my likes and dislikes, the extraordinary and the everyday.

There’s so much to see and explore in London, and I love sharing my finds with other people. For instance, I’ve started highlighting the work of the amazing craftspeople and designers I come across, because the quality and breadth is stunning.

The blog is called Someday London because big cities are full of longing: “Someday … I’ll afford a place of my own.” “Someday … I’ll get out of here.” One of mine was “Someday … I’ll live in another country” and now I’m doing it!

LLO: In what ways does your NYC background still influence your work in London?
CL: New York City will always have my heart. I’m very inspired by the potential of materials and people, and there’s no place that pulses with possibility the way that NYC does.

I’ve been in London for a bit over a year, and I’m very much aware of not quite belonging. I’m too chatty and overenthusiastic by British standards; I don’t drink much so pub culture eludes me; I still get confused sometimes crossing the street.

My work is often influenced by my personal struggles with identity and finding a place to belong. I’m in London for now, but I’m not from here. I don’t think I belong here, but I’m happy to be here all the same.  I don’t know if I belong anywhere, but so far New York City is the closest thing to home.

LLO: Where are your favourite places in London to pick up found objects to use in your artwork?
CL: The more neglected and overlooked, the better! Hardware stores. The banks of the Thames. Charity shops. Pound stores. Skips. Buildings sites. My eyes are always scanning the streets for possibilities.

LLO: Tell us about Lee Chin Won Ying and the project her story has inspired.
CL: Lee Chin Won Ying was my great aunt, or “yee pau”. She emigrated from China to Hong Kong and then to New York City, where she worked as a seamstress. After she died, I found amongst her papers her study sheet for the U.S. citizenship test. In typewritten English and handwritten Chinese, it dryly tells the story of her hard life.

Women of my generation struggle with having too many choices; she had very few. She worked as a seamstress because she had to, while I can make things for the joy of it. Even after she started living in relative comfort, she hoarded things like plastic bags, food, and scraps of fabric — not uncommon for Chinese immigrants of her generation who lived through periods of real poverty. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with our “more is less” culture, where we buy, own and throw away so much, yet live in a similar state of insecurity.

I am recreating phrases from that study guide — like “I am a sewing worker” — in embroidery. I didn’t speak her dialect of Chinese, so we had trouble communicating when she was alive. Retelling her story through stitch is my way of honouring her life and, in a way, of having a conversation with her.

LLO: Which project are you most proud of so far and why?
CL: I’m particularly proud of “Petals (Longing for Light)”. We were living in northern Sweden. I was struggling with the lack of light and the scarcity of affordable art materials. It was made in response to a call for submissions, but I remember not thinking about it too much, just working with the basic materials I had, and channeling my angst into these beautiful forms. I learned a lesson that I return to time and time again: My best work comes from Love and Longing.

LLO: Favourite London-based artists?
CL: Currently: Rob Ryan, the folks from Print Club London, the illustrators of Peepshow collective, the designers of Farm collective, Evelin Kasikov and her CMYK cross-stitch.

LLO: What are you working on now?
CL: I’ve been playing around with alternatives to purchased gift wrap, using rescued and repurposed materials. I’ve always loved the glamour and fun of gift wrapping, but hated the waste.

I’ve also just curated a selection of work from seven designer-makers for the Craft Central Micro Boutique at Vitra’s Christmas Gift Market. The market was in their gorgeous showroom in Clerkenwell, and I wanted to showcase these products designed and made in studios around London alongside the designs of masters like George Nelson.  10% of sales went to benefit the housing and homeless charity Shelter.

Thanks Charlene!

Check out more of Charlene’s work here:

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

One comment on “London Art Spot: Charlene Lam

  1. This was so inspirational -thank you for introducing me to Charlene’s story and her work, which is so varied and intriguing – I am going to be noticing discarded objects and remnants more as I walk the streets of my own city.

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