Charlotte Mei Talks Inspiration and Surviving Freelance

Words: Alex Powis
Photography: Katie Silvester

There’s a constant element of play and serene beauty in all of Charlotte Mei’s work, from her ceramics to her illustrations and even her choice of colours. It’s a language whose roots become instantly clear when you meet their creator – a warm, humble, calm presence that evokes a desire for a cup of tea and a long chat. Sat in her South London shared studio, surrounded by paintings, ceramic characters, tidbits and her dog, Monkey, we settled in for a relaxed conversation about her work and her personal history, before heading out to the nearest park to let Monkey off her leash.

Charlotte Mei, by Katie Silvester.

— Charlotte Mei, by Katie Silvester.

Tell us about your background and what you do.

I am an artist and illustrator. I studied illustration at Camberwell and I graduated there in 2012 with the guys from the studio – we all graduated together…

…and stayed together forever.

Yeah! Well, we got a studio straight out of uni because we wanted to make sure we would keep on making work, and we wanted to have each other’s support and people to bounce ideas off. So yeah, we’ve mostly stayed together and we’re working on shows, publications and other stuff together. We’ve actually got a show coming up in Hong Kong for Chinese New Year – which is year of the dog – it’s called Dog Show and it’s about dog shows! So that’s really exciting. I’m making some ceramics and bits of merch and tat for that [laughs].

You seem to have done really well from your ceramic work.. When did you start working with that medium?

Thank you. I started making ceramics while I was at uni in second or third year, I was just having a little play around at college and then I took an evening class in Peckham because I decided that I wanted to dedicate a bit more time to exploring that. I just got really really into it and ended up making a set of ceramics as my piece for my final show at uni I just really enjoyed it. A few of those things kind of took off and then I ended up making lots more in the years to come. So yeah, I still have a ceramic practice which goes alongside my illustration, art work and painting. It’s really nice to have both strands of 3D and 2D.

— Painting, by Charlotte Mei.

Do you find that each medium can be a break from the other?

Yeah, in terms of process, it’s nice to be able to switch things up. I approach them conceptually in quite a similar way, so the idea will come first and then I’ll think about how I can channel that idea through either medium. But yeah, I guess the approach to both is quite similar. It’s about playfulness, gestural texture and all those sorts of things.

Have you always have an interest in ceramic objects?

I wouldn’t have said I always had a specific interest in ceramics, but I’ve always been interested in objects and trinkets. I used to collect little toys from vending machines and other little things just to have as keepsakes. I always think of this Jigglypuff keyring that I got at Toys R Us when I was younger, it’s really heavy and lights up – I actually don’t know where it is anymore – but just the feel of it was so satisfying and thinking of it makes me feel nostalgic. I’ve always liked having little bits of tat [laughs].

It’s interesting that the first thing you remember about it is its weight.

Yeah! The kind of feel and ‘thingness’ of it.

— Charlotte’s studio, by Katie Silvester.

In general, where do you seek inspiration from?

Lots of things, I suppose. I really like travelling and get lots of inspiration from seeing new places. I do a lot of landscape painting and also, recently, a bit more still life and things like that – just looking at the objects I have around me and finding the beauty in them. So yeah, I find inspiration in a bunch of different places.

Do you ever hit creative blocks? How do you dig your way out of those?

Yeah, especially during times where I’m doing a lot of commercial work, which does happen occasionally, and you get into a real mode of working which is methodical and not impulsive. It can be tough to break out of that rut after following a more rigid way of working, but then it’s also rewarding to force yourself to do it.

Do you find you actively have to counter commercial work with non-commercial work?

I personally do because I feel like my practice is enriched by my own personal exploration of the things that I’m interested in, and those things feed back into the commercial work in a really positive way. So rather than it being one verses the other, they actually do feed into each other – it’s important for me to have a bit of both for my practice as a whole.

— Ceramic toast plate, by Charlotte Mei.

How important is it for you to work in a shared space environment like this studio, with other creatives around you?

For me, it’s super important. I actually had a brief stint in a studio on my own for a year, just off East Street in the Aylesbury Estate, near Elephant and Castle. I had a really cool space, it was quite big with a lot of room to do stuff, but I was on my own seven days a week and I felt like I needed to be able to talk to people and work around them.. I thrive off that, as well as the support of other people. When a space came up here, I jumped at the chance to move back into a shared space with my friends from uni, and I’m really happy being around them, being able to make work with them and ask their opinions.

It can drive you a bit mad being on your own sometimes.

Yeah, it totally did. Every day, my highlight was going to get chips from Morley’s on my own and then coming back and eating them on my own [laughs].

Talking of your close network of artists, which artists do you think will be ones to watch this year?

I have to say Grace Helmer [laughs]. Obviously my closest friends and people I work with inspire me the most because we’re always bouncing ideas off each other and stuff.I share this space with Grace, who is sitting next to me, Ella Mclean, who is an amazing illustrator and printmaker, Josh Checkley, Pete Sharp and lots more talented artists who inspire me constantly.

— Charlotte in her studio, by Katie Silvester.

You mentioned earlier that you all went to art school together, and now you share a studio space and help each other out. How do you guys help each other with work and the more commercial side of it? Do you think that sort of physical network is important today for young creatives?

Yeah, yeah. In terms of the practicalities of being freelance, there’s definitely a massive advantage to being around people who are in the same boat. You can share experiences and help each other figure out how to deal with big clients and things that are a bit scary when you’re on your own and not working with a big agency – so that’s a really good thing. And then just being able to say, ‘Hey, what do you think is the best layout? What image do you think best represents this?’. You can ask each other stuff like that – the practical stuff. It’s a whole bunch of things that make working together so much more rewarding.

On this topic, what advice would you give to someone coming out of art school today?

You come from having regular briefs and people critiquing you and encouraging you to keep making, to no-one telling you to do anything. I certainly had to make an effort to make sure I was always making, and I think that helped me to eventually do what I love for a living. So I just never stopped that kind of discipline, continually making and thinking of new ideas and new ways to make things.

— Painting, by Charlotte Mei.

Which one of your projects to-date has been your favourite to work on?

There’s been a few recent ones that have been really fun to work on. I just finished doing an animation for Hermès and that was really fun because it’s the first time I’ve done… well, apart from tiny little bits of animation… a full campaign. It was a really good learning experience; super challenging, but I’m really proud when I look at the results.
Last year, me and Grace went around Japan drawing and painting landscapes and stuff there, as a personal project. Obviously that was amazing and so inspiring, it was really good to break out of routine and practice painting and drawing… and work on my technique [laughs].

Lastly, what can we expect to see from you throughout the year?

There’s a bunch of things! So we’ve got the Chinese New Year show in a month’s time in Hong Kong, and we’re hoping to bring that to London afterwards too. Me and Grace and another artist, Charlene Man, are also working on some other projects that we’re going to show in a gallery in Tokyo.. It’s about communication,miscommunication,messages gone wrong over a long distance,autocorrect and all of those kinds of things. So that’s mostly what I’m thinking about right now. I’m talking at Pictoplasma in Berlin in May as well, so that will be fun.

You say you’re talking?

Yeah, I’m doing… I guess a lecture or a talk? I’m pretty scared actually [laughs]. I’ve talked to students at universities a bunch of times, just about the experience of graduating and going into freelance work – that’s always really fun. But I’ve never done something like this. It’s going to be real adults there [laughs].

— Charlotte and her dog, Monkey, by Katie Silvester.

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