London Art Spot: Sophia Fox

Welcome to the magical world of Sophia Fox where happiness comes at the flick of a switch and the turning on and off of seasons may not be far behind. Sophia’s the artist who created the happiness switch that you loved in this entry and a whole series of others like it for her happiness project. She is also an illustrator which you can see from her website, but I decided to focus on the happiness project with her for this interview. If you wander around Holborn, Bethnal Green, Hackney or Aldgate East, you may just stumble upon a magical happiness switch to brighten your mood.

Sophia talks to us about what she thinks is the equivalent of magic in everyday life, tells us about the time she was stopped by police when putting up a happiness switch and her ideas on how to Londoners can make this a happier place to live.

LLO: Where are you from originally, how long have you been in London and what brought you here?
SF: Originally I’m from Eastern Europe. I lived in Ukraine for little bit, Poland and Czech Republic. I feel each of these places created an important chapter in my life. This is my second year in this magical city. I can’t stop being amazed; every day I learn something new and meet more people with inspiring stories. I came here on my way to Barcelona searching for an exciting life-changing experience and I’ve fallen in love with the spirit of this big anthropologic city.

LLO: Tell us a little bit about your creative background.
SF: I graduated from fashion design, but with time found it limiting and moved on to graphic design. Currently I’m deeply in love with digital art and programming. Interactive art has a special place in my heart, and living in the city with so many opportunities to explore the that topic makes me feel very fortunate.

LLO: How and when did you decide to start your happiness project in London? Tell us a bit about it.
SF: The idea of the happiness switch comes from my love for wizards and fantasy lands. I like to think that stories of kindness are the equivalent of magic in everyday life. My project started last spring. I felt that everyone was exhausted after the heavy winter and needed an energy kick for good beginning of the spring. The switch is turning on the magic in your head which starts the chain of positive thinking.

LLO: How many happiness switches are currently up around the city and where can we find them?
SF: I installed around 40 switches so far, however most of them got adopted. I hope they are comfortable in their new homes. Seventeen of them are still out there working hard every day to make this city a “warmer” place. Most of them are based in east London, however I decided not to reveal the locations as they seem to disappear more often these days…

LLO: The street art aspect of this project is obviously very important. Have you ever been caught putting up a happiness switch?
SF: I meet many people while installing my switches; you would be surprised how many people are on the street at 2 am. This city never sleeps. Once I met a men walking three dogs of the same breed. He was very supportive of my idea and offered a personal guidance of his dogs for the evening. I was caught by police once and they questioned my actions. However I think the switch got out their good side because they started to laugh once they understood what was I doing and let me go.

LLO: What about London makes you happy?
SF: I love the swimming pool in Tottenham Court Road and the under-bridge cafe in Shoreditch. I think that I might be addicted to swimming. I think if it were possible to learn how to fly the training session would take place in water.

LLO: Is there anything about London that makes you sad or angry, something that would make a real happiness switch useful for you?
SF: Don’t like CCTV and the weather. I’m currently working on the switch which would turn off the winter.

LLO: What do you think Londoners could do to make it a happier place?
SF: I feel Londoners are a bit too busy to stop and admire little things. It seems sometimes that many people pursue careers which are considered good in the eyes of society but never look into themselves and ask what they really want to do.

LLO: Other London-based artists you admire?
SF: I love Christiaan Nagel’s mushrooms; always wished for the bus stops to be situated under big umbrella-like mushrooms. They could change within the area so you could distinguish from borough to borough based on the kinds of “mushroom” bus stops.

LLO: Where does your artistic focus lie for 2012?
SF: I want to take the switch to the next level. I’m working on an art installation which would let the spectator take control over the events in the video using one of the switches.

Thanks Sophia!

See more of Sophia’s work on her website (or the other one!).

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

London Art Spot: John Kortland

John Kortland waits patiently in Trafalgar Square, amid tourists and pigeons and Londoners with a trained eye on life unfolding around him. Timing is everything. There’s a moment when a street photograph comes together perfectly. And suddenly, with a blink of a shutter, that moment is captured. And many of these moments come together and begin to unfold a story of millions of Londoners living the high life, scraping by or wandering through. John’s collection is a small glance at Londoners on pause, but there are a million stories buried in these images.   

John has taken some time away from his camera to have a chat with us about his regular photography “hunting grounds” around London and the biggest challenges he faces when trying to capture that perfect moment on camera. He’s shared some fantastic shots throughout the interview. Enjoy!

Another Side of London

LLO: You’re now retired and photography is a major focus for you in your spare time. Give us a bit of background on your life before retirement and how that led you to enjoy photography today.
JK: I worked for Ford Motor Company for 37 years, starting as an apprentice, then an engineer, and spending the last 13 years in IT. When I was still an apprentice, a guy I worked with belonged to a Photographic Society. I went along one evening, got the shutter bug and was addicted.

I used to shoot black and white images, street photography mostly. I used to love Speaker’s Corner on a Sunday. I developed and printed the results in my loft darkroom which was like a furnace in the summer and an icebox in the winter. I entered and won a few competitions. Eventually work took me away from home so photography took a back seat until I retired. I then took the plunge into the digital age, and I am enjoying every moment of it.

Gentleman Tea Dancer

LLO: In which ways does London influence your creativity and how?
JK: London is so influential. I love it because anyone can walk down the street dressed in the most eccentric manner, or in nothing, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice; there are so many great characters, and wonderful locations, the narrow cobbled streets in the City of London, the public squares, and the great street markets. You can’t fail to be influenced by such a diverse range of subjects.

Sinister Magician

LLO: Which area of London is your favourite to take your camera and why?
JK: I have a few regular “hunting grounds” – normally Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, Somerset House and in and around the City of London, especially around the Bank of England. Trafalgar Square is my favourite.I like the Square as you never know what is going to happen next or who is going to stroll through, anyone from Grayson Perry dressed as his alter-ego Clare to desperate people whose life is lived on the street; to me it’s London in a nutshell.

Good Hair Day

LLO: Have you ever had an adverse reaction from someone you’ve photographed in the streets? 
JK: I can honestly say I’ve never had a really adverse reaction from any of my subjects. Some of them turn away or walk away, but if that happens I just move on. All my photographs are shot in public places, on the street, so as far as I’m concerned anybody is fair game. My view is if someone wants to dress flamboyantly or act in a eccentric manner in public then they are saying “look at me”, so I do, and take their picture.

Buffalo Soldier

LLO: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome as a street photographer and specifically to get a great shot that you really wanted?
JK: The biggest challenge I have is being patient. The most frustrating thing in London are tourists and sightseers who inadvertently stand right in my line of view or walk between me and the subject just as I fire the shutter. Thanks to the wonders of digital cameras you can normally take several more, but I have missed numerous good shots this way. I do ask people to move sometimes, and I have found that the scariest looking people are often the most cooperative, loving the attention I give them.

All that Glitters........

LLO: Tell us about your camera equipment.
JK: My equipment consists of a Nikon D90 camera and a Nikon 55 -200 zoom. I used to use fixed focal length lenses in my film days, as zoom optics were not as good, but these days I can’t fault the image quality and the range of the 55 – 200 covers all I need for street work. The purist street photographers shudder at this, as they all sing the praises of prime lenses but honestly, I don’t care. It works for me.

Busking In The Shadows

LLO: What are the most important elements of an image for you when composing a shot?
JK: Subject matter is the number one element for me, closely followed by composition and lighting, also backgrounds. I try to get as clean a background as possible although it’s not always possible with street “grab” shots. I do love using backlighting, especially for black and whites this time of year, when the sun is low in the sky, I am always aware of the strong shadows the bright winter sun casts – something to watch for if shooting a portrait.

Keep Walking Norman

LLO: Share your favourite London photograph from 2011, tell us the story behind it and what it means to you. (photo below)
JK: This is my favourite photograph of all my London pictures. It reminded me of the film Brief Encounter, with the two strangers briefly passing at St Pancras Station. I love the row of old lanterns and Victorian brickwork. it all worked for me. It was pure luck I shot it, I only went to the station to avoid the rain as it was one of those days I was gullible enough to believe the weather forecast. Sitting waiting for the rain to stop, I took three shots. This was the best of them. Also, it was the start of getting back into taking more black and white images.

Passing Strangers
LLO: What do you hope to communicate through your photography? Do you feel you have accomplished this to date?
JK: I hope to convey the vibrancy and eclectic nature of the people whom I meet on the streets of London, the fascinating characters, the eccentrics, the street performers, and all the people that make up the buzz of London. I also want to show its darker side, the lost and homeless, the sheer contrast between the haves and have-nots, trying not to exploit them but illustrate their plight. I don’t know if I’ve achieved that; the viewers of my photographs will decide.

American Tourist

LLO: Which London-based artist do you most admire at the moment and why?
JK: I love the work of Stephen Wiltshire, the autistic artist who does fantastic cityscapes, all from memory in the most infinite detail; I find them truly awe-inspiring. His observational skills are phenomenal, a true genius. I do like the work of Edward Hopper, not London-based, I know, but great pictures. I particularly like The Nighthawks, the sort of picture I would love to take.

Hats Off

Thanks John!

Keep up with John’s photographic adventures around London on his Flickr page.

John is a regular contributor to the LLO Flickr pool, so stay tuned for more of his work on the blog.

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

If you want to recommend someone for a London Art Spot interview, leave a comment or email me: stephanie.sadler@hotmail.co.uk!

London Art Spot: Cosmo Sarson

When I first checked out London painter Cosmo Sarson’s website, his About section simply said “I’m up and out of bed, what more do you want?” In fact, it may still say that. But clearly Cosmo is a man with a lot to talk about when it comes to about his life and work, because he’s spilled the story for us hereAnd if you like what you read, be sure to stop by the Hospital Club in Covent Garden where his work is on display until December 2011.

Read on to hear about how this born and bred Londoner’s artistic life has unfolded, the story behind his recent street art piece on Hanbury Street near Brick Lane which has gotten so much attention, and his passion for breakdancing.

LLO: Which aspects of London life most influence your creativity and in what ways?
CS: I was born and bred in London, so I am a product of the old town.

If you’ve grown up here you’re just wizend, not jaded, just experienced. You’re not from the provinces trying to tap into it, you’ve got it already. You’ve already been to the best clubs. You were there when it happened, heard the latest tune, seen the latest show, met the latest ‘Jonny Big Bollocks’, bought the latest trainers, tried the latest drug. You did it when you were 13. You’ve been ripped off a million times, maybe tried to rip some one else off, pulled a few yourself on the way, you’re just a product of an urban environment. It’s a big city, full of nutters, there’s good and bad, racist homophobic fucks and beautiful enlightened beings, people who have got it and those that don’t, a city of light and shade. How does that affect your creativity? I don’t know.

The fact that London has some of the finest theatres, operas, museums, galleries and fancy restaurants in Christendom is, of course, a bonus.

LLO: You have three different sections on your website: “New Work” “Old Work” and simply “Work”. Do these sections represent different chapters of your career, places where your style has changed?
CS: I stopped painting and hung up my brushes in ’97 after my solo show on Regent Street. This is Old Work.

I blew the dust off them again in 2009. This is New work.

“Work” is how I make money.

Being an artist isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle, and it only pays for the lucky few, so you’ve got to work out how to survive and paint at the same time.

In the long gap between ’97 to ’09 I set out to find a career that fulfilled me creatively as well as paid well. It wasn’t easy to work 9-5 and keep the studio going. I found work as an art director in advertising for a while, before finding my way into the film industry as a scenic artist. I paint everything from the large scenic backings that surround a set, to old master paintings that are hung as props, from frescoes to graffiti, from medieval to modern. I can make my art again because I’ve got a job that is sufficiently intermittent but pays enough to allow me to get in the studio when I’m in between films.

I’ve got the balance right now, I’m painting when I’m working, and painting when I’m not.

LLO: In your “Old Work” section, you explore the crazy world of advertising campaigns, and parody them in your own work. Tell us a bit about your interest in advertising.
CS: Yeah, at the time – around ’95-’97 – street/extreme sports was a big thing in the media. It had always been there, but as an underground thing. Suddenly there were loads of programmes about it on TV, it was featured in fashion magazines, music videos, new specialist magazines were coming out, ad campaigns and so on. It was the flavour of the da. It became a cash cow and hit the mainstream. Kind of like street art is now, everyone wanted a piece of it.

When Pepsi started trying to connect with the my generation by doing loads of snowboarding/skateboarding ads, it was the last straw. I tried to hold it up to the light and draw attention to it by repeating the trick, painting what were essentially ads with street sports as the subject matter and my name as a logo. I look back at that work now and I’m not sure if I really pulled it off. The paintings look more like self promotion (which was kind of the point), but I was trying to say something deeper, more cynical than that. I was trying to be ironic. I should have pushed that work further.

LLO: Your piece “Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey” is painted on to the same material that US Army uniforms are made from. What other interesting materials have you painted on? Do you have a favourite?
CS: I’ve just done a series of riot cops onto hi-viz reflective material, the same stuff they have on police uniforms. In the same way the army camo related to the GI’s I was painting, the hi-viz refers back to the subject matter. I’m planning to rummage through some charity shops and stitch together a bunch of clothing – tracksuit tops, hoodies, denim etc. and paint loads of looters from the riots. It just provides an extra layer of reference to the work.

Actually, I might do some shop lifting instead. “Portrait of a Looter” – Oil on Adidas Jacket, stolen on Tottenham High Street, 2011.

LLO: When you’re not painting, you’re into break-dancing, right? How long have you been dancing? What’s your best move?
CS: I love it, but I’m crap. I started in ’83. We used to turn up early to school so we could practice on the lino floors of the rooms before class.

I’m famous for pulling off a 3/4 windmill on my face when I’m pissed. I still bear the scars, but every wedding reception I go to, I keep making the same mistake.

LLO: You’ve done quite a bit of work on film sets – Into the Hoods, Harry Brown, Children of Men. Which film set of the past would you love to have helped design?
CS: I’m lucky enough to have worked with some of the best production designers around – John Beard who designed ‘Brazil’, Dante Ferretti who designed ‘Baron Munchausen’ – but one guy I never met was Ken Adam who did all the early Bond films, Dr Strangelove, Goldfinger, Dr. No etc. That would have been cool.

LLO: Much of your work is based on photographs. Which London-based photographers do you most admire and why?
CS: Right now, it’s my man David Hoffman. He’s a front line photo journalist who’s had his teeth knocked out by riot police getting ‘that’ picture. He’s been kind enough to allow me to work from his shots of the Student Riots.

You should check out some of his early stuff too – Brick lane in the ‘80’s, Broadwater farm and the Poll Tax riots.

LLO: You were recently featured in the Scrawl Collective’s book with your piece “Breakdancing Jesus”. Tell us a bit about how this piece came about.
CS: The Breakdancing Jesus painting was one of the ideas I had and held onto during the dark 12 years I didn’t have a studio. I promised myself that it would be one of the first paintings I would make upon my eventual return. (I was also sitting on the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey idea through that time too).

My last paintings of ’97 were self portraits of me breakdancing, so like Jesus coming out of the cave, it was kind of apocryphal that I should return from the dead also, and to the same subject matter, but with Christ risen in my place.

But really, it was just one of those random ideas.

LLO: Your career actually started as a street artist, didn’t it? Tell us about the piece you put up on Hanbury Street near Brick Lane this summer. Can we expect more street art from you in the coming months?
CS: No, I’m not really a street artist. I’m just a painter who occasions upon a wall. I went to art school, studied the old masters and trained in the ancient art of oil painting.

There’s a strange dichotomy down brick lane, where the art is like some kind of white middle class cultural invasion pushing itself on to what is obviously a tight knit Bangladeshi community and I felt that needed redressing somehow. It’s a portrait of a Bangladeshi girl in front of broken glass and layered graff marks. She represents the local Bangladeshi community, the broken glass and mark making are symbolic of urban decay. Bear in mind I was painting it as the riots were kicking off.

They’ll be more walls to come, for sure, when and wherever I find the opportunity.

LLO: What are you working on now? Any exhibition plans lined up for the near future?
CS: I’ve just spent the last few months on a film that has thankfully come to an end and allows me to disappear into the studio now and come up with a new body of work. I’ve currently got a rack of paintings on show in the Hospital Club, Endell Street, Covent Garden, alongside the likes of Inkie, Ben Slow, George Morton Clark, Finn Dac, Max Weidemann and Carne Griffiths.

The ultimate aim is a solo.

Thanks Cosmo!

You can also find Cosmo here: http://www.cosmosarson.com/

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

If you want to recommend someone for a London Art Spot interview, get in touch!

London Art Spot: Christina Workman

You can spot a Christina Ruth bra by its fabulous signature bow. They’re made from satin and silk, printed and sewn by hand in her London studio, with matching knickers, by business owner and lingerie designer Christina Workman. Taking some inspiration from London’s beautiful gardens, her latest line is a floral collection called Wall-flowers. She also adores polka-dots. You can find her work in Kingley Court’s Sugarlesque, second floor. Just don’t mention the word “undies”.

For this week’s London Art Spot – the first since January – Christina talks to us about her life-long obsession with lingerie, what her university studies taught her that helped her start her own business and what she says to curious little children who want to play with the nipple tassels.

LLO: Which aspects of London life inspire your designs and creativity and which other London-based designers do you admire? 
CW: I always take photos in the Regents Park rose garden when starting a print; the colours are always so beautiful. There are so many amazing art galleries and museums in London that I get inspiration from, but the Serpentine gallery and the V&A are particularly great and never disappoint.

LLO: Give us a quick introduction/overview of your company, Christina Ruth
CW: Christina Ruth is a luxury lingerie label, selling unique hand printed and handmade designs.

Mid-print.

LLO: Educate us. What is the step-by-step process of how a Christina Ruth bra becomes a Christina Ruth bra?
CW: Firstly I design the print to put on the fabric, which normally consists of a research phase followed by lots of drawing and finally lots of hair pulling as I try to make it a repeatable image. I then have to separate the drawing into layers based on how many colours I want the finished print to have. At this stage I go to my print studio (London Screen Service in Bermondsey) and put each layer on a different screen. I’m then ready to start printing the fabric – a full colour print works best on silk. After printing all the layers I then steam the fabric to fix the dye, then wash and dry. Next, I need to design the pattern of the actual bra – let’s just say this is tricky! Not only does it have to look nice but the sizing needs to be spot on.  Finally I cut my fabric and hand sew the bra, in my home studio.

Finished print.

LLO: Self-taught or formally-trained? Tell us more.
CW: I studied Textiles at Goldsmiths where I fell in love with printing. This was a Fine Art based course so we were not taught fashion design; that part of my work is completely self taught and comes from a lifelong obsession with lingerie. Goldsmiths is also where I learned to work from a self motivated brief (we were never ‘set’ work) which is important when launching your own label.

LLO: What makes Christina Ruth lingerie special? Do you have a trademark?
CW: Creating colourful printed lingerie on fine delicate fabrics really makes Christina Ruth special. Every piece is made by hand and therefore unique; this is not something you can get on the high street. At the same time I want people to be able to afford my lingerie, so try to give a reasonable price range for the amount of time/work that goes into the making. Every piece is finished with my signature big bow.

LLO: Please help me solve an on-going debate… what are your thoughts on the following terms and which do you prefer?
CW: Lingerie, knickers, pants…in that order!!
Underwear: Practical, unisex.
Knickers: Fun, normally of the un-skimpy variety, my favorite.
Undies: No comment!
Unders: I haven’t heard this word used before.
Panties: American – has to be used if you want to expand outside of the UK.

LLO:  Are you willing to do custom orders (ie – sizes or prints or colours, etc)?
CW: Yes I’m more than happy to do custom sizes; that’s one of the benefits of hand making everything. However, prints and colours have to come from me, I need to feel passionate about what I’m making and I can’t do that using someone else’s ideas.

LLO: What are your size ranges?
CW: Knickers: XS – XL, Bras: S – M (this will be expanding soon).

LLO: Back in October, you tweeted about a 70+ year old man who asked about crotch-less designs for his wife. Good for them. Any other amusing stories to share?
CW: No! Except for the multitude of little children who pick up the nipple tassels and ask their parents what there for – cue lots of embarrassed faces. Telling them they’re ‘a pretty brooch for adults’ seems to do the trick!

LLO: What are you working on now?
CW: I’m right in the middle of developing some pretty lace camisoles to go in my Wall-flower collection as well expanding my bra size range. I’m also in the drawing stages of a new print.

LLO: Where can we find your lingerie?
CW: You can buy online at www.christinaruth.com which links to my Etsy shop. I also sell on www.estylingerie.com and ASOS marketplace. If you want to see the real thing, you can find Christina Ruth in Sugarlesque lingerie boutique: 2nd floor Kingley Court, Carnaby Street. Or come and find me every Sunday until Christmas at Greenwich Market.

Thanks Christina!

You can also find Christina on Facebook

For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.

If you want to recommend someone for a London Art Spot interview, get in touch!

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: www.charlenelam.com

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