Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Interview Series #12: Charlotte Gudmundsson

Charlotte Gudmundsson is as unique as they come...even though she's an identical twin! Half Icelandic and half Swedish, Charlotte and her family have lived all over the world, settling in places as far flung as Thailand, South Korea, Syria, and Sri Lanka. With such an unconventional upbringing, it's no wonder Charlotte has taken the path less traveled in her adult years. On her own, she chose to study art at Parsons in Paris, which landed her, two years later, at Parsons in New York City.

Charlotte pursued a degree in illustration because, as she says, it tells a story in a visual way. Her art has been shown in various galleries, including Greenpoint Gallery in Brooklyn and The Bottle Shop in Paris. Currently, her work is available for purchase on Le Baz'art, a site that connects emerging artists with art-lovers, and acts as a place where "novice and seasoned collectors alike [can] purchase quality, progressive young, talented artists." She was also interviewed (yes, they beat me!) on the great pumpkin by way of collaborating with the vegetarian supper club, Brooklyn Fork and Spoon. And though she's only twenty-five, Charlotte has already embarked on an artistic career as a designer for Astor Wines & Spirits in downtown Manhattan. An all around delightful person with a passion for food, wine, travel, and fantasy, I was truly excited to uncover all that contributes to Charlotte's creative --- and contagious --- energy.
Quick Look
Birthday: March 1, 1987
Living in: Brooklyn, New York
Born in: Mountainview,  California

No-Alternative: Growing up, you lived in nine different countries on three continents. How has this upbringing affected your personal relationship with art, and how has it inspired you? Do you have a favorite place, city, or country in terms of artistic inspiration?

Charlotte Gudmundsson: Growing up in nine different countries has definitely shaped my relationship with art. As I moved around so much, it was difficult at times to adjust to a new school, new groups of friends, and a new city. I always had a crazy imagination when I was little, and it would provide a hiding place, a source of comfort that I could enter and feel familiar. I would create whole stories and characters and make them real by putting them on paper. What I do now is pretty much the same thing: making tangible fantastical ideas, so that others can be a part of them as well. 

As for a favorite place, I would probably say the spooky pine forests around my family's house in Småland, southern Sweden. There's just something very, very old about them, where many things have happened unnoticed, and where living things are hidden by the shadows of the pine trees and layers of moss and lichen. It makes me curious and makes me want to explore. 

There's something childlike and sometimes darkly sweet about your illustrations, but then there's the Explosions series, which is far more sexual. How would you describe your general aesthetic and your biggest influences? And is there one particular drawing or set that you feel encapsulates you as a person/artist?

There are two things that have greatly inspired me and my work. One is the art that came out of Germany and Austria at the turn of the century, from around 1900-1930. The other is nature and all the bizarre animals that populate it. 

Die Brücke and the Wiener Werkstätte, two very disparate groups that formed in Berlin and Vienna respectively, both shared similar views that I find incredibly interesting. Die Brücke, which was founded by the expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and his friends in Dresden in 1905, believed that through the revival of old, traditional media such as woodcuts, combined with a rejection of academically approved subjects, they could create a 'bridge' between the past and the future. The Wiener Werkstätte, a production company of visual artists in Vienna founded in 1903, didn't form as casually, but they had the same anti-establishment sentiments when they formed. Their mission was to design art that was accessible to everyone, using traditional media and paying close attention to craftsmanship. I especially love how the artists of the Wiener Werkstätte didn't limit themselves to one field; Koloman Moser, who was an incredible painter and illustrator, also worked in glass, woodworking and furniture design. Their approach that art should be useful and enjoyed by everyone is something I really take to heart. 

The natural world, on the other hand, is where I find the most fascinating forms and characters. Some of the bizarre creatures that exist are just so fascinating to me because they are so alien --- like the 5-foot long Giant Salamander of China, the largest amphibian in the world. What a monster! It doesn't take much more than thinking about such a strange thing for me to get ideas about stories and characters --- I imagine this is how fairy tales and legends start. 

Concerning my 'Explosive' series, it was a bit outside of my usual style of drawing. I was given an assignment in a class to explore the theme 'sexuality'. At the time I was playing around with different watercolor and india ink techniques. The idea I had, that sexuality, if contained or repressed, will still manifest itself, but then in more violent, uncontrolled means. It's best if you embrace it and have fun with it. I thought it would work out very well with the splashy watercolor effects I was playing around with at the time, and I think it came together really well. Even though it does look different from my other work, I think I was enjoying the technicalities of painting just as much as I would creating a screen print.

If I was to choose one drawing that would define my work, I think it would have to be the little 'dreaming' hair monster. He's turning his dreams into a beautiful, valuable and tangible object, with a bit of cranking.

What's your ideal drawing environment in terms of light, sound, vibe, locale, etc?

I am not too particular about my setting when I work. Ideally, it should be fairly distraction-free, but I don't worry too much about a specific light/time of day or something like that. I do love blasting the Knife or Fever Ray when I'm working --- Karin and Olof Dreijer are my absolute favorite musicians in the world. Their music provides the perfect mix of energy, kookiness and creepy humor which I hope to imbue my work with.

You've painted two murals in Brooklyn --- how do you decide what to paint when the canvas is so public and highly viewed? And is there a certain way you go about brainstorming for a mural and then putting it all together? 

When deciding on what to paint for the two (fairly) recent murals I did, I definitely took into account WHO I was painting it for. The first one, which was completely public, was for Jane's Closet, a clothing store  on Grand Street by Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. The owners of Jane's Closet are inviting artists to paint a mural on the wall adjacent to their store, which stay up for a few months before changing. Because of the temporal nature of this project, I never felt like it was going to be too "precious". The owner of the store is a big animal friend just like me, and she has an adorable cocker spaniel named Ginger. So, I decided to include Ginger in a mural, along with a menagerie to keep her company! I wasn't too concerned with matching the identity of the store too closely, but I made sure to include them as credit. 

The other mural I painted was for Amplify, an initiative organized by the New School's DESIS Lab (Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability). This wasn't exactly "public" --- it was in the courtyard of the St. Nick's Alliance building in Williamsburg. For this I took an equally playful approach; I wanted to paint a city landscape that was colorful and whimsical, which reflects how I see NYC. The city is really a playground, not an urban wasteland --- there are opportunities everywhere for improvement. 

As a full-time designer for Astor Wines & Spirits, which have been your favorite, or most gratifying, projects so far?

The best thing I got to do when working at Astor Wines was designing three wine labels for Astor's private label "Erdenlied". It came in three varietals, two white and one red: a Gruner Veltliner, a Riesling and a Zweigelt. Not only did this allow me to tap into my obsession with the Wiener Werkstatte design style, it would also result in a tangible product that thousands of people would purchase and enjoy. The manager of Astor's private labels came up with the name "Erdenlied," which means "Song of the Earth," based on a symphony by Gustav Mahler, a composer who hung out with all the Wiener Werkstatte guys in the first decade of the 1900's --- in other words a fantastically evocative name. After a number of rounds of designs, I ended up creating a decorative floral illustration that I hoped would reflect the flavors of the wine.  
Art is literally your livelihood --- from your job at Astor to commissioned work --- but I'm wondering how art-as-work might change its personal value. How do you feel about getting paid for art? And do you still have time and/or the desire to do art for art's sake?

Working as a full-time graphic designer/ merchandiser at Astor has really been a wonderful experience. I unfortunately have hardly any spare time to work on my own projects, projects I initiate not out of financial interest but out of a need to not let the ball stop rolling --- I don't want to let myself stall too much on my own projects. Of course, getting paid for your work is immensely gratifying. Creating work for a client and on your free time isn't too different...the only difference is having a shorter deadline when you're creating something for a client. 

Along a similar train of thought, you studied art formally at The New School, in both New York and Paris. Were you ever worried about your decision to pursue art as a major and, ultimately, as a career? And do you think it's necessary for aspiring or budding artists to study art in a classroom setting?

based on a visit to a fortune teller
Personally I never worried about choosing to pursue art as a career. It was a decision I very single-mindedly made when I was still in high school, and I didn't give a second thought to the difficulties I would have to face with such a path. I just KNEW I wanted to make art and draw for a living, and really didn't think anything beyond that mattered. As long as I was trying to do this I'd be happy. I realize that this sounds fairly simple, but it was also a decision I made based on a lot of self-analysis, and considering what my personal strengths, weaknesses and inclinations were, and what I thought I would do well in. In some part I think I wanted to stand out from among my siblings too --- they all pursued "sensible" fields, either political science or engineering.  

I definitely didn't get my best grades in Art in High School; in fact, I did much better in English. Going to school for Illustration was definitely a good idea too. Art school was a great experience, but I did find value in different places than I thought I would. It wasn't so much about the techniques and skills I learned there (although I loved all the printmaking classes I took and wish I had the same access to their amazing facilities now),  but more about the people I met there and the close friends I made. I also have stayed in touch with many of my professors, which has been a great help for me in trying to stand on my own feet after graduation.

I often wonder how an artist measures his/her success. How do you feel you've personally grown --- as an artist or otherwise --- in the past few years? 

The biggest realization I've come to make in the past few years is that you can really only rely on yourself to make things happen. In order to get anywhere or for anything to happen, you have to initiate it yourself, and not just sit and wait for things to come for you. This definitely applies to me personally as well as for my work, and it is something I struggle with everyday. I don't want to be complacent or comfortable, I want to go out and take chances and seize opportunities. As for measuring my own success, the only yardstick I have for that is myself. As long as I make things that I myself am happy and proud of, then I feel like I've been successful in that venture. You can never please everyone, but you can please yourself!

Your boyfriend, with whom you live, is also an artist/illustrator/animator. What's it like for two artists to date?  

My boyfriend, Garrett, studied traditional animation, and we actually worked together on a project, an animated short film, before we were going out. He was the animation director and I was inking pencil sketches --- he was actually the best boss I've had so far. I don't think it's too different from any other two people who date. We may do things a little differently in certain situations: e.g. if we're both sitting in a restaurant together with a paper tablecloth, both of us are guaranteed to start doodling all over the table. We also might make each other little hand-drawn cards for special occasions. 

One of the sets you showcased on your blog is "a series of illustrations inspired by songs [you] obsessively listen to." Tell us more!

Charlotte in Sweden
This is a serialized project I started as a motivation to keep making work regularly. The idea is just to take one of my favorite songs, or a song I've been listening to on repeat recently, and make a drawing of it. I see it as a little mental exercise. The first (and only one) was of "Kino" by The Knife, which is a very playful electronic song that makes me think of a Chinese video game with strange creatures. I drew it on lots of tiny paint chips from the hardware store to reflect the rhythmic, fragmented nature of the song. 

Last but not least... say I wanted to buy a bottle of wine tonight (from Astor Wine & Spirits, of course). What do you recommend? 

One of my favorite wines I've tried  is a white wine from Burgundy called "La Boheme." It's a natural wine, meaning the grapes were grown organically and the wine was made with minimal intervention: no sulfites, extra sugar or anything else added. It's so delicious slightly chilled, perfect for a beautiful May evening. As a plus, it's also got a funny label, and a good price, for around $12.

(all artwork by Charlotte Gudmundsson)

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